Magical Pictures, or Observations on Lightning and Thunder, Occasion’d by a Portrait of Dr. Franklin
ON A STORMY AFTERNOON IN 1745, Gilbert Tennent, a leading revivalist preacher of the Great Awakening, was at home preparing the evening exercise for his Philadelphia congregation when a flash of lightning struck his chimney and then headed straight for the upstairs study, where it knocked Tennent to the floor, tore his shoes—melting a buckle on one of them—and scorched his feet. For Tennent, the lightning strike was a sign from an angry God. Such episodes had long sparked fear in the hearts of the devout, spawning numerous pamphlets and sermons in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, on both sides of the Atlantic, that carried ominous titles like The Sinner’s Thundering Warning-Piece (London, 1703), Farther, and more terrible Warnings from God (London, 1708), and God’s Terrible Doings are to be Observed (Boston, 1746). After recovering from his own harrowing encounter with the lightning, Tennent saw fit to preach yet another sermon on the topic, not least of all to dispel rumors circulated by his Moravian enemies that the lightning strike was an expression of God’s particular dissatisfaction with his ministry. Tennent titled the published sermon All Things Come Alike to All: A Sermon on Ecclesiastes 9 . . . Occasioned by a Person’s Being Struck by the Lightning and Thunder, and in it he stressed that God’s thunderous voice of warning could be visited upon anyone, good or wicked. It was the duty of Tennent, as one who had experienced God’s anger and lived, to carry this warning to his congregation: “It is but reasonable my Brethren, that we should offer Homage to that great God, who is All-sufficient in himself, and whose Majestick Voice in the Thunder, produces such sudden and amazing Effects and Alterations in the Kingdoms of Nature and Providence. . . . Who can stand before this Holy Lord God, when once his Anger begins to burn?”
If only Tennent had been protected by a lightning rod, like the one installed on a chimney outside the window of his friend Benjamin Franklin, as portrayed in 1762 by the London artist Mason Chamberlin (Plate 9; Figure 3.1). A nearly life-sized Franklin sits in the upstairs study of his Philadelphia residence while, outside his window, we witness a storm like the one Tennent had experienced seventeen years earlier. One can almost hear the cracks of thunder as the roof of a nearby house and the steeple of a church, struck by a zigzagging bolt of lightning, explode in a violent burst of electrical energy. Two pieces of the destroyed structures—both of a brick-colored hue and perhaps intended to represent fragments of a chimney—are launched into the air by the blast. Yet Franklin, appearing calm and collected, does not seem to fear having his buckles melted, for his own invention protects him from God’s burning anger. Franklin first introduced the idea of electrical conductors to the public in 1751 in his Experiments and Observations on Electricity. A few years later, in the second edition, he described the experiment in which we find him engaged in Chamberlin’s portrait, as he turns his attention away from the storm and toward two small brass bells: “I erected an Iron Rod to draw Lightning down into my House, in order to make some Experiments on it, with two Bells to give notice when the rod should be electrified.” Paper in hand and quill at the ready, and with the volumes of his impressive library within reach just behind his chair, Benjamin Franklin, fellow of the Royal Society, employs the tools of experimental science to domesticate the lightning. He sits before us as the “Prometheus of modern times,” a title Immanuel Kant conferred on him in 1756. Having stolen fire from the heavens, Franklin reduces the thunderous voice of God to a gentle ring in the scholar’s study, disenchanting the heavens for the sake of Enlightenment.
This was neither the first nor the last time Franklin was represented as a master of the lightning during his lifetime. In a mezzotint published two years earlier, Franklin holds a volume entitled “Electrical Experiments” and stands before a desk on which sit quills, paper, and an electrostatic generator (Figure 3.2). The print is based on a portrait by Benjamin Wilson, who was not only a sought-after painter in London but also, like his friend Franklin, an “electrician” and fellow of the Royal Society. Wilson portrays Franklin standing before a massive bolt of lightning that lays waste to a distant urban skyline. Franklin’s own vertical form reflects but also dwarfs the natural phenomenon: his left hand brushes against his volume as he points toward the bolt in the distance, suggesting that the great experimentalist has tamed the lightning by gathering its energies between the covers of a book. Wilson’s portrait, like Chamberlin’s, foregrounds Franklin’s stature within London’s scientific community at mid-century, a moment of intense experimental fervor around electricity. By the 1770s, well after Franklin’s commitments as a public servant had taken him away from active experimentation, artists continued to associate him with the electrical fire as it developed into a powerful political rhetoric. Turgot’s celebrated Latin epigram, eripuit coelo fulmen sceptrumque tyrannis (“he snatched lightning from heaven, and the scepter from tyrants”), received its visual interpretation in an etching of 1779 designed by Jean-Honoré Fragonard and dedicated “To the Genius of Franklin” (Figure 3.3). An Olympian Franklin, more Zeus than Prometheus, dominates the composition. As the allegorical figure of America rests on his leg, Franklin directs the shield of France against the lightning with one hand and with the other commands a warrior to drive out Tyranny and Avarice.
