Franklin Seduced France with Coonskin Cap Diplomacy

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In 1778, Founding Father Benjamin Franklin was in France attempting to secure support for the United States Colonies during the War for Independence.

Great Britain and France had been at odds with one another for many years as the two most powerful nations in the world.

The American Continental Congress knew that enlisting aid from France would further infuriate King George III.

The Americans were fully aware they could not win the war with Great Britain alone. They had no navy, and military supplies such as guns and ammunition were hard to come by as the Colonies depended on Great Britain for most of their supplies.

The British had recruited North American Indian tribes to fight for their cause — promising if Britain retained control of the Colonies, the Native Americans would be left alone. The only hope the Colonists had was to enlist foreign aid.

The Colonies were forbidden to trade with foreign countries, but smuggling had been going on for years.  American rice and tobacco were to be shipped only to Britain but were secretly shipped to northwestern France and Amsterdam in exchange for much-needed items such as tea, fabric for clothing, gunpowder, arms, wig powder and other necessities.

Great Britain was aware of the illegal trading but mostly ignored the situation until they found out about the weapons and gunpowder. In 1774, the British sent ships to Texel Island in northern Holland to curtail the trade with Amsterdam.  According to Aermican Herritage by the beginning of 1775, the British had unknowingly sent almost six million dollars’ worth of war munitions to the Colonies.

At the age of seventy-one Benjamin Franklin was sent to France, along with Silas Deane and Arthur Lee, to gain help from Louis XVI. On May 2, 1776, the French King signed documents making France an American ally which dishonored her treaties with Britain.

In 1770 Massachusetts appointed Franklin as the first foreign ambassador to France. By 1778, Franklin, Deane and Lee had negotiated the Treaty of Alliance and the Treaty of Amity and Commerce with their new ally.

Franklin had already proved his worth in the Colonies by his writings, inventions, research of electricity, and his brilliant use of diplomacy. Although he was self-taught, Franklin held honorary degrees from Harvard, Yale, the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, and Oxford University in England.

He also helped found the University of Pennsylvania in his hometown of Philadelphia. The French, fascinated by Franklin, welcomed him with open arms. He learned French and was set up in a house in the Parisian suburb of Passy.

His charm, wit and humble dress made him one of the most popular people in Paris. He wore a coonskin cap to play up the French belief that Americans were wild frontiersmen. In fact, Franklin was so popular in France that even today some French citizens think he was an American president. Franklin was criticized by his contemporaries for living the high life, going to balls and parties and hobnobbing with the wealthiest of society.

For Franklin to have mixed with the poorer people would have alienated him from the king and wealthy potential donors to the cause. It was the eve of the French Revolution, and the public had had about enough of squalid living conditions while the wealthy flaunted their money in over the top decadence.

At the end of the Revolutionary War Franklin successfully negotiated the Treaty of Paris in 1783.

Having spent about ten years in France, Franklin returned to Philadelphia in 1785. He assisted in the creation of both the Bill of Rights and the United States Constitution.

In April of 1790, Franklin died at the age of eighty-four at the Philadelphia home of his daughter, Sarah. According to Biography, Franklin had written his own epitaph when he was twenty-two:

“The body of B. Franklin, Printer (Like the Cover of an Old Book Its Contents torn Out And Stript of its Lettering and Gilding) Lies Here, Food for Worms. But the Work shall not be Lost; For it will (as he Believ’d) Appear once More In a New and More Elegant Edition Revised and Corrected By the Author.”

Alas, the inscription on his headstone in Christ Church Burial Ground reads “Benjamin and Deborah Franklin 1790.”  The Poor Richard Club mounted a plaque near the grave with Franklin’s epitaph for himself and another with a timeline of Franklin’s life.

 Ian Harvey

How a pirate attack in 1794 prevented the United States from adopting the metric system

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The name of Joseph Dombey can be found in many 18th century botanical textbooks but remains largely forgotten in our time. Even though the French botanist was a man of science, on several occasions Dombey was involved in political affairs, which ultimately led to his death in 1794 at the hands of British privateers.

He had encountered the British several times previously, as his botanical collections shipped from South America to France were intercepted, captured, and sent to the British Museum where they are exhibited to this day. The Spaniards also confiscated one of his South American specimen collections.

