- Gallery Text
John Singleton Copley was the foremost portrait painter in colonial Boston. In 1766, he was commissioned to paint portraits of the Boylston family, which had amassed a fortune in the transatlantic trade. Like many of his Boston portraits, Copley’s likenesses are a blend of fact and fiction. Copley combined exquisitely detailed renderings of the sitters’ faces and garments with invented settings to convey the family’s wealth and mercantile identity.
Copley portrayed all three sitters in extravagant imported clothing. Sarah (1696–1774) (H16) wears a luxurious satin dress, while her sons are draped in richly textured dressing gowns or banyans, fashionably exotic attire that would have carried tremendous symbolic power in mid-eighteenth-century Boston. Other aspects of the portraits, like the large ledgers and the ships in that of Nicholas (1716–1771), locate the source of the family’s wealth in the transatlantic trade.
The portraits also functioned symbolically as a link between Nicholas (H90) and Thomas Boylston (1721–1798) (H29). The two brothers were business partners in the 1760s, and Copley composed the paintings to reinforce their connection. The men’s poses mirror one another, and all three portraits share the same scale and have matching elaborately carved rococo frames.
- Identification and Creation
- Object Number
John Singleton Copley, American (Boston, MA 1738 - 1815 London, England)
Nicholas Boylston (1716 - 1771)
- Nicholas Boylston (1716-1771)
- Work Type
- Creation Place: North America, United States, Massachusetts, Boston
Level 2, Room 2240, European and American Art, 17th–19th century, The Arts in the Eighteenth–Century Atlantic World
View this object's location on our interactive map
- Physical Descriptions
- Oil on canvas
- 127.3 x 101.1 cm (50 1/8 x 39 13/16 in.)
framed: 145.4 x 120 x 10.2 cm (57 1/4 x 47 1/4 x 4 in.)
- Inscriptions and Marks
- Signed: l.l.: JSC. 1767.
- inscription: on book in painting, in artist's hand: LEDGE/B.
- Thomas Boylston II (the sitter's brother; to Moses Gill (the sitter's brother-in-law); to Ward Nicholas Boylston (the sitter's nephew), bequest; to Harvard College, 1828.
- Acquisition and Rights
- Credit Line
- Harvard University Portrait Collection, Bequest of Ward Nicholas Boylston to Harvard College, 1828
- Object Number
- European and American Art
- The Harvard Art Museums encourage the use of images found on this website for personal, noncommercial use, including educational and scholarly purposes. To request a higher resolution file of this image, please submit an online request.
- Publication History
"The Return of the Eighteenth Century", American Art, vol. 19, no. 2, pp. 2-10, p. 6, ill.
Augustus Thorndyke Perkins, A Sketch of the Life and a List of Some of the Works of John Singleton Copley, J. R. Osgood & Company (Boston, MA, 1873), p. 38
William Howe Downes, "Boston Painters and Paintings, Part I: The Pre-Copleyites, Copley, Trumbull", The Atlantic Monthly (Boston, MA, July 1888), vol. 62 no. 369, pp. 89-98., p. 93
William Garrott Brown, A List of Portraits in the Various Buildings of Harvard University, Harvard University Library (Cambridge, MA, 1898), p. 9
Frank William Bayley, A Sketch of the Life and a List of Some of the Works of John Singleton Copley, The Garden Press, W. B. Libby (Boston, MA, 1910), pp. 21-22
Frank William Bayley, The Life and Works of John Singleton Copley: Founded on the Work of Augustus Thorndike Perkins, The Taylor Press (Boston, MA, 1915), pp. 64-65
Cuthbert Lee, Early American Portrait Painters: The Fourteen Principal Earliest Native-born Painters, Yale University Press (U.S.) (New Haven, CT, 1929), p. 74
Theodore Bolton and Henry Lorin Binsse, "John Singleton Copley", The Antiquarian (New York, NY, December 1930), pp. 116-118., p. 116
Laura M. Huntsinger, Harvard Portraits: A Catalogue of Portrait Paintings at Harvard University, ed. Alan Burroughs, Harvard University Press (Cambridge, MA, 1936), pp. 23-24, ill. p. 25
Barbara N. Parker and Anne Bolling Wheeler, John Singleton Copley: American Portraits in Oil, Pastel and Miniature, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (Boston, MA, 1938), pp. 43-44, pl. 78
Historical Records Survey, Division of Professional and Service Projects, Works Progress Administration, American Portraits, 1620-1825, found in Massachusetts, Volumes 1 and 2, Historical Records Survey (Boston, MA, 1939), p. 46, cat. 246
From Colony to Nation: Exhibition of American Painting, Silver, and Architecture from 1650 to the War of 1812, exh. cat., The Art Institute of Chicago (Chicago, IL, 1949), p. 31
Louisa Dresser, Likeness of America 1680-1820, exh. cat., Fine Arts Center, Colorado Springs (Colorado Springs, 1949), cat. 16, pl. 8
H.C. Warwick and Henry C. Pitz, Early American Dress, B. Blom (New York, NY, 1965), pl. 35A
John Singleton Copley, exh. cat., National Gallery of Art (Washington, D.C, 1965), pp. 48-49, cat. 29, ill.