These are heroic portrayals, but of all the portraits made of him, Franklin seems to have been fondest of Chamberlin’s. It was painted at the end of his five-year stay in London from 1757 to 1762, a period during which Franklin played an official role as diplomat while reserving ample time to pursue his scientific interests. Commissioned by Colonel Philip Ludwell III, a planter and politician from Virginia who was then a resident in the city, the painting went on display to the public at the Society of Artists in 1763; it is now in the collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. We know little of the artist himself. An original member of the Royal Academy of Arts, Chamberlin was a devout Presbyterian who, unlike the fashionable artists of the West End, resided in the more commercial parish of Spitalfields, where he specialized in painting likenesses of London tradesmen. He was a respected painter, although his unassuming portraits did occasionally receive criticism for a monotony of tone and expression. As a critic for the Morning Post wrote in 1784, after seeing the artist’s portraits of his own family at the Society of Artists exhibition: “Mr. Chamberlin, his wife and son, are all frightfully alike, God bless ‘em.” But Chamberlin’s portrait of Franklin, while it may show a preference for muted tones and generally lacks Reynoldsian flair, undeniably captures a compelling likeness of the famous American. Franklin was pleased enough with the painting that he had a replica made for his son and ordered over one hundred mezzotint copies by the engraver Edward Fisher (Figure 3.4). The print became a kind of circumatlantic calling card as Franklin circulated it through the colonial Atlantic Republic of Letters. He asked his cousin, for example, to distribute a dozen of the prints around Boston. “It being the only way in which I am now likely ever to visit my friends there,” writes Franklin, “I hope a long Visit in this Shape will not be disagreable to them.” Indeed, here we encounter a Franklin not to be found in any other of the numerous portraits made of him: a gentleman-scientist who, despite the storm, has become absorbed in a moment of experimentation within the very domestic setting that served as his primary laboratory in his electrical pursuits. The portrait’s modesty in presentation seems suited to the quiet gravity of its protagonist and setting.
Surely the portrait’s appeal for Franklin lay in this calm intellectual heroism. But is the voice of God, which was so clearly heard by Tennent when he was struck by lightning in his study, so fully silenced within Franklin’s? We should not be too quick to dismiss Tennent’s awe before the lightning and thunder, for undoubtedly Franklin too would have thrilled to the violent destructiveness of the scene outside his window, a violence that exceeds the merely human proportions of the scholar’s cozy study. His own scientific interests, after all, were by no means limited to a quiet rationality. As James Delbourgo has shown, eighteenth century electricity was both a science and a marvel, and evident throughout Franklin’s writings is a “tension between experimental claims to rational knowledge and the persistence of wonder at the surprising powers of the electric fire.” Franklin and others cultivated a popular fascination with the wonders of electricity in which the public came to know this mysterious force by feeling its effects in their bodies. Franklin’s colleague Ebenezer Kinnersley, for example, traveled widely in the early 1750s lecturing on the electrical fire and demonstrating its powers in performances. In the New York Gazette for June 1, 1752, he advertised “a Course of Experiments” to be held “at the House of Mr. John Trotter in the Broad-Way” that included such attractions as “Fire darting from a Ladies Lips” and “a Battery of eleven Guns discharged by Fire issuing out of a Person’s Finger.” Such demonstrations had become increasingly visible amidst recent efforts, like Delbourgo’s, to reenchant the transatlantic Enlightenment by addressing its irrational, excessive, wondrous, and emotional qualities, qualities that entertained the audiences of electrical demonstrations, but which also led the God-fearing Gilbert Tennent to marvel at his melted buckle.
To what, then, should we attribute the lightning outside Franklin’s study? Was it a natural phenomenon that could be known and contained by human art, or was it the mysterious workings of the divine? Chamberlin’s picture offers no answer to this question; rather, its particular interest as a picture lies in the way it stages the question itself. Franklin’s window, separating the storm outside from the calm within the study, forms a threshold between rationality and mystery, between the electrician’s pen and God’s thunderous voice. It is a threshold that invites reflection on the relationship between the lightning that descends from the sky and the “electrical fluid” manipulated by electricians in their experiments and performances, a hotly debated issue in the eighteenth century. But more than this, it invites reflection on the nature of representation itself, which, for Franklin, as we will see, was a means of navigating the not always self-evident boundaries between enlightenment and enchantment. One might even say that Chamberlin’s portrait poses an electrical model of representation in which meaning is understood to travel along alternating currents, one that moves from the chaotic and stormy world beyond the window to the calm that reigns inside the scholar’s study, and another that takes us in the opposite direction. Finding the words to articulate this model is not a matter of choosing which current to follow, but of attempting to think with them simultaneously.
Curbing Enthusiasm for the Electrical Fire
The window, with its curtain drawn back and looking almost as if it were a picture hanging on Franklin’s wall, is a good place to begin. Through it, we behold a meteorological spectacle of the kind that had long been interpreted as a sign of divine wrath and punishment. According to Mircea Eliade, across cultures there is an almost universal belief in divine beings who inhabit the skies, who make a brief visit to earth to establish moral laws, and who watch to see that those laws are obeyed, “and lightning strikes all who infringe them.” If, at times, certain free thinkers had protested against the prevailing beliefs about lightning and thunder, like Lucretius, who insists in De rerum natura that they are simply elements set into motion by an indifferent nature, such views did little to alter popular opinion. As Lucretius himself asks:
Whose mind does not cringe with superstitious fright,
And whose flesh does not creep with awe, when the burnt earth shakes
Struck by hair-raising bolts of lightning, and the vast sky quakes
With rumbling thunder?
In Christian visual representations, lightning often assumes the form of an arrow, which is indicative of the divine intention behind it, as well as a reference to the book of Psalms: “The clouds poured out water: the skies sent out a sound: thine arrows also went abroad.” One of the most popular emblem books in seventeenth-century Europe, Julius Wilhelm Zincgref’s Emblematum ethico-politicorum centuria (1619), includes a device entitled Omnium Metu (“a terror to all”), in which a city receives God’s punishment in the form of a massive bolt that forks into four arrow-like prongs (Figure 3.5). Lightning was the agent of divine Providence, a belief firmly held by Puritans who regularly witnessed the striking of houses and churches by lightning in New England. Cotton Mather may have been a member of the Royal Society, but he too interpreted thunderstorms in these enchanted terms: “The Thunder has in it the Voice of God. . . . There is nothing able to stand before those Lightnings, which are stiled the Arrows of God.” Franklin’s introduction of protective conductors during the 1750s, like the one that protects the nearby house in Chamberlin’s painting, did show that one could at least redirect those arrows; but Franklin’s innovation hardly brought an end to deep-rooted beliefs about lightning and thunder. As the young John Adams complained: “I have heard some Persons of the highest Rank among us, say, that they really thought the Erection of Iron Points, was an impious attempt to robb the almighty of his Thunder, to wrest the Bolt of Vengeance out of his Hand.”
