A New Attribution

March 8, 2017
Index Magazine

A New Attribution

Jean Baptiste Pillement, Design in Memory of Benjamin Franklin, c. 1790. Brown ink over graphite on cream antique laid paper. Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Bequest of Grenville L. Winthrop, 1943.1457.

The exhibition Drawing: The Invention of a Modern Medium (January 21–May 7, 2017) benefits from the contributions of more than a dozen Harvard students who took part in recent seminars taught by Harvard professor Ewa Lajer-Burcharth and Elizabeth Rudy, the Harvard Art Museums’ Carl A. Weyerhaeuser Associate Curator of Prints. This article is part of a series detailing new discoveries and perspectives presented by the students who worked with Lajer-Burcharth and Rudy.

Memory is one of the 21 subcategories explored in Drawing: The Invention of a Modern Medium—and it proved to be a fascinating one for Harmon Siegel, a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of History of Art and Architecture. Focusing on this theme for one of two essays he contributed to the exhibition catalogue, Siegel considered the relationship between the acts of drawing and remembering. One of the works he studied was Design in Memory of Benjamin Franklin, a proposal for a mausoleum plaque for the founding father.

The drawing depicts a pyramid surrounded by cartouches memorializing events from Franklin’s life. It was formerly attributed to Jean Baptiste Pillement or his circle. However, the attribution had never struck curators as correct. Siegel’s close study of the work in the museums’ Art Study Center led him also to believe that Pillement was not the true creator of the drawing.

With the help of Elizabeth Rudy, Edouard Kopp, the Maida and George Abrams Associate Curator of Drawings, and conservators in the Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies, Siegel homed in on a striking clue about the artist’s identity: a small inscription that runs along the drawing’s bottom edge. Though partly cut off, the visible words read: “éxécutée à la plume par Roy—” (executed in pen by Roy). Siegel’s research also yielded the transcribed manuscript of a public address given by the mayor of Paris in honor of Franklin in 1790; that address seems to describe the Harvard Art Museums drawing and links it to Honoré Sébastien Royllet.

As soon as he began to suspect the work was actually Royllet’s, Siegel alerted Ewa Lajer-Burcharth and Rudy. The instructors supported Siegel’s attribution and decided to include it in the catalogue, the first place where this important new scholarship has been published.

Despite the new attribution, mysteries persist about other elements of the drawing, and Royllet remains an enigmatic figure.

“We think Royllet’s father was a calligrapher, and his drawing has a calligraphic appearance,” Siegel said. “There’s a precise linearity to it; it looks like it was done with pretty skilled draftsmanship but not necessarily a sense of mimetic capacity.”

Regardless, Siegel said, he’s looking forward to seeing the work exhibited—and for the first time, perhaps, with proper credit being given where it’s due.