From the 1790s up until the fall of Napoleon in 1815, Great Britain and France were effectively in constant conflict, with periodical ceasefires. This made all French ships traveling the Atlantic a legitimate target, and vice-versa.

During his final voyage in 1794, Dombey was on his way to the United States, where he was to present the French measurement standards representing one meter and one grave―an old measure for weight that was replaced by the kilogram. The United States had declared independence from the United Kingdom some 18 years earlier, but kept the traditional British system of weights and measures.

Thomas Jefferson, an admirer of French scientific achievements, wanted to host Dombey, who was primarily sent to strengthen the ties between France and the U.S. by signing an agricultural agreement.

Jefferson was at the time lobbying Congress to abandon the British measures in favor of the French system, which was the predecessor of the metric system that is used in most countries today. For this, he needed an experienced scientist like Dombey and the physical objects made of copper, representing the length and the weight of the new measures.

So Dombey set sail for Philadelphia from the French port of Le Havre, only to be captured en route by British privateers (state-sponsored pirates who waged naval war for the Crown, in return for a percentage of the loot). Even though Dombey tried to disguise himself as one of the sailors, he failed to blend in and was soon discovered by the marauders. Once his diplomatic role was revealed, the French botanist was taken to the island of Montserrat in the Caribbean, where the privateers were based.

Dombey died soon after, even though the pirates had plans for demanding a ransom from the French. The standards which he carried with him were lost for a while until they were later auctioned together with other items from the ship.

It took a number of French intermediaries to deliver the meter and the grave to the then-Secretary of State, Edmund Randolph, who, in the end, took no further interest in the matter. At one point, the grave was separated from its length-measure counterpart and ended up in the possession of Andrew Ellicott, Dombey’s contemporary and the land surveyor who set the boundaries of the territory which would become Washington DC.

Ellicot’s family owned Dombey’s copper grave until 1952, when they decided to donate this particular piece of history to the National Institute of Standards and Technology, where it remains exhibited.

Today, many U.S. industries have adopted the metric system, but the country is still largely dependent on the British-influenced standards. In the book Measuring America, author Andro Linklater points out the extent of the opportunity lost with Dombey’s unfortunate journey:

“The sight [in Congress] of those two copper objects [Dombey’s meter and grave], so easily copied and sent out to every state in the Union, together with the weighty scientific arguments supporting them, might well have clarified the minds of senators and representatives alike. And today the U.S. might not be the last country in the world to resist the metric system.”

 Nikola Budanovic

Crinolinemania: This deadly Victorian fashion garment killed around 3,000 women

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Observed from today’s perspective, crinolines look utterly uncomfortable and unattractive to the point of absurdity. Why would anyone want to wear something that resembles a gigantic whipped-cream cake around their waist? Yet fashion trends have shown that comfort and attractiveness often have little in common, so it can be said that crinolines were just what any fad is–a way to get all eyes on you even if the cost is being a real (fashion) victim.

One of the fashion trends of the 19th century Victorian Era that stirred lady fashionistas was the so-called “Crinolinemania,” a craze that referred to the fashion obsession with the crinoline, a stiffened underskirt made using horsehair and linen or cotton, invented in the early 1840s.

These skirts were the followers of the “panniers” women’s underwear worn in the 17th and 18th centuries that enabled extending of the skirt at the side, thus creating a large side-squared dress that properly displayed the garment’s decorations.

Comic photograph, c.1860.

However, according to some fashion historians, the real predecessor of the crinoline was the 16th-century Spanish “farthingale.” These wide, full skirts were much adored by the Spanish ladies even back in the 15th century. The queen consort of Castile, Joana of Portugal, copied their style and introduced it to court, attracting admiring attention, although court rumor had it that the main reason she wore the style was to hide her illegitimate pregnancy. England became acquainted with the crinoline when Catherine of Aragon, first wife of Henry VIII, wore a Spanish farthingale made of linen and cane sticks.

In the first half of the 1800s, skirts became bigger and adopted a round shape. The ladies created an illusion of a large circle at the bottom part of their attire by wearing numerous layers of petticoats. This layered clothing often disabled the ladies’ movement and comfort, so when the crinoline was finally invented, they felt a relief. Crinolines weighed less and fit more easily to the body.