While Franklin could not change the minds of all God-fearing Christians, there is no question he had an impact within the Republic of Letters. As a result of his influential Experiments and Observations on Electricity (the first edition appearing in 1751 and numerous expanded editions thereafter), and thanks to the publication of Joseph Priestley’s Franklinist account of electricity, The History and Present State of Electricity (1767), by the late 1760s, the official historiography of electricity had effectively silenced debates among natural philosophers between experimental and religious accounts of the electrical fire. Priestley offered a rationalist and materialist explanation, one that stressed the progressive value of natural philosophy within civil society. There was a place for piety in this philosophy, but it was a piety that derived from recognition of the solemn responsibilities that came with the natural philosopher’s ability to materialize the creator’s powers, not from awe at his incomprehensible workings. Priestley’s account had no room for entertaining possible tensions or contradictions between electricity (that is, the sparks demonstrated with the electrician’s instruments) and the divine “celestial fire” manifested in the lightning.
Yet such tensions had only recently, during the 1740s and 1750s, been at the center of public controversy in London about the nature of the electrical fire, and it is important to situate Chamberlin’s portrait of 1762 against this stormy background. The key figures in the controversy were the electrical demonstrator and instrument maker Benjamin Martin and the surgeon and electrical amateur John Freke. Both men published books on electricity in 1746, and their ensuing debate, which Simon Schaffer has examined in depth, turned on the question of whether the electricity that appeared in demonstrations was a product of the electrician’s instruments—this was Martin’s materialist position, one in which natural philosophy trumped theological explanation—or the manifestation of a much greater, divine fire. Freke argued the latter position, one in which he was guided by the writings of the seventeenth-century German theologian and mystic Jakob Böhme, or “Behmen” as he was known in England, whose philosophy of fire and spirit had become important for pietist critiques of Whig culture. Freke and others within his political and religious circle embraced a private, inner light to salvation and opposed it to the vulgarity of a shallow world of commerce in which showmen like Martin sought only to profit from God’s creation.
According to William Law, the chief disseminator of Behmenist ideas in England, the scriptures and the natural world speak the same universal language of fire: “All Life, whether it be vegetable, sensitive, animal, or intellectual, is only a kindled Fire of Life in such a Variety of States; and every dead, insensitive Thing is only so because its Fire is quench’d.” In 1764, Law published an edition of Böhme’s life and writings for which he designed figures illustrating the “deep principles” of the great “Teutonic Philosopher,” giving visual form to the fiery core of Behmenist theology. In one of the engravings, for example, Law demonstrates how divine anger descends on Lucifer in arrow-tipped bolts of lightning representing God’s wrath precipitating down, or rather outward in this diagrammatic rendering, from a central royal residence (labeled “4”) that is flanked by the ministering angelic spirits of Michael (“M”) and Uriel (“U”) (Figure 3.6). In Freke’s view, Martin’s theatrical demonstrations were a debasement and a corruption of this celestial fire, a materialist reduction of Böhme’s divine, vital principle to the product of a mere human instrument. If we were to find an image of Freke’s fears realized, it might look something like the frontispiece to a French volume on the uses of electricity to heal paralysis, published in 1772, in which the healing light of an ineffable God manifests itself as a generator in the sky exuding rays of electrostatic energy (Figure 3.7).
In Martin’s view, Freke was a religious enthusiast, a superstitious dreamer for whom electricity was a mystery accessible only through nonrational experience. During the Protestant Reformation, mainstream Reformed theologians had critiqued the enthusiasm of their more radical brethren who made claims to prophecy and divine inspiration unmediated by scripture and often engaged in ecstatic or convulsive behaviors. Enthusiasm has a complex history, and it could come in many stripes, from Freke’s pietist enthusiasm, which was cultivated within conservative Tory circles and stressed private individual illumination, to the more public enthusiasm of the religious revival. What remained consistent among all enthusiasts, however, was their quickness to see God’s direct interventions in the world and to bear witness to them. It is the enthusiast who hears the voice of God in the lightning strikes outside Franklin’s window and attributes them to divine wrath, whereas the rational electrician sees a God who has established laws in the world and allowed them to take their course, leaving them discoverable and useful to humankind.
Across the Atlantic, resistance to the enthusiasm of revivalist religion directly shaped how one of the key figures in electrical experimentation, Ebenezer Kinnersley, conceived his practice. Kinnersley was a Baptist preacher who moved to Philadelphia around the time Tennent preached one of the landmark sermons of the Great Awakening, The Danger of an Unconverted Ministry. The sermon was delivered in March 1740 to a congregation in the small town of Nottingham, Pennsylvania, but Franklin, who, as a printer, was fully aware of the swelling tide of religious enthusiasm in the colonies and recognized the interest that Tennent’s sermon would attract among readers, quickly brought it to a much wider audience. The Danger of an Unconverted Ministry is a jeremiad that bitterly denounces an ungodly ministry full of pharisees who put on a show of learning but lack authentic faith, and as a result, blindly lead their congregations into the ditch. The discourses of these unconverted ministers “are cold and sapless, and as it were freeze between their Lips”: “They have not the Courage, or Honesty, to thrust the Nail of Terror into sleeping Souls.” The revivalist preacher John Rowland heard Tennent’s call to take up emotional arms, and in a sermon preached in Philadelphia’s Baptist Church on July 3, 1740, he showed that he did indeed have the courage to thrust the nails of terror into his audience. Kinnersley sat in the pews and watched as the congregants became increasingly distressed about their wholly ruined condition as sinners until their emotional anguish reached such a pitch that Tennent, who was also present, went to the pulpit stairs and cried out (whether out of true alarm or to stoke passions further is not entirely clear): “Oh, brother Rowland, is there no balm in Gilead?” At this point, Rowland altered his tone and joyfully unfolded the way to salvation. Three days later, in the same church and no doubt before many of the same parishioners, Kinnersley delivered his own sermon in response to this “horrid Harangue.” He railed against preachers like Rowland for whipping up audiences into “Enthusiastical Raptures and Exstasies” in which they pretend “they have large Communications from God; to have seen ravishing Visions; to have been encompass’d, as it were, with Flames of lightning, and there to have beheld our Blessed Saviour nail’d to the Cross, and bleeding before their Eyes in particular for them.”
