This painting shows an imagined version of a real event,
when Benjamin Franklin demonstrated that lightning is a form
of electricity in 1752. Painted by Benjamin West around 1816,
it shows Franklin holding his clenched fist toward a metal
key that hangs from a kite string. A spark of electricity flows
between them. Storm clouds rage, the wind blows Franklin’s
gray hair and red robe, and a bolt of lightning illuminates the
sky. Two cherubs play with jars that hold electric current, and
three more help with the kite.
Franklin was endlessly curious about the world around him. He was fascinated by weather and began conducting experiments with electricity in 1746. He thought lightning might discharge electricity to high objects, such as trees and church spires, which caused fire. To test the theory, he went outside during a storm and flew a kite with a thin metal rod attached to the top. He hung a metal key from its hemp string, then tied a silk ribbon to the end for insulation. Indeed, when he reached his hand up to the metal key, he felt a spark of electricity. His theory was correct! With this information, Franklin invented the lightning rod, which protected buildings from fire by grounding electricity from lightning. We still use this principle today to protect homes and buildings.
West painted this picture twenty-six years after Franklin’s death and changed several details of the story. The dramatic setting and angelic assistants suggest that Franklin was godlike. He was 46 at the time of the experiment, but West shows him as an older man, perhaps because this is how he was most recognizable to the public.
The artist, who was friends with Franklin, painted this small portrait in preparation for a larger one, intended to be placed at Pennsylvania Hospital, which Franklin founded. Although the final painting was not made, this version captures Franklin’s ambition, intelligence, and determination.
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