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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Monday, May 09, 2011

New Paintings of the Gages

Although John Singleton Copley’s fellow artists praised his portrait of Margaret Gage, her friends didn’t think it did her justice. Or perhaps it just didn’t show her according to the latest English fashion.

In the mid-1770s, the Gage family commissioned two new portraits from the British painter David Martin (1737-1797). He portrayed Margaret and Gen. Thomas Gage at full length, rather than the three-quarters views that Copley supplied, and he posed them against pastoral landscapes.

Martin put more detail into the general’s uniform. He depicted Margaret with fashionably powdered and/or graying hair. Notably, she once again appeared in a loose gown, this time with a flowing red wrap.

Even as he made those changes, Martin borrowed the couple’s basic poses from the Copley paintings, particularly the one of Margaret. It’s hard to lounge languidly while standing up, but in Martin’s painting she’s trying.

The Gages kept all four paintings at the family seat, Firle Place. They remained there until the twentieth century, with few or no reproductions. Nineteenth-century Bostonians therefore had no easy way to know what Massachusetts’s last royal governor had looked like.

Old-timers pointed folks to a local Copley portrait of a man who they said looked like the general. That was, ironically, Samuel Adams.


Anonymous said...

JL, I suspect (am still looking at paintings) that Mrs Gage's languid attitude and informal gown are more about the contemporary style for portraits, than about Mrs Gage in particular. Perhaps Copley is telling us that she is a woman of wealth and leisure, free to sit about prettily, and dream poetic dreams. Kit

J. L. Bell said...

Yes, I don’t think we can read Margaret Gage’s personality out of her portraits, only clues to how she wanted to be seen within her society.

It does seem notable that none of the New England ladies Copley had painted before going to New York, and very few afterward, asked for the same type of pose.

Another unusual, though not unique, trait of Gage’s portrait among Copley’s ladies is that she gazes to the side, not at the viewer. I’m tempted to say she gazes at her husband, assuming the two paintings were meant to hang together.

Unknown said...

One of my favorite places is The Museum of Fine Arts, where Copley's portraits let me "see" the people so pivotal in the Revolution. Thank you for introducing me to David Martin. I'll enjoy finding more of his work online.