Kinnersley carried on his quarrel with enthusiastic preaching in the Philadelphia press through the 1740s, and as a result, even though he remained in the Baptist church and did occasionally preach sermons, he was never given a congregation of his own. He did, however, pursue a successful career speaking on electricity. In collaboration with Franklin, he drew up a series of lectures on the electrical fire that, for four years, between 1749 and 1753, he delivered throughout the colonies and even took to the West Indies. Against the ravings of enthusiastic preachers, Kinnersley’s lectures sought to wed piety to reason in the form of polite and educational electrical entertainments. If electricity was a wonder, it was a rational wonder, operating according to laws set forth by the God of Nature. But even so, Kinnersley’s electrical demonstrations hardly appealed to reason alone. His audiences were not invited simply to think about electricity like so many Franklins in their studies; they were asked to feel its effects. When a man came up from the crowd to kiss the young woman who was connected to an electrostatic generator, they both experienced the electrical fire as an unmediated bodily revelation. Experiment and enthusiasm, in other words, could at times be difficult to distinguish, as one might expect to be the case in a society where matters of science and religion crossed paths at every turn. Kinnersley, after all, as he wandered from city to city declaring Franklin’s gospel, brought a preacher’s devotion to his electrical pursuits. Even Franklin, as publisher of sermons by Tennent and by the great revivalist preacher George Whitefield, had been involved in the dissemination of the Great Awakening.
While the line separating scientific enlightenment from the enthusiasm of the revival could at times become ambiguous, everything still depended on maintaining it. In this regard, Chamberlin’s portrait may be understood as a kind of protective conductor, redirecting the enthusiastic response inspired by its lightning storm toward rational ends. Franklin, significantly, turns away from the storm. Instead of directing us toward the distant scene—as sitters often do in portraits with emblematic features, like the portrait by Wilson—Franklin’s relationship to it is indirect, prosthetic. It is through his instruments, his art, that he draws down the lightning. Franklin himself is a solid, somewhat rotund presence. He sits upright in his chair, his posture echoing the stable verticality of the lightning rod outside the window and contrasting with the toppling buildings in the distance. He is a singular, alert intelligence whose keen senses are attuned to his devices: to the bells that ring in defiant, rationalist answer to the common practice (and one that Franklin critiqued) of ringing church bells to ward off God’s anger in the lightning, and to the two cork balls suspended from one of the bells by silk threads that repel each other as they become charged (Figure 3.8). Franklin looks and he listens. His perceptions will, in turn, be harnessed by a powerful intellect that will transfer them through his pen to his paper. Lightning will become words on the page, a report to his friend Peter Collinson, one in a series of letters that became the Experiments and Observations on Electricity. A tight circuit thus runs from the lightning to the bells to the man to recorded observation. The portrait insists that, through Franklin’s instrumental rationality, nature is transformed into knowledge. If the explosions outside the window signify dispersion and chaos, electricity uncontained, then the prominent armrest of Franklin’s chair, terminating in a decorative scroll, signifies the opposite: spiraling in upon itself, the hand-carved scrollwork stands for the focused work of the writing hand that rests on it. In the scholar’s study, nature is tamed by human art.
Franklin at the Crossroads
It would be a mistake, however, to overstate the painting’s efficiency as a conductor, for Franklin’s bells were not always so successful at redirecting the lightning. The bells were the terminating points of a wire that ran from the lightning rod, through the roof, and then divided at the well of the staircase outside the study. One night Franklin was awakened by “loud cracks on the staircase,” and upon opening the door, noticed that “the fire passed, sometimes in very large quick cracks from bell to bell, and sometimes in a continued dense, white stream, seemingly as large as my finger, whereby the whole staircase was enlightened as with sunshine, so that one might see to pick up a pin.” At other times, the small brass clapper suspended between the two bells, just visible in Chamberlin’s painting and slightly moreso in Fisher’s mezzotint, vibrated so violently that they could be heard all over the house, prompting Franklin’s wife, Deborah, to write to him in London and complain about the disturbing ringing. Franklin’s bells may have toned down the thunderstorm, but something of the storm remained in them, a reminder that eighteenth-century electrical experimentation sought to know the electrical fire not just as words on paper, but as a felt force. What if, then, as interpreters of Chamberlin’s portrait, we adopted a less unidirectional perspective, one that would likely be closer to Franklin’s own? What if, instead of moving from the chaos outside into a subdued interior and coming to rest there, we turned back toward the storm? To do so would be to see the world outside the window as an amplified version of what happens within, the lightning as an exemplification of the kinds of marvels that both Franklin and Kinnersley sought to reproduce in their experiments even as they harnessed nature’s power.