The name of the fashion fad first appeared in the 1800s in the magazine Punch, which mocked the crinoline craze and published humorous cartoon illustrations about Crinolinemania. The root of the garment’s nickname originates in the French words crin (horsehair) and lin (linen), which describe the materials of which the initial versions of the crinoline were made. The horsehair crinolines supported the weight of the layers of petticoats under the full skirts and provided more convenience.

Inflatable crinolines. Caricature, Punch, January 1857.

One of the most widely known models is the cage crinoline which was first patented in 1856 by R.C. Milliet in Paris. His agent brought it to Britain and it became popular overnight. These crinolines were made of spring steel with lightness providing flexibility and enabled women to walk and sit while wearing them.

Cage crinoline underskirt, the 1860s, MoMu.

 The ladies felt liberated in comparison to their previous layered petticoats and praised their experience in the Lady’s Newspaper in 1863: “So perfect are the wave-like bands that a lady may ascend a steep stair, lean against a table, throw herself into an armchair, pass to her stall at the opera, and occupy a further seat in a carriage, without inconveniencing herself or others, and provoking the rude remarks of observers thus modifying in an important degree, all those peculiarities tending to destroy the modesty of Englishwomen; and lastly, it allows the dress to fall in graceful folds.”

These positive reviews stimulated a massive production of crinolines led by the most successful producer, Douglas & Sherwood’s Hoop Skirt Factory in New York. The mass-production made crinolines affordable to women who stood at different levels on the social ladder. On daily occasions, most of the women wore small crinoline versions while the large bell-shaped models, some up to six feet in diameter, were worn on special occasions such as balls.

Three women showing dresses in blue with black lace and white with red stripes and brown color with queue de Paris

Nevertheless, due to their heaviness and robustness, crinolines had disadvantages that completely outweigh the advantages. Wearing them in the summer meant spending the day in hot, unhygienic conditions. The biggest issue, however, was a fatal one.

The enormous size of the crinolines was often too challenging for the women in specific surroundings, and thus there were thousands of reported cases of ladies being severely injured or burned alive when a candle or a spark from the fireplace would accidentally flame by touching the crinoline. Sometimes the hoops would also get caught in machinery or be run over by carriage wheels, causing serious consequences to the wearer.

 Brad Smithfield

Why Is the Mona Lisa So Famous?

Mona Lisa, oil on wood panel by Leonardo da Vinci, c. 1503-06; in the Louvre, Paris, France. 77 x 53 cm.
© Everett-Art/Shutterstock.com

Five centuries after Leonardo da Vinci painted the Mona Lisa(1503–19), the portrait hangs behind bulletproof glass within the Louvre Museum and draws thousands of jostling spectators each day. It is the most famous painting in the world, and yet, when viewers manage to see the artwork up close, they are likely to be baffled by the small subdued portrait of an ordinary woman. She’s dressed modestly in a translucent veil, dark robes, and no jewelry. Much has been said about her smile and gaze, but viewers still might wonder what all the fuss is about. Along with the mysteries of the sitter’s identity and her enigmatic look, the reason for the work’s popularity is one of its many conundrums. Although many theories have attempted to pinpoint one reason for the art piece’s celebrity, the most compelling arguments insist that there is no one explanation. The Mona Lisa’s fame is the result of many chance circumstances combined with the painting’s inherent appeal.

There is no doubt that the Mona Lisa is a very good painting. It was highly regarded even as Leonardo worked on it, and his contemporaries copied the then novel three-quarter pose. The writer Giorgio Vasari later extolled Leonardo’s ability to closely imitate nature. Indeed, the Mona Lisa is a very realistic portrait. The subject’s softly sculptural face shows Leonardo’s skillful handling of sfumato, an artistic technique that uses subtle gradations of light and shadow to model form, and shows his understanding of the skull beneath the skin. The delicately painted veil, the finely wrought tresses, and the careful rendering of folded fabric reveal Leonardo’s studied observations and inexhaustible patience. And, although the sitter’s steady gaze and restrained smile were not regarded as mysterious until the 19th century, viewers today can appreciate her equivocal expression. Leonardo painted a complex figure that is very much like a complicated human.