Jules David Prown, John Singleton Copley, Harvard University Press (Cambridge, MA, 1966), vol. 1, p. 54, 66, 104, 210, pl. 182
Marshall B. Davidson, The American Heritage History of Colonial Antiques, American Heritage (New York, NY, 1967), p. 191, ill.
Louise Todd Ambler, Early Science at Harvard: Innovators and Their Instruments, 1765 - 1865, exh. cat., Fogg Art Museum (Cambridge, MA, December 1969-January 1970), pp. 3, 74
Alfred V. Frankenstein, The World of Copley: 1738-1815, Time-Life Books (New York, NY, 1970), pp. 84-85, ill.
Louise Todd Ambler and Kenyon Castle Bolton, III, "American Painting at Harvard", Antiques (New York, NY, November 1972), vol. 102, no. 5, pp. 876-883, p. 876
Kenyon Castle Bolton, III, Peter G. Huenink, Earl A. Powell III, Harry Z. Rand, and Nanette C. Sexton, American Art at Harvard, exh. cat., Fogg Art Museum (Cambridge, MA, 1972), cat. 8, ill.
James Thomas Flexner, America's Old Masters, Doubleday & Co. (Garden City, NY, 1980), pl. V
Robert F. Perkins, Jr. and William J. Gavin, III, Boston Athenaeum Art Exhibition Index, 1827-1874, The Library of the Boston Athenaeum (Boston, MA, 1980), p. 39
Bernard Bailyn, The Great Republic : A History of the American People, D. C. Heath and Co. (Lexington, MA, 1980), p. 237, ill.
Leo van Witsen, Costuming for Opera, Indiana University Press (Bloomington, IN, 1981), p. 178
Theodore E. Stebbins, Jr., Carol Troyen, and Trevor J. Fairbrother, A New World: Masterpieces of American Painting, 1760-1910, exh. cat., Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (Boston, MA, 1983), pp. 38,196, cat. 2, ill.
William J. Shank, "John Singleton Copley's Portraits: A Technical Study of Three Representative Examples" (thesis (certificate in conservation), Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies, July 1983), Unpublished, pp. 1-45 passim
John Wilmerding, American Marine Painting, Harry N. Abrams, Inc. (New York, NY, 1987), p. 10, fig. 1
Robert Shalhope, The Roots of Democracy: American Thought and Culture, 1760-1800, Twayne Publishers (Boston, MA, 1990), ill.
Martin Filler, [Unidentified article], House & Garden, Conde Nast (New York, NY, March 1991)
Sandra Grindlay, "Harvard's Portraits: An American Treasure", Harvard University Art Museums Review (Fall 1992), vol. II, no. 1, pp. 6-7, p. 6
Morrison Heckscher and Leslie Greene Bowman, American Rococo, 1750-1775: Elegance in Ornament, exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York, 1992), p. 138, 140, cat. 90, ill.
Ellen G. Miles, "John Singleton Copley in America", Archives of American Art Journal, Smithsonian Institution (Detroit, MI, 1994), vol. 34, no. 4, pp. 24-27, p. 27
Timothy Anglin Burgard, American Art at Harvard: Cultures and Contexts, brochure, Harvard University Art Museums (Cambridge, MA, 1994), p. 10, cat. 20
John Caldwell, Oswaldo Rodriguez Roque, and Dale T. Johnson, American Paintings in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Volume I: A Catalogue of Works by Artists Born by 1815, ed. Kathleen Luhrs, The Metropolitan Museum of Art and Princeton University Press (New York, NY and Princeton, NJ, 1994), p. 82
Carrie Rebora and Paul J. Staiti, John Singleton Copley in America, exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York, NY, 1995), cover, pp. 54, 71, 86, 113, 137, 150-151, 222, 224-225, cat. 31, ill. p. 52
Carrie Rebora Barratt, "Transforming Colonists Into Goddesses and Sultans: John Singleton Copley, His Clients, and Their Studio Collaboration", The American Art Journal (1996), vol. XXVII, nos. 1 and 2, pp. 4-37, pp. 5-6, fig. 2
Henry Lie, Straus Center for Conservation Annual Report 1994-1995 (1996), p. 45
Carol Troyen, "A Choice Gallery of Harvard Tories", Harvard Magazine, Harvard University (Cambridge, MA, March 1997 - April 1997), vol. 99, pp. 56-60, ill. p. 58
Susan Rather, "Carpenter, Tailor, Shoemaker, Artist: Copley and Portrait Painting around 1770", The Art Bulletin, College Art Association of America (New York, NY, June 1997), v. 79, pp. 269-90, p. 277, ill. p. 279
Robert Hughes, American Visions: The Epic History of Art in America, Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. (New York, NY, 1997), pp. 84-86, fig. 54
Marianne Doezema and Elizabeth Milroy, Reading American Art, Yale University Press (U.S.) (New Haven, CT, 1998), pp. 13-15, fig. 2.1
Carrie Rebora Barratt, "Oriental Undress and the Artist", Porticus, Memorial Art Gallery, University of Rochester (Rochester, NY, 2001), vol. 20, 2001, pp. 18-26, pp. 22-23, fig. 4