Indeed, the scene outside the window might just be another experiment. The buildings that are being destroyed by the lightning bolts recall a popular electrical demonstration of the period, staged by Kinnersley and many others, known as the “thunder house.” Figure 3.9 includes three eighteenth-century examples from the Harvard collection of scientific instruments: a tall jointed steeple (left), the profile of a house (center); and a church with a small steeple (right). If an electrician applied a spark to the conducting tip of the jointed steeple or house profile while interrupting the internal circuit that runs from the tip to the ground, the model would collapse. In the case of the steeple, the top sections would fly off in a manner similar to the collapsing steeple in Chamberlin’s painting. The thunder house with the small steeple was used in a somewhat more dramatic demonstration, illustrated on the title page to an eighteenth-century German instructional text on electricity (Figure 3.10). The conducting rod of this type of thunder house included a chain that could be attached to the rod in order to direct electricity away from the model, but if the chain was removed (as it is in the illustration), and if a spark was applied from a Leiden jar or electrostatic machine, the electricity would pass directly into the house and there ignite a packet of gunpowder, causing the walls of the house to blow apart like the house outside Franklin’s window. As the German engraving makes clear in its inclusion of the parallel background case of an unprotected church that has burst into flame because of a lightning strike, the thunder house demonstrates the protective value of the lightning rod.
As this experimental model suggests, electricians were, like painters, consummate imitators of nature. They re-created lightning in controlled conditions in order to experience it on a smaller scale. Priestley wrote that the electricians of his day imitate “in miniature all the known effects of that tremendous power.” Franklin, for instance, describes an experiment in which he imitated a cloud by making a pasteboard tube ten feet long and a foot in diameter, charged and suspended by silk threads, and then drew electricity from his model. Kinnersley’s lectures included numerous imitations of the effects of lightning, such as “the Force of the Electric Spark making a fair Hole thro’ a Quire of Paper” and “Metal melted by it (tho’ without any Heat) in less than the thousandth Part of a Minute.” The leading electrician in England in the 1740s, William Watson, was known for staging performances in which the effects of the electrical fire were made visible as it traveled through the bodies of participants. In a plate from the French edition of his Experiments and Observations Tending to Illustrate the Nature and Properties of Electricity (1746), a man grasps a charged iron rod with one hand and with the other touches the tip of his sword to a spoon held by a woman, igniting the spirits contained in the spoon and producing a bright flash; above them, two well-dressed, electrified children cause small bits of glass, paper, and cork to become suspended in the air (Figure 3.11). All of this makes for “a most agreeable spectacle.” Watson’s bodily performances turned the violence of the thunderstorm into a genteel parlor game.
Priestley was certain that, in conducting such experiments, electricians were “disarming the thunder of its power of doing mischief, and, without any apprehension of danger to themselves, drawing lightning from the clouds into a private room, and amusing themselves at their leisure, by performing with it all the experiments that are exhibited by electrical machines.” The line that separated the storm from its imitation, however, was not always so clearly marked, for electricians often did apprehend danger to themselves during their experiments. Franklin notes that he drew a charge from his model cloud that was strong enough to make his knuckle ache. Electricians regularly reported receiving powerful shocks in the line of duty. In 1746, the Dutch natural philosopher Pieter van Musschenbroek performed an experiment in which he drew a spark with his left hand while holding a Leyden jar in the right: “My right hand . . . was struck with such force that my whole body quivered just like someone hit by lightning, . . . the arm and the body are affected so terribly I can’t describe it. I thought I was done for.” The following year, Watson recorded a similar experience: it was “as though my Arm were struck off at my Shoulder, Elbow, and Wrist; and both my Legs, at the Knees, and behind near the Ankles.” In the most famous case of a thunderstorm intruding upon the protected realm of experiment, the German electrician Georg Wilhelm Richmann was killed in 1753 when a bolt of lightning struck an ungrounded conductor in his laboratory. The difficulty of determining whether the scene outside Franklin’s window is nature or its imitation is therefore significant, for it puts into question a crucial distinction upon which Priestley’s disenchanting narrative depends.
Positioned between his experiment and the thunderstorm, turning toward his bells but prepared, it appears, to turn his attention back toward the window at any moment, Chamberlin’s Franklin is more ambivalent than a Priestlian interpretation of the painting would allow. If he is Prometheus having stolen fire from the gods, he is also Hercules at the crossroads confronted with a choice between an experimentalism that resides comfortably within the study and one that reaches toward the inexplicable wonders of the thunderstorm. The challenge of deciding on how we should read Chamberlin’s portrait comes down to a question of how meaning flows through the world and the role of human art in discovering that meaning. Does it flow into the study, where thunder and lightning are explained by the laws revealed through the experiments of natural philosophers? Or does it flow out the window, toward a God whose mystery is always in excess of the human art that attempts to reveal it? If Chamberlin has captured Franklin at a decisive experimental moment, the papers in Franklin’s left hand nevertheless remain blank. Firm conclusions are not yet to be drawn. We can only contemplate the choice the portrait offers.
Chamberlin’s picture stages an ambivalence that runs not only through the history of Enlightenment electrical experimentation, but through the history of picture-making as well. In commentaries on the visual arts going back to antiquity, the question of what a picture can adequately represent and what might lie beyond the capacities of human art was often framed as an electrical question. For the same reason that human societies long attributed lightning to the gods, lightning has been a marker of the limits of representation. In his Natural History, Pliny the Elder praised Apelles for painting “things that cannot be represented in pictures—thunder, lightning and thunderbolts.” In the sixteenth century, Pliny’s comment provided Erasmus with language for praising the modern Apelles, Albrecht Dürer, whose art tests the limits of pictorial naturalism by depicting the undepictable: “fire; rays of light; thunderstorms; lightning; thunderbolts.” Kant later found a place for lightning and thunder within his aesthetics of the sublime, since the fear excited by “thunder clouds towering up into the heavens, bringing with them flashes of lightning and crashes of thunder,” confronts us with our inability to take in the immensity of a nature that lies beyond the representational capacities of our senses.
