Lines and Colors art blog

Benjamin West’s Ben Franklin Drawing Electricity from the Sky

Ben Franklin Drawing Electricity from the Sky, Benjamin West (Franklin and the kite)
Ben Franklin Drawing Electricity from the Sky, Benjamin West

Here in the U.S., we celebrate July 4 as “Independence Day”, marking the time in the late 18th century when our land transitioned from being a wholly owned subsidiary of the British East India Company to a more fairly divided property co-owned by a number of multi-national firms.

This was accomplished with the help of a number of figures we like to honor as our “Founding Fathers” (and apparently, if you read the traditional history and textbooks, without need of assistance from any “Founding Mothers”, except in sewing a flag). It was also accomplished with some help (well, lots of help, actually) from France, but we don’t talk about that much because it seems to upset some people.

The Founding Fathers did cool stuff like writing the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution, raising the Continental Army and convincing the British to take their trading monopoly elsewhere (with lots of help from France).

Among the individuals considered U.S. Founding Fathers, my favorite figure was always Benjamin Franklin.

Franklin was a politician, writer, printer, publisher, postmaster, inventor and scientist (as well as inveterate ladies man). Though he didn’t hold elected office or a military post, it was in his role a diplomat, and the first U.S. Ambassador to France, that he was largely responsible for securing their their financial and military assistance — and in many ways, providing the ability for the woefully underfunded, underarmed and understaffed Continental Army to resist the much larger and better armed British Forces.

Franklin’s influence and renown was worldwide, Though he was born in Boston, his cultural, scientific and political heritage looms large here in Philadelphia, which was the center of political and cultural activity in the fledgling nation at the time of the Revolution.

In his role as a scientist and inventor, Franklin was responsible for numerous innovations, including bifocals, the Franklin stove and the lightning rod. The latter came from his design for an experiment (that he never conducted) in which a kite flown in an electrical storm might prove his theory that lightning was, in fact, a form of electricity.

In this allegorical painting, which hangs appropriately enough in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Franklin’s friend, British-American painter Benjamin West, has portrayed Franklin as a figure of mythological stature, surrounded by helpful angelic cherubim (one of which wears the headdress of a Native American Tribe) as he summons one of the great forces of nature from the heavens. In the background the cherubim mind an electrical apparatus and what is presumably a spare kite. (Kids, don’t try this at home!)

The painting is small (13×10 inches, 24x26cm) and loosely rendered, and was likely intended as a study for a larger painting (perhaps life-size) that was never realized.

There is a zoomable version on the Google Art Project, and a downloadable high-res version on Wikimedia Commons.

I have a small, pseudo-3D, lenticular animation version of this painting as a refrigerator magnet — because I can.


4 responses to “Benjamin West’s Ben Franklin Drawing Electricity from the Sky

  1. I’m guessing if Ben Franklin had conducted this experiment, he wouldn’t have been around for all his other accomplishments. Love your site by the way, check it everyday. Thanks.

  2. I wonder why it was never made into a larger painting. This was painted 4 years before his (West’s) death and after Ben Franklin’s.

    I like the really fluid wet white paint slurried on top especially in the clouds as well as various parts of the painting. Also interesting is the depiction of the lightening which is rendered in the classic zig-zag manner.

    On the history of our independence… all this time I thought it was Bill Cosby’s (Toss of the Coin) version that was the reason. ; )

    1. Thanks, Geo. Yes, I’m glad Ben didn’t actually try the experiment (smart fellow that he was).

    2. I don’t know why it was never realized a a larger work, it would have been great. Yes, West painted this after Franklin’s death, but they were close friends and West could well have done a full version from memory and the study had he been inclined.