John Singleton Copley 1738–1815
Oil paint on canvas
1280 × 1022 mm
Presented by Mr and Mrs H.J. Heinz II 1979
Said to have descended from the sitter Mrs Gill, USA, whenever possible from mother to daughter; with Mary Barron Pratt (née White, born c.1808), Boston, USA, by 1873; with her son Robert M. Pratt (c.1836–1916/7), Boston, USA, by 1915; bequeathed to his cousin Louise Dumaresq Coxwell (née Blake, 1862–1951), who was then living in England, 1917; brought by her to England and place on long-term loan at the Tate Gallery 1919; given in November 1919 to her daughter Mrs Leonard G. Pinnell (Margaret Blake Coxwell,1894–1976), who bequeathed it to her granddaughter Miss Alison F.B. Pinnell (subsequently Mrs Alison Fox), from whom it was bought, through Agnew’s, London, by Mr and Mrs H.J. Heinz II, London, 1979 for presentation that year to the Tate Gallery.
This three-quarter length oil portrait of an elderly woman dressed plainly in brown and black, and seated in an upholstered chair in a blank setting, is believed to have been painted in around 1770–1, when the artist was based temporarily in New York. It is one of a group of portraits of elderly female sitters dressed and posed in a very similar way, which the American-born Copley produced in the late 1760s and 1770s and which formed a significant and distinctive part of his successful portrait practice in New England and New York through these years.
The formula used in this painting was established with several portraits produced by the artist in around 1766, characterised by the Copley scholar Jules Prown as displaying ‘the hand-on-wrist pose’ and showing the sitter ‘three-quarter length and facing three-quarters right, but with the head and eyes front, wearing a white lace bonnet and a shawl, the light coming from the upper left’, with a plain background and simply upholstered furniture.1 The pose of the present portrait virtually replicates, in reverse, that used by Copley for his portrait of Mrs James Russell (Katherin Graves) c.1770 (North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh), although the restrained costume is closest to the portrait of Mrs Paul Richard (Elizabeth Garlend) 1771 (Museum of Fine Arts, Houston). The formula used in such works is evident in a letter sent to Copley in March 1770 by a potential patron, John Greenwood, asking that he execute a portrait of his mother: ‘I am very desirous of seeing the good Lady’s Face as she now appears, with old age creeping upon her. I shoud chuse her painted on a small half length or a size a little broader than Kitt Katt, sitting in as natural a posture as possible. I leave the picturesque intirely to your self and I shall only observe that gravity is my choice of Dress’.2 The resulting painting, Mrs Humphrey Devereux (Mary Charnock) 1771 (Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, Wellington), bears a close generic resemblance to this picture. This last painting marked, for Prown, a decisive stylistic turn in Copley’s portraits being more ‘sober in hue and more deeply shadowed than their immediate predecessors’.3
The dating of the present work by Prown is derived from these stylistic qualities and has been generally accepted by scholars. This does, however, present a challenge to the traditional identification of the sitter. She was identified by the family who originally owned the work as ‘Mrs Michael Gill’, which in the early literature on Copley had been taken to mean Relief Dowse (1676–1759) of Salem, MA, wife of Col. Michael Gill. However, there is no reason to assume that the portrait was posthumous, and Prown proposed that perhaps the sitter is ‘her daughter-in-law, Mrs Michael Brigdon (Elizabeth Abbott; 1706–1788), the widow of John Gill (1701–1734) and the mother of Moses Gill, who had been painted with his first wife by Copley about seven years earlier, and whose second wife was to be painted as short time later’. The portraits of Governor Moses Gill and his wife of 1764 are in the Museum of Rhode Island School of Design; a further, earlier miniature portrait of Moses Gill by Copley was acquired by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, in 2006.4 However, a further possibility would be that it is the wife of the younger Michael Gill (1699–1773), son of Relief and Michael Gill. This younger Michael was one of three sons who extended the Gill family’s trade interests in Newfoundland, where he also held official positions in local government.5 The life dates of his wife, Phoebe, potentially the sitter in this portrait, are unknown, although assuming she was of a similar or slightly younger age than her husband she would be of a vintage which would correspond with the appearance of the woman represented by Copley (that is, around seventy years old). Although based in St Johns Newfoundland, the family business was closely connected with New England, and it seems perfectly conceivable that the portrait was painted there or in New York. Copley’s output while in New York has been estimated at equating to a rate of one half-length painting a week, which may suggest that he did not require an extended sitting, so that it could perhaps have been completed even during a relatively short visit.6