It is surely of interest, moreover, that one of the most heavily glossed art-historical texts of the early twentieth century, an essay concerned with the origins and limits of symbolic representation, turns on this problem of representing the lightning: Aby Warburg’s lecture delivered at Ludwig Binswanger’s Sanatorium at Kreuzlingen in 1923, a study of the snake as a lightning symbol in the pueblo cultures of the southwestern United States. Warburg based his lecture on his observations during a trip he had taken to the American Southwest over thirty years earlier. The Hopi snake dance, a seasonal ritual that Warburg never in fact witnessed, is the lecture’s centerpiece. Although Warburg, in his eagerness to find parallels to the pagan primitivism he detected within Renaissance art, appears to have misunderstood important aspects of the dance, the lecture nevertheless provides a compelling illustration of his mythic thinking about the origins of the symbol. For Warburg, the snake dance demonstrated the achievement of a level of symbolic control over nature’s processes. Through its mimetic magic, the Hopi dancers entered “into cultic exchange with the most dangerous beast, the live serpent,” first through an intimate struggle with nature as they held the snakes in their hands and mouths, and then by releasing the snakes back into nature, only now transformed. No longer a terror from the underworld holding humanity in fear, the serpent now became a symbol capable of returning as the lightning to produce rain. This symbol, Warburg found, still survived in the drawings of Hopi schoolchildren, some of whom, despite the impact of modern American schooling, continued to depict lightning as an arrow-tongued serpent.
Warburg was seeking in the Hopi dances an antidote to a technological modernity initiated by Franklin. Franklin is mentioned only briefly in the closing paragraphs of the lecture, but he carries much symbolic weight for Warburg, who saw Franklin as the modern Prometheus who destroys the reflective distance so hard-won by primitive man. Believing he has conquered nature, technological man steals the lightning directly from nature without need of the symbol: “The lightning serpent is diverted straight to the ground by a lightning conductor. Scientific explanation has disposed of mythological causation.” Warburg’s Franklin is a version of the great disenchanter that Max Weber had portrayed twenty years earlier as the embodiment of the spirit of capitalism, the “bland deist” for whom the highest good is to make money, whose utilitarianism has no room for reflection because it is preoccupied with the endless work of reducing everything in the world to its monetary end. At the close of his slide lecture, Warburg offered his audience an image for this figure, a photograph he took in San Francisco of a man whom he calls “Uncle Sam in a stovepipe hat,” the “gold-seeker” who has ousted primitive humanity and who hurries down the street while above his head runs the wire with which “he has wrested lightning from nature” (Figure 3.12).
There is some irony in the fact that Warburg’s lecture can help us see beyond his own caricatured image of Franklin. Warburg’s “culture of symbolic connection,” which he located between “a culture of touch” that has not yet achieved freedom from the oppressive terrors of nature and “a culture of thought” that has so alienated itself from those terrors that it believes itself to be past them, is an apt description of the in-between world Chamberlin has conjured in his portrait of Franklin. Seated between a chaotic nature and his electrical device, Franklin is no Uncle Sam. On the contrary, he occupies the liminal condition of Warburg’s dancers: if Franklin is a disenchanter, he is nevertheless one who wrests the lightning from nature through an experimental mimicry that has not yet fully severed its magical links with the world beyond his window. There is still room for wonder in Franklin’s study, and a final example of the electrician’s art may help us to see how a sober Presbyterian painter in eighteenth-century London put that wonder to work.
In his Experiments and Observations, Franklin describes an experiment, originally devised by Kinnersley, called “the magical picture.” The electrician begins with “a metzotinto with a frame and glass, suppose of the King (God preserve him).” A mezzotint by John Smith after Sir Godfrey Kneller’s portrait of King George II, a print that circulated widely throughout the colonial Atlantic, is the kind of picture Franklin must have had in mind (Figure 3.13). Franklin provides detailed instructions for cutting out the interior of the picture and then pasting the border and interior sections to opposite sides of the piece of glass, which has been covered with gold or brass foil (both conductors) on portions of both the front and back. A crown is then made from foil and inserted into a slit in the print at the top of the king’s head, so the crown touches the unseen foil behind the picture. The end result, which had the appearance of a typical framed mezzotint when held in the electrician’s hand, was now ready to be tested on a member of the audience. Franklin writes: “If now the picture be moderately electrified, and another person take hold of the frame with one hand, so that his fingers touch its inside gilding, and with the other hand endeavor to take off the crown, he will receive a terrible blow, and fail in the attempt. . . . The operator, who holds the picture by the upper end, where the inside of the frame is not gilt, to prevent its falling, feels nothing of the shock, and may touch the face of the picture without danger.”
The magical picture belongs to the myriad educational entertainments of the Enlightenment, from automata to magic lantern shows to trompe l’oeil paintings, that taught lessons about discernment and deception. Earnest experimentalists and charlatans alike (it was not always easy to tell the difference), understanding that knowledge was a matter of experience, created illusions and dared audiences to trust the evidence of their senses. One of the most famed Enlightenment automata was a mechanical duck created by Jacques Vaucanson, which he unveiled in Paris in 1738 along with an automated pipe-and-tabor player and flute player (Figure 3.14). Capable of flapping its wings, paddling in water, quacking, drinking, eating, and even defecating, Vaucanson’s duck attracted substantial crowds and earned money and fame for its creator, who was hailed by Voltaire as the rival of Prometheus. As this praise from a great philosophe suggests, the mechanical duck was more than a commercial entertainment; it was a philosophical entertainment as well, and its central question was “to what extent can art imitate life?” When some critics pointed out that the duck’s mechanized innards were not in fact true to the physiological process of digestion, this did not mean Vaucanson was a fraud; rather, it meant that his machine had answered its philosophical question by showing the limits of mechanical imitation. Arousing the skepticism of audiences did not necessarily undermine such Enlightenment demonstrations; skepticism was precisely the point.
