Last month I had occasion to display this portrait of Margaret Gage by John Singleton Copley, now at the Timken Museum in San Diego. It’s significant not just because it shows the general’s wife, but also because of what it depicts her as wearing.
This archived webpage about a 1999 exhibit explains:
The image of romantic fashionability, Mrs. Gage is depicted wearing an iridescent caftan over a lace trimmed chemise with a jeweled brooch at her breast and an embroidered belt at her waist. Pearls and a turban-like swath of drapery adorn her hair. Copley’s depiction of Mrs. Gage in turban and uncorseted caftan make this one of the most sexually charged portraits produced in colonial America.There’s more discussion of this fashion phenomenon from Barbara Sarudy at 18th-Century American Women.
Mrs. Gage’s wish to be portrayed in turquerie put her in the company of countless English women who were “going Turkish” to masquerade balls. Their American peers, however, who had no occasions to wear such costumes, participated in the exhilarating world of exotic disguise through portraiture. In the artist’s studio, clients had the chance to look more stylish than they could in real life. Copley offered his subjects the option of selecting poses, settings, costumes, and coiffures from English sources. In the space of the painted canvas, he created for them alternate or desired appearances.
Margaret Gage may have been dressing up, but she had a genuine family connection to Turkey. As a youth her grandfather Richard Kemble worked for a Turkish merchant in London, then traveled to the Ottoman Empire to establish a trading house. While in Smyrna, Kemble married a woman from the Mavrocordato family, ethnically Greek merchants from the island of Scio. Later he was British consul at Salonica.
In 1704, Richard and his wife had a son named Peter, who was born and spent his first eight years in Smyrna. After an English education Peter Kemble did business in Rotterdam, Guinea, and London before settling in New Jersey. In 1734 Peter and his first wife Gertrude had the little girl they named Margaret.