Michael Zakim, "Sartorial Ideologies: From Homespun to Ready-Made" (December 2001), ill. p. 1560
Madelyn Shaw, Silk in New England Society, 1730-1930, brochure, Smith College Museum of Art (Northampton, MA, 2003), cat. 9
Jon Prown, "John Singleton Copley's Furniture and the Art of Invention", American Furniture, Chipstone Foundation (Milwaukee, 2004), p. 176, fig. 33
John T. Bethell, Richard M. Hunt, and Robert Shenton, Harvard A to Z, Harvard University Press (Cambridge, MA, 2004), p. 276
Margaretta M. Lovell, Art in a Season of Revolution: Painters, Artisans, and Patrons in Early America, University of Pennsylvania (Philadelphia, 2005), p. 101, fig. 38
Timothy Marr, The Cultural Roots of American Islamicism, Cambridge University Press (U.K.) (Cambridge, UK, 2006), pp. 262-263, fig. 6.1
Jennifer L. Roberts, "Copley's Cargo", American Art (Summer 2007), vol. 21, pp. 20-41, p. 23
Angela L. Miller, Janet C. Berlo, Bryan Jay Wolf, and Jennifer L. Roberts, American Encounters: Art, History, and Cultural Identity, Pearson Prentice Hall (Upper Saddle River, NJ, 2008), pp. 122-124, fig. 4.30
Stephan Wolohojian, ed., Harvard Art Museum/ Handbook, Harvard Art Museum (Cambridge, MA, 2008), ill. p. 124
David Bindman, ed., The History of British Art 1600-1870, Yale Center for British Art (New Haven, 2008), p. 45, fig. 16
David Jaffee, A New Nation of Goods: The Material Culture of Early America (Philadephia, PA, 2010), p. 13, fig. 6
Christopher Lukasik, Discerning Characters: The Culture of Appearance in Early America, University of Pennsylvania Press (Philadelphia and Oxford, 2011), pp. 137-138, fig. 22
Theodore E. Stebbins, Jr. and Melissa Renn, American Paintings at Harvard, Volume One: Paintings, Watercolors, and Pastels by Artists Born before 1826, Yale University Press and Harvard Art Museums (Cambridge and New Haven, 2014), pp. 23, 140-141, 463, cat. 87, ill.
Jennifer L. Roberts, Transporting Visions: The Movement of Images in Early America, University of California Press (Berkeley, Los Angeles, London, 2014), p. 17-18, fig. 2
Jonathan Eacott, Selling Empire: India and the Making of Britain and America, 1600-1830, The University of North Carolina Press (Chapel Hill, 2016), p. 175, repr.
- Exhibition History
Boston Athenaeum Second Exhibition of Paintings, 1828, Boston Athenaeum, Boston, 05/01/1828 - 12/31/1828
Likeness of America 1680-1820, Fine Arts Center, Colorado Springs, Colorado Springs, 01/01/1949 - 12/31/1949
John Singleton Copley, National Gallery of Art, Washington, 09/18/1965 - 10/31/1965; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 11/20/1965 - 01/02/1966; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Boston, 01/22/1966 - 03/06/1966
American Art at Harvard, Fogg Art Museum, Cambridge, 04/19/1972 - 06/18/1972
A New World: Masterpieces of American Painting, 1760-1910, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Boston, 09/07/1983 - 11/13/1983; Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, 12/06/1983 - 02/12/1984; Grand Palais, Paris, 03/16/1984 - 06/11/1984
American Rococo: Eighteenth Century Elegance in Ornament, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 01/29/1992 - 05/17/1992; Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, 07/02/1992 - 09/27/1992
American Art at Harvard: Cultures and Contexts, Harvard University Art Museums, Cambridge, 10/01/1994 - 12/30/1994
John Singleton Copley in America, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Boston, 06/07/1995 - 08/27/1995; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 09/26/1995 - 01/07/1996; The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Houston, 02/04/1996 - 04/28/1996; Milwaukee Art Museum, Milwaukee, 05/22/1996 - 08/25/1996
Silk in New England Society, 1730-1930, Smith College Museum of Art, Northampton, 03/28/2003 - 06/15/2003
GenEd US12 American Encounters: Art, Contact, and Conflict, 1560-1860 (S427) Spring 2012, Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge, 01/31/2012 - 05/12/2012
32Q: 2240 18th Century, Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge, 11/01/2014
- Subjects and Contexts
- Related Works
This record has been reviewed by the curatorial staff but may be incomplete. Our records are frequently revised and enhanced. For more information please contact the Division of European and American Art at firstname.lastname@example.org