MOST PEOPLE IN EIGHTEENTH-CENTURY AMERICA—or eighteenth-century anywhere, for that matter—never saw pictures of themselves, not even once in their lives. Photography lay decades ahead, and only the wealthy could have their portraits painted. Even they usually had no more than one in a lifetime. So when a portrait was made, it was never a simple likeness but rather a lone chance to convey how you wanted to be seen and remembered, and your pose and attire and attitude and surroundings were all very carefully chosen. The idea was to show the best you could be.
For many eminent Americans the best you could be was a man of science. “Natural philosophy” was an admirable and ambitious pursuit for a gentleman and not at all yet the domain of specialists; indeed, the word scientist would not be invented until 1833. So when distinguished Americans had their portraits painted, quite a few posed with their scientific instruments, for pictures that open a window onto a world where electricity and flight (by balloon) and astronomy and microscopywere frontiers as new and uncharted as any that lay across the continent.
The Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery has gathered some of the best such pictures in an exhibition titled “Franklin & His Friends: Portraying the Man of Science in Fighteenth-Century America.” It shows through September 6. The exhibit’s curators, Brandon Brame Fortune and Deborah J. Warner, have gathered not just the portraits of those explorers of scientific frontiers but also some of their equipment, the tools shown in the pictures. Together they tell adventure stories.
— Frederick Allen
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