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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Thursday, January 13, 2022

The Face of Esek Hopkins

To get back to my original point about the American Revolution Institute essay on a print issued in London in 1776, shown here is the same publisher’s portrait of Continental Navy commander Esek Hopkins.

This digital copy comes via the New York Public Library’s very helpful images collection.

As I noted two days ago, the London publisher Thomas Hart didn’t exist. Some other portraits of American leaders in the same series are clearly not based on actually looking at the men they claimed to depict.

Thus, we should be quite dubious that this image shows Esek Hopkins rather than any other white man on the planet. And thus skeptical that Hopkins, who would turn sixty in 1778, had a round face, dark hair, cleft chin, and other features visible here.

Yet if we look for other images of Hopkins, such as on this fine website about the Gaspée affair or this webpage from the U.S. Navy’s Naval History and Heritage Command wing, we find pictures clearly based on what Thomas Hart published.

One exceptional portrait on the U.S. Navy site is captioned:
Line engraving published in the Hibernian Magazine, Dublin, Ireland, August 1776. As with most contemporary Hibernian Magazine portraits, this is probably a purely fanciful representation of the subject. The engraver also provided an incorrect forename for Hopkins.
This portrayal is close enough to the Hart print that one could reasonably decide the two pictures show the same man. But if so, that man still probably wasn’t Hopkins.

In fact, only one image of Hopkins appears to have been created by an artist who actually knew him. That’s the infamous “Sea Captains Carousing in Surinam” painting by John Greenwood. (The Gaspée website includes a detail from this image on its Hopkins page as an alternative view.)

Greenwood wasn’t the greatest portraitist, and in this painting he put his effort into creating a broad scene of revelry rather than representing the precise facial features of every person involved.

Nonetheless, heirs of the man who commissioned and owned this picture understood that Greenwood had depicted some particular individuals, Rhode Islanders who traded in Surinam. Those identifications were written down in 1878 and published in Rhode Island History in 1977.

According to that tradition, “The gentleman on the far side of the table wearing a tricorn hat and blue coat with red facing is said to be Esek Hopkins. . . . Esek would have been about 40 when Greenwood painted the picture” in the late 1750s.

There’s still a lot of uncertainty involved, but the image of Commodore Esek Hopkins that we have the best reason to rely on is actually this one.


Unknown said...

The portrait is captioned as "Robert Hopkins".

J. L. Bell said...

If you’re referring to the picture of Hopkins from the Hibernian Magazine, it does indeed say “Robert.” Or, as the quote from the U.S. Navy website puts it, “The engraver also provided an incorrect forename for Hopkins.”

The engraving at the top was labeled “Commodore Hopkins,” thus avoiding the need to report the correct given name.