Many scholars, however, point out that the excellent quality of the Mona Lisa was not enough by itself to make the painting a celebrity. There are, after all, many good paintings. External events also contributed to the artwork’s fame. That the painting’s home is the Louvre, one of the world’s most-visited museums, is a fortuitous circumstance that has added to the work’s stature. It arrived at the Louvre via a circuitous path beginning with Francis I, king of France, in whose court Leonardo spent the last years of his life. The painting became part of the royal collection, and, for centuries after, the portrait was secluded in French palaces until the Revolution claimed the royal collection as the property of the people. Following a stint in Napoleon’s bedroom, the Mona Lisa was installed in the Louvre Museum at the turn of the 19th century. As patronage of the Louvre grew, so too did recognition of the painting.

The identity of the portrait’s sitter soon became more intriguing. Although many scholars believe that the painting depicts Lisa Gherardini, wife of the Florentine merchant Francesco del Giocondo, no records of such a commission from Francesco exist, and the sitter has never been conclusively identified. The unknown identity has thus lent the figure to whatever characterization people wanted to make of her. During the Romantic era of the 19th century, the simple Florentine housewife who may have been portrayed was transformed into a mysterious seductress. The French writer Théophile Gautier described her as a “strange being…her gaze promising unknown pleasures,” while others went on about her perfidious lips and enchanting smile. The English author Walter Pater went so far as to call her a vampire who “has been dead many times, and learned the secrets of the grave.” The air of mystery that came to surround the Mona Lisa in the 19th century continues to define the painting and draw speculation.

Meanwhile, the 19th century also mythologized Leonardo as a genius. Throughout the centuries after his death, he was well regarded—but no more so than his esteemed contemporaries Michelangeloand Raphael. Some scholars have noted, however, that, as interest in the Renaissance grew in the 19th century, Leonardo became more popularly seen not only as a very good painter but also as a great scientist and inventor whose designs prefigured contemporary inventions. Many of his so-called inventions were later debunked, and his contributions to science and architecture came to be seen as small, but the myth of Leonardo as a genius has continued well into the 21st century, contributing to the Mona Lisa’s popularity.

The writers of the 19th century aroused interest in the Mona Lisa, but the theft of the painting in 1911 and the ensuing media frenzy brought it worldwide attention. When news of the crime broke on August 22 of that year, it caused an immediate sensation. People flocked to the Louvre to gape at the empty space where the painting had once hung, the museum’s director of paintings resigned, accusations of a hoax splashed across newspapers, and Pablo Picasso was even arrested as a suspect! Two years later the painting was found in Italy after an art dealer in Florence alerted the local authorities that a man had contacted him about selling it. The man was Vincenzo Peruggia, an Italian immigrant to France, who had briefly worked at the Louvre fitting glass on a selection of paintings, including the Mona Lisa. He and two other workers took the portrait from the wall, hid with it in a closet overnight, and ran off with it in the morning. Unable to sell the painting because of the media attention, Peruggia hid it in the false bottom of a trunk until his capture. He was tried, convicted, and imprisoned for the theft while the painting toured Italy before it made its triumphant return to the Louvre. By then, many French people had come to regard the work as a national treasure that they had lost and recovered.

The Mona Lisa was certainly more famous after the heist, but World War I soon consumed much of the world’s attention. Some scholars argue that Marcel Duchamp’s playful defacement of a postcard reproduction in 1919 brought attention back to the Mona Lisa and started a trend that would make the painting one of the most-recognized in the world. He played against the worship of art when he drew a beard and mustache on the lady’s face and added the acronym L.H.O.O.Q. (meant to evoke a vulgar phrase in French) at the bottom. That act of irreverence caused a small scandal, and other cunning artists recognized that such a gag would bring them attention. For decades after, other artists, notably Andy Warhol, followed suit. As artists distorted, disfigured, and played with reproductions of the Mona Lisa, cartoonists and admen exaggerated her further still. Over the decades, as technology improved, the painting was endlessly reproduced, sometimes manipulated and sometimes not, so that the sitter’s face became one of the most well known in the world, even to those who had little interest in art.

