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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Friday, May 06, 2011

Playing Dress-Up with Mr. Copley

My posting earlier this week about John Singleton Copley’s portrait of Margaret Gage kicked up some interesting comments and emails, so I’m going back to the topic.

One of the advantages of having your portrait painted by Copley is that he could make you look better than you actually did. Not necessarily in physiognomy—the fashion among Americans at the time was to have their faces rendered accurately rather than idealized. But people asked for improvements in their body shape and their dress.

Comparing Copley’s paintings to English engravings has shown that he copied costumes, poses, and sometimes entire scenes from those sources. For example, Sir Joshua Reynolds’s portrait of Lady Caroline Russell became, through a mezzotint by James McArdell (below), the model for Copley’s portrait of Mary Bowers (above), down to the position of her hands, the trees in the background, and the little dog in her lap.

Copley used John Faber’s engraving of Thomas Hudson’s painting of Mary Finch, Viscountess Andover, as the basis for portraits of Mary Hubbard, Katherine Amory, and other women.

Ladies might have themselves painted in clothing they never wore, particularly in public. While aristocratic Englishwomen often commissioned portraits in the unusual outfits they might wear to masquerades, North American women had no such opportunities—but had themselves painted in those unreal fashions anyway.

Thus, Copley’s 1756 painting of Ann Tyng shows her as a shepherdess, an approach he probably learned from watching Joseph Blackburn a couple of years before.

He portrayed Hannah Quincy in an antique “Vandyke” outfit, inspired by the clothing in Van Dyck paintings (or paintings that people in England then attributed to Van Dyck).

Copley might have supplied garments for his sitters, possibly pinning or draping them over the women’s usual clothing. We know from a 1768 letter to Benjamin West that he at least considered the possibility of buying “a variety of Dresses” at “a great expence.”

And if all else failed, Copley could just make a dress look better than anything in real life. His portrait of Elizabeth Watson shows a gorgeous pink gown with no seams breaking the expanse of satin.

As a result, we know we mustn’t take all of Copley’s portraits of women as showing them in ordinary dress of the period, or even the ordinary formal dress. Those sitters may never have actually worn those garments. The garments may never have actually existed.

TOMORROW: But what does that mean for the painting of Margaret Gage?


Jen said...

Do you know if he had assistants that helped paint his subject's dress, background, etc? I don't know much about his work.

RFuller said...

Interesting how well-off colonial Americans' possessions seemed more important to them -or at least how they looked in them- than their own faces.

Of course, maybe they thought, in comparison to the poorer sort of people, they looked pretty good, even with warts, weak chins, etc., as seen in Copley's portraiture.

J. L. Bell said...

I expect Copley had his little brother Henry Pelham help out with the paintings. Henry certainly helped manage the studio in Copley’s absence, and produced some art himself. But I don’t think the brothers had a real staff the way busy European artists did.

J. L. Bell said...

To me, the people in Copley’s portraits seem so much more alive—even when they’re not very attractive—than a lot of the more idealized figures in fashionable British paintings of the time. (Yeah, I’m talking to you, Thomas Gainsborough.)

Barbara said...

Very excited to see your postings on Copley. I definitely agree that Copley's portraits, especially those of older women, seem much more alive than their counterparts across the Atlantic. Wondering if you have seen these posts on John Singleton Copley - http://bit.ly/iNXihj

J. L. Bell said...

The It’s About Time blog has some more examples of Copley paintings of women that bear a striking resemblance to British engravings, and each other.

Anonymous said...

This is exactly what I was getting at last week. Many (most/) 18th century portraits in colonial America depict sitters in "imaginary dress" drawn as you write, from print sources and in the mental inventory of the painter. So for Gage it is about, what you now have made clear, dress that signifies something about her (general or not) but is not really about her actual clothes. What I thought you might have been saying is that her Turkey connections meant she had these actual clothes.

J. L. Bell said...

But Margaret Gage could have owned that actual garment, or Copley could have owned it or something approximating it. (He painted a similar garment from other angles in other portraits.)

Just because it’s clear that in other paintings Copley drew on graphic sources rather than actual garments doesn’t tell us about that one. It stands out from his other works, and there’s no visual precedent that I know of.

Gage’s family connection to the Ottoman Empire might have taken the form of (retailored) garments, or simply a wish to be painted “à la Turque” even if that was a new style in America and no such clothing existed. We don’t really know.

Anonymous said...

Hi, Just tripped across this blog and thought I'd add my 2 cents. J.S. Copley wrote in his letters to Pelham that he worked in his own hand entirely with no assistance. Also he was known to use the same composition more than once, sometimes as many as three are known of the nearly same image but using different sitters faces. Goggle image his portraits it becomes obvious Copley was his own best copist. Fun topic, love american art history! Thanks!

J. L. Bell said...

Thanks for the comments. The link to the It’s About Time blog a few comments above will bring up an example of Copley using the same pose for three different posers.