Often the stakes in these entertainments were political, and indeed, Wendy Bellion has shown that pleasurable deceptions were vital to the creation of “citizen spectators” in the early American republic. When visitors to the first Columbianum exhibition, held in the assembly room of the Pennsylvania State House during spring 1795, encountered Charles Willson Peale’s Staircase Group, their own powers of perception were put to the test in a politically charged site (Figure 3.15). In this life-sized painting, Peale’s sons Titian and Raphaelle appear to ascend a staircase adjoining the Assembly Room, thus confusing the distinction between actual and virtual space. Deceptive paintings like this one, Bellion argues, helped to produce an audience of discerning republican subjects. Like Peale’s Staircase Group, Franklin’s magical picture also comes with a political lesson, but in this case, a lesson about loyal subjects of the king within the colonial Atlantic. While the electrician, who does not touch the foil on the picture, pretends his immunity to electrical shock “is a test of his loyalty,” the individual who removes the king’s crown is punished for his seditious act. Franklin further writes that, if the performance is carried out with a ring of persons to take the shock, it may be called “the conspirators.”
The audience is entertained by the electrician’s trick and enjoys its political lesson, but the real lesson, of course, is about the dangers of credulity. The magical picture plays on the (superstitious) belief in the fetish that has the capacity to answer back and punish the individual who offends it. It is the irrational primitive who fails to see through such magic, thus endowing a mere object with powers that any enlightened observer would realize it cannot possibly sustain. It is not by chance that the public’s fascination with educational entertainments like the magical picture—entertainments in which objects move, speak, and in general become animated—coincided with northern Europe’s growing commercial involvement with societies along the West African coast during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. It was from this cross-cultural space that the category of the “fetish” emerged and was introduced into Enlightenment thought through the travel accounts of merchants. The fetish was an object unlike the commodities of European traders. Typically endowed with the power of speech and other anthropomorphic qualities, it held a supernatural efficacy capable of protection and punishment. Europeans insisted on the difference between such superstition and their own commonsense objectivity, and indeed, this distinction became a foundation for Enlightenment conceptions of rational social order. Just two years before Franklin sat for Chamberlin, the French philosophe Charles de Brosses coined the word “fetishism” in his Du culte des dieux fétiches (On the Worship of the Fetish Gods), a book in which the worship of “certain terrestrial and material objects called Fetishes by the African Negroes” is developed into a general theory of the origins of religion, which de Brosse grounds in the childlike impulse to divinize inanimate objects. The conceit of Franklin’s entertainment is that its audience, which experiences the anger of its king as a shock from a common printed image, participates in the fetishism of the primitive African.
If Franklin’s audience plays the role of the ignorant multitude, the electrician himself assumes the role of the cunning priest who knows his magic show to be fraudulent yet willfully uses it to mislead his followers. Seventeenth- and eighteenth-century critics, turning a skeptical eye on religious customs and ceremonies, identified an elite “sacerdotal order” that, throughout the history of the world’s religions, had promoted superstition out of its own self-interest. One of the priest’s classic deceptions was the pagan oracle, and Enlightenment writers waged a full-fledged war on these speaking idols. Christians had long linked the birth of Christ to the cessation of the pagan oracles, but Bernard Le Bovier de Fontenelle, for one, saw no such moment of miraculous silencing. The speech of oracles, Fontenelle argued, continued well beyond Christ’s nativity because it was due not to supernatural causes, but to the “cheats of the priest.” In the engraving by Bernard Picart that opens the 1728 edition of Fontenelle’s Histoire des oracles, priests tend the sacred fire and direct the attention of supplicants to the speaking statue of the god; meanwhile, beneath the temple’s floor, a man holding an oil lamp inadvertently sheds light on priestly duplicity as he feeds lines to his accomplice, who speaks through a tube to provide the oracle’s voice (Figure 3.16). Picart’s engraving presents us with the paradigmatic scenario of Enlightenment unmasking, one that allows us to enjoy the enthralling drama played out in the temple even as we are made aware of the mechanics by which the deception is achieved. The same scenario was rehearsed in oracular entertainments of the later eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, such as William Pinchbeck’s “acoustic temple,” which reproduced an Egyptian oracle that spoke with a disembodied female voice. Audiences took pleasure in the deception, but at the same time, they were challenged to find the hidden tubes that made it possible. Like Pinchbeck with his acoustic temple, the electrician with his magical picture is both priest and disenchanter. His playful imposture teaches us that what looks like magic is really electricity, a phenomenon that answers to humans and not to the gods. While the audience member who removes the king’s crown appears to be punished with a shock for his political act of desacralization, the true act of desacralization belongs to the electrician, who shows that the image never was magical in the first place.
There is more to the performance of the magical picture, however, than this rationalist lesson. The members of the audience know that the picture is not magical, yet it is not fully silenced, for they still feel its invisible force in their bones when they receive its shock. The disavowal of the fetish is incomplete because its effects continue to be felt in the body even after the lesson is learned; and it is here, in the gap between knowledge and experience, that Franklin’s experiment opens a space for reflection on the power of images. Perhaps it even opens onto a theory of picturing that would proceed as follows: in order to disenchant the picture, we must enchant it; disenchantment comes through an opening onto an electrical potential that lies beyond the frame of representation. Or outside the window, as the case may be. All of this seems fully polite and rational, but still we catch a glimpse of something that lies beyond the grasp of reason, and Franklin does go on to note that, “if the picture were highly charged, the consequence might perhaps be as fatal as that of high-treason.” The picture retains an excessive potential that the experiment cannot exhaust.
