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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Sunday, August 09, 2009

A Boy with a Birdy

This is John Singleton Copley’s portrait of young Thomas Aston Coffin, painted about 1758, when he was four. As a young man Coffin was private secretary to Gen. Sir Guy Carleton in New York, last British commander-in-chief in America during the Revolutionary War. Later Coffin became a Crown official (and agent for Brook Watson) in Canada, retiring with great wealth and, it appears, three children born out of wedlock.

This painting is now at the Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute. Copley created it early in his development as an artist, before he learned how to depict vivid faces and poses. Even so, it’s more individual than what any other artist in America could produce at the time.

Copley signalled young Thomas’s age by showing him with pet animals and with toys: a shuttlecock and battledore. At Early American Gardens, Barbara Sarudy discussed this game with many visual references. Meanwhile, over at Vast Public Indifference, Caitlin G. D. Hopkins discussed how to tell little boys in gowns from little girls in gowns.

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