In 1873, the first date of documented ownership, the portrait was in the possession of a descendent of the Gills, Mary Pratt (née White) of Boston (born c.1808).7 According to family tradition it had passed through the generations, and wherever possible from mother to daughter, from the sitter. It passed from Mary Pratt to her son Robert M. Pratt (1836/7–1916/7) who bequeathed it in 1917, in the absence of any children of his own, to his cousin Louise Dumaresq Blake, who had moved to England in 1888 after marrying an Englishman, Dr. Charles Fillingham Coxwell. After this change of ownership the painting initially remained in America and was included in the fifth annual loan exhibition of early American art at Frank W. Bayley’s Copley Gallery in Boston early in 1918, and was placed on loan to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston later that year (the ongoing war with Germany presumably putting a block on its being shipped over the Atlantic). Mrs Coxwell brought the portrait to England after the end of the First World War, when it was placed on loan to the Tate Gallery in 1919. In November of that year Mrs Croxwell transferred ownership to her daughter, Mrs Pinnell (d.1976), the wife of the colonial administrator Leonard George Pinnell (1896–1979), who bequeathed it to her granddaughter Miss Alison F.B. Pinnell (subsequently Fox). The painting remained on loan to the Tate Gallery continuously from 1919 until 1979, when it was bought, through Agnew’s, by the American businessman Henry John Heinz II (1908–1987) and his wife Drue Heinz for presentation to the Gallery.
Although painted by an American artist in America, several years before the painter had set foot in Europe, the portrait was acquired for the national collection of British art apparently without comment. As Copley went on to establish a prominent career in Britain as a painter of historical paintings, including the major works in the Tate collection The Collapse of the Earl of Chatham (N00100) and The Death of Major Peirson (N00733), this work could perhaps be silently accepted as a contribution to the history of British painting despite the circumstances of its production. It remains the only American-period painting by Copley in a public collection in the UK. The location of the present work has perhaps militated against its inclusion in major exhibitions of American art held in the US, meaning that it has not been as widely seen or commented on as other paintings by Copley from this point in his career. It was not, for instance, displayed in the important Copley exhibition at the National Gallery of Art, Washington in 1965, and was only illustrated and briefly discussed in the catalogue of the 1995 exhibition of his American period paintings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, without being included in the selection. Nonetheless, the latter discussion usefully draws attention to the painting as an exemplar of what has traditionally been seen as the distinctly American qualities of Copley’s art.8 Art historical commentary has often sought to tie Copley’s evident concern to render with acute pictorial precision the specificities of material surfaces (hair, flesh, fabric) and effects (reflections, shadows, shading) to a ‘native’ colonial American spirit. The frankness with which Copley deals with the inelastic skin of this sitters’ hands, the direct and forthright gaze attributed to her, the clarity with which Copley has rendered the subtle differences between the fabric of her bonnet and her shawl would, then, be taken as signs of the empiricist tendencies within early American culture as a whole. Responding to the picture in 1918 a writer in American Art News remarked that it was ‘extraordinarily complete and finished in every detail, even to the very wrinkles of the aged fingers of the subject, fingers which bespeak eloquently of the laborious life of the primitive American housewife … Hail Copley for this wonderful portrait of the good old–fashioned New England housewife, the housewife of bumper Thanksgiving dinners, of pumpkin pie, and clear wines of home vintage’.9 A guide to the Tate Gallery by the then Assistant Keeper J.B. Manson, published in 1926, maintained such a view in characterising this picture: ‘It has a Puritanical simplicity, and is full of a certain severe though not unkind character. It seems to give one a key to the American life of the time and to epitomise the national character’.10
Such assertions have been interrogated by recent scholarship, which has tended to review the early literature around the artist in a more critical light and to question ideas around an innate American colonial identity.11 In the context of the Tate’s collection of British art, Copley’s colonial portraiture bears meaningful comparison with contemporary paintings produced in London and elsewhere in Britain, such as the similarly direct and detailed portraiture of Joseph Wright of Derby (see, for example, Thomas Staniforth, 1769; Tate T00794) which displays a comparable attentiveness to the peculiarities of the sitter’s flesh and the specific character of fabrics.