This potential may help us to think more generally about the power of images like the mezzotint of George II, or Fisher’s mezzotint of Franklin, as they circulated throughout the colonial Atlantic world. Mezzotints were powerful objects that attracted the eyes of consumers during a period of rapid growth in the colonial economy. Increasingly over the course of the eighteenth century an “empire of goods” knit together the British Atlantic. As the American market took off during the 1740s, goods poured from the London metropole and made their way through ships, shops, and peddlers to remote consumers. Mezzotint portraits, widely collected and often framed and hung on walls, were part of this burgeoning trade. The 1743 probate inventory of the Boston merchant Peter Faneuil, for example, shows that he left behind over 250 pictures, mostly engravings, including “nineteen mezzotints covered with glass” that hung in the best room of his house. Mezzotint portraits were put to other uses as well: they became embellishments for lacquered furniture, models for provincial artists, and source material for the polite recreation of “painting on glass,” an activity in which the mezzotint was applied to a piece of glass, rubbed with a damp cloth until translucent, and then painted from behind to create an effect similar to oil painting. The framed mezzotint on glass in Franklin’s magical picture would have been a familiar and desirable object for its audience.
London’s mezzotint engravers—often called “scrapers,” since their tonal process involved roughening the entire surface of the plate so it would print black and then scraping selected areas to produce the lights—worked in a booming industry. Fisher and his teacher, James McArdell, who engraved Wilson’s portrait of Franklin (see Figure 3.2), were members of the so-called “Dublin Group” of Irish mezzotinters that was instrumental in reinvigorating the practice in London during the third quarter of the eighteenth century. Demand for their work was fueled by demand for the portraits of Joshua Reynolds and other artists who, beginning in 1760, were exhibiting their paintings publicly in London at the annual Society of Artists exhibitions. Finding the right mezzotint engraver was critical to the success of these painters, since their own fame and that of their sitters depended on the circulation of reproductive prints. They preferred mezzotint engravers over line engravers because the process was faster and because they admired the subtle gradations in tone that a skilled scraper could produce. In the words of James Chelsum, author of the first history of the medium published in 1786, mezzotint has introduced “a softness and delicacy before unknown in prints.” From the shadowy backgrounds of mezzotints by McArdell, Fisher, and their colleagues emerge the faces of eighteenth-century celebrity, faces whose fame (and sometimes infamy) guaranteed their currency throughout Britain’s empire. These pictures, “highly charged” in their own way, trafficked in the secular magic that, for Joseph Roach, goes by the name of “It.” “It” is a charismatic aura, a singular and seemingly effortless poise possessed by certain individuals in the face of the overwhelming desire for public intimacy ushered in by the consumer revolution of the eighteenth century. “It” radiates from Franklin, who, rendered in the soft and delicate tones of Fisher’s mezzotint, coolly keeps his balance despite the picture’s opposing electrical polarities. As he focuses his attention on the sound of his electrified bells, we cannot help but keep our eyes focused intently on him.
Franklin distributed his effigy widely to friends, relatives, public figures, and institutions in Europe and the colonies, and when his initial order of one hundred copies of Fisher’s mezzotint proved not to be enough, Franklin’s son ordered an additional one hundred prints. To one of the recipients of this print, the French physicist and botanist Thomas-François Dalibard, Franklin wrote: “As I cannot soon agin enjoy the Happiness of being personally in your Company, permit my Shadow to pay my Respects to you.” Franklin sensed that Chamberlin’s portrait carried something of his presence within it. Why else would he have ordered so many mezzotints? He fetishized Chamberlin’s portrait, just a bit.
Or was Franklin simply being tongue-in-cheek in his letter to Dalibard? Surely he was capable of seeing through the picture’s magic, and so are we. The modern-day historian, for example, might explain that special “It” possessed by sitters in eighteenth-century mezzotint portraits by appealing to Marx’s critique of the commodity form, which adopts the language of the fetish as a way of dealing with the strange, animate quality of the commodity in the eyes of the consumer. The commodity fetish is an illusion, masking the labor that goes into its production as a mysterious power that seems to emanate from the object itself. Understood in these terms, mezzotint portraits of Franklin, the king, and other notable figures become so many deceptions bobbing around the Atlantic world, detached from their makers and the circumstances of their production, obscuring a clear-eyed understanding of the workings of empire as they magically “speak” to consumers through a transatlantic cult of personality and kingship.
But disenchanting the fetish in this way only partially explains the desires that sustained the circumatlantic traffic in portraits. It is not enough for the historian to expose the cunning priests of empire at work behind the scenes. The voice that speaks through Franklin’s portrait does not come from a ventriloquist concealed beneath the floor; it is activated through an individual’s embodied encounter with the portrait. Seeking to satisfy a desire for intimacy, audiences reached out toward compelling likenesses in a mimetic exchange that was, in fact, intimate. Their objects of desire were illusory in many respects, but their experience was real, no less so than Tennent’s experience of God’s voice in the thunder, and it demands more than an unmasking of the ideology behind the spectral fetish to account for its force.
It is easy to look at the portrait and dismiss its magic. Art history, a practice normally carried out within the comfort and quiet of the study, tends toward its containment: we curb our enthusiasm for pictures by capturing their potential within disciplinary frames, by turning our heads from the problem posed by the scene outside the window. But just behind Franklin’s head, the lightning still prompts us, as it prompted admirers of Apelles, to reflect on “things that cannot be represented in pictures.” With Franklin, we look and we listen; we wait for a voice to enter from beyond the frame. It is this potential for shock that provides the very conditions of possibility for Chamberlin’s pictorial demonstration of Benjamin Franklin’s Promethean art.