A tour of the painting to the United States in 1963 and to Japan in 1974 elevated it to celebrity status. The Mona Lisa traveled to the United States in no less than a first-class cabin on an ocean liner and drew about 40,000 people a day to the Metropolitan Museum in New York City and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., during the portrait’s six-week stay. Large crowds greeted the portrait in Japan about ten years later. What’s more, as travel has become increasingly affordable since the late 20th century, more and more individuals have been able to visit Paris and pay their respects in person, contributing to the unyielding crowds of today.

Although the Mona Lisa is undoubtedly good art, there is no single reason for its celebrity. Rather, it is hundreds of circumstances—from its fortuitous arrival at the Louvre to the mythmaking of the 19th century to the endless reproductions of the 20th and 21st centuries—that have all worked together with the painting’s inherent appeal to make the Mona Lisa the world’s most famous painting ever.

WRITTEN BY:  Alicja Zelazko 
PUBLISHED: 

“The sun began to be darkened”: The strange cloud over much of the world in 536 AD changed history dramatically

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In the summer of 536, a strange cloud appeared in the skies over much of Southern Europe, North Africa, and Western Asia. Sometimes referred to as “a veil of dust,” something plunged the Mediterranean region and many other areas of the world into gloomy years of cold and darkness.

This foreboding change was recorded by the Byzantine historian Procopius. “For the sun gave forth its light without brightness, like the moon, during this whole year.” Procopius also wrote of disease and war resulting from the blocking of the sun’s light.

A Syrian scribe described the change as “…the sun began to be darkened by day and the moon by night, while ocean was tumultuous with spray.” Gaelic Irish records describe a “failure of bread” in the year 536.

For many years, historians and scientists have wondered what may have caused Procopius and others to record notable differences in weather. Modern research has provided some interesting theories.

Much of the rest of the world seems to have been impacted by the cloud as well, at least in the northern hemisphere. Studies of tree rings between 536 and 551 show less tree growth in China, Europe, and North America. Less solar radiation reaching the earth resulted in lower temperatures and abnormal weather patterns. The results for humans included lower food production output, famine, as well as increased social and political disruption.

There were specific events recorded that were likely related to the ominous cloud. A deadly pandemic swept through the Byzantine Empire in 541-542, that became known as the Justinian Plague. Estimates are that up to a third of the population perished during the outbreak. Procopius described some of the horrible symptoms as fever and swelling all over the body.

In 536 China, there was famine and drought with many deaths, as well as reports of “yellow dust that rained down like snow.” At the same time, Korea faced massive storms and flooding. Unusually heavy snowfalls were noted in Mesopotamia.

Scandinavia seems to have been particularly hard hit. Archaeological evidence indicates that almost 75 percent of villages in parts of Sweden were abandoned in these years. One theory is that this displacement of people was a catalyst for later raids by Vikings seeking more fertile land in other parts of Europe and beyond. A Norse poem of the time reads, “The sun turns black, earth sinks in the sea. Down from heaven, stars are whirled.”

The severe weather may have impacted other historical trends. Among them is the migration of Mongolian tribes westward, the fall of the Persian Sassanid Empire, and the rise and rapid expansion of Islam.

Some historians mark these specific changes in weather patterns as contributing to the historic transition from antiquity to the beginning of the era of the Dark and Middle Ages. It certainly emphasizes the impact rapid climate change may have had on human populations.

What could have caused such a sudden and dramatic change in weather? Experts are divided, and we may never know the whole answer. One theory is that the climate around the world changed based on one giant volcanic eruption, possibly from Central America. This could have resulted in a layer of ash and dust covering the skies of much of the planet.

Another suggestion is that there were two large volcano blasts within a couple of years of each other, specifically in 536 and 540, causing darkness and cold around most of the world. Clouds of smoke and debris from massive volcanic fires could have spread rapidly.

Evidence of volcanic eruptions was backed up by material found in both the North and South Poles. In both Antarctica and Greenland, sulfate deposits have been discovered dating back to the mid-6th century.

A third theory contemplates the impact of a comet or meteorite crashing into the Earth. Or the possibility of a near miss from a comet passing by that could have left thick dust clouds of particles in the atmosphere. Experts generally think this explanation is less plausible than that of volcanic eruptions.

