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"Benjamin Franklin Gathering Neighborhood Boys to Play 'Fly the Kite'" (artist's copy)

Barney West

West based this painting on rumors about Franklin, who, it appears, took every opportunity to romp with barely dressed boys in the woodlands. He invented all sorts of clever games and stunts to lure them, like "Priming the Pump," "Grooming the Pony" and "Naked Croquet on the Back Lawn."

In this painting we have Franklin teaching a new game, which involved having the doe-eyed young boys strip down to brightly colored silk sashes and fly a kite into a thunderstorm while the old man "revitalized" himself with a jolt or two of electricity, which, he said, would "set Old Glory up for another round with my little minxes."

As a painter, West lacked the classical technique and finesse of his contemporaries in spite of the high prices his paintings commanded. His brushstrokes were uneven and his color schemes garish. That mattered little to him, though, as he concentrated on the fidelity of the facial representation and the composition. As he put it so often, "I paints 'em so's you can pick 'em out in a courtroom, even from the gallery." 

The originals of his paintings have all disappeared, including major works like "Martha Washington and the Negro Field Hand," which was sold for an incredible sum to Mrs. Washington herself. West was always careful, however, to keep a secret copy of all of his so-called "intimate portraits" hidden away as a form of insurance, he told his drinking buddies. It was "the courage of his blackmail-effected convictions," he would chortle, ordering another round.


Acquisition sponsored in part by a grant from the Geraldo Rivera Foundation for Truth in Media.


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