J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Saturday, May 07, 2011

The Painting of Margaret Gage

John Singleton Copley traveled to New York in June 1771, eager to find customers among that city’s elite. The first person on his list was Margaret Gage.

Copley had already made a portrait of her husband, Gen. Thomas Gage. Apparently he had started that canvas when the general was in Boston overseeing the arrival of four regiments in 1768, and finished it after Gage had gone home to New York; the uniform isn’t exact in all details.

Margaret Gage came to Copley’s rented New York studio only four days after he arrived in the city, and he went to work. The result was unlike any of Copley’s portraits of Massachusetts ladies. Gage appeared in an exotically styled turban, gown, and pearls, and her pose was almost languorous.

Later that year Copley told his half-brother, Henry Pelham, “it is I think beyand Compare the best Lady’s portrait I ever drew.” A fellow artist, Matthew Pratt, said, “every Part and line in it in Butifull.” Copley sent it to the Society of Artists exhibit in London in 1772, and it brought him many more customers in North America.

Some of those subsequent sitters had themselves painted in the same sort of loose “Turkish” gown that Copley showed Margaret Gage wearing. But according to scholar Aileen Ribeiro, the gown in the Gage portrait “seems real, as if it were painted from a studio property modeled by the sitter,” while those in paintings of Mary Hooper and Mary Morris “look like copies of that property.” Neither reclines like Gage, and Hooper even looks a bit self-conscious in the outfit.

Was “that property” the property of Copley, or did it belong to Gage and Copley kept repainting it from sketches? Did it actually exist, or did the artist and sitter choose the outfit from an engraving, as with some of Copley’s other portraits of fashionable ladies? I doubt we’ll ever know for sure. In John Singleton Copley in America, Ribeiro writes (somewhat contradicting the comments quoted above):

It is flattering to her dark curly hair, deep brown eyes, and ruddy complexion; on this ground and because Mrs. Gage would have wanted to follow the English fashion it represented, there is little reason to suggest that she did not own the costume.
Still, Ribeiro says, the gown “would not have been worn in real life and instead represents an artistic convention remotely related to a supposedly Turkish prototype and more closely related to fashionable ‘undress’ gowns worn en déshabillé.” Even that supposed style, however, might have had special meaning for Margaret Gage.

TOMORROW: The Turkish connection.

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