Whatever the cause, people living at the time noticed and recorded a rapid change in nature. Human populations around the earth were disrupted and to many it would have felt like the world were coming to an end.

 Mark Shiffer

In one French art museum, more than half of the paintings are now believed to be fakes or forgeries

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FRANCE-CULTURE-PAINTINGS-INVESTIGATION-COUNTERFEITING Visitors look at the painting ‘Le clocher de Ria’ (R) (The bell tower of Ria), next to ‘Portrait d’un inconnu’ (L) (Portrait of a stranger) at the museum dedicated to French painter Etienne Terrus, in Elne (Elna), on April 28, 2018. – Sad inauguration on April 27, 2018 for the museum dedicated to Etienne Terrus, in Elne, in the Pyrenees-Orientales, which saw its collection amputated by 60%, 82 paintings on 140 were counterfeit. (Photo by RAYMOND ROIG / AFP/Getty Images)

When a guest art historian was brought in to the Terrus Museum to work on its collection of paintings by the respected local landscape artist Étienne Terrus, he noticed something odd about the signature in one work. He brushed the signature lightly with his gloved hand and, to his amazement, it fell away to reveal another person’s signature underneath. Terrus was not the artist of the painting.

And this was just the beginning.

Authorities now believe that more than half of the paintings attributed to Terrus are not his work. Over the last two decades, police say, the museum in the town of Elne in southern France has spent more than $190,000 to acquire what turned out to be fake or forged paintings, drawings, and watercolors.

In perhaps the most embarrassing instance, one landscape painting showed a French tower built in the late 1950s. Étienne Terrus died in 1922.

The guest art historian, Eric Forcado, investigated the entire collection. After conferring with a panel of experts, he concluded that 82 of the 140 works in the collection were frauds.

Terrus, born in 1857, primarily worked in watercolor and oils. CNN reported that he “painted in the Fauvist style, a tradition known for its bright hues and impressionistic leanings that amplify the natural appearance of portraits and landscapes through color and imagination. Terrus studied at the studio of the academic Parisian painter Alexandre Cabanel and was friends with many famous artists of the time, including Henri Matisse and André Derain.”

The museum spent the last two decades collecting his work. Most of the inauthentic works were acquired after 2013. The money used to acquire the false paintings came from fundraising efforts and private benefactors. In March 2018, when the revelations were made, the town council filed a criminal complaint, and the police launched an investigation. No arrests have been made.

A story in the National Geographic says, “To the untrained eye, faked or forged art can be difficult to spot. But correctly attributed works should have provenance documentation, and that documentation should be certified. If that fails, other details like a misspelled, shaky signature or materials from a different period can be telltale signs of a fake or forgery.”

A fake and a forgery are different in the art world. A fake is a painting by someone else of the time and school than the attributed artist, perhaps a student, and altered to appear authentic and boost the value. A forgery is painted with the express intent of imitating a certain artist. It is a growing crisis in the art world.

“The bigger problem with museums is not purchases that tend to come under scrutiny, but the acceptance of works on loan that may be problematic,” says Noah Charney, an author and founder of Association for Research Into Crimes Against Art in a recent interview. “Most museums around the world rely on loan objects and … museums might not question works offered on loan if they look good because they rely on such loans to fill their walls.”

In the case of the Terrus Museum, its increase of acquisitions was part of an effort to support tourism in the area. The museum did not have a trained curator. The town of Elne began investing in the museum showcasing its local artist, renovating its lighting and controlling the building temperature. The art historian who uncovered the extensive presence of fakes was brought in as part of that renovation effort.

“I would imagine that at least 95 percent of everything that is displayed in museums is exactly what the museums think it is, meaning it is not misattributed, and it is neither a fake nor forgery,” Charney says in the interview. “It may be safe to say that some 20 percent of a museum’s entire holdings are problematic in terms of authenticity, which means they were actually inadvertently misattributed, or perhaps, in very rare cases, a proactive fake or forgery.”

In late March, the Terrus Museum exhibited 60 of the artist’s works that have been completely authenticated.

 Nancy Bilyeau