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)
Thomas Boylston, Jr. (1721 - 1798)
Thomas Boylston II (1721-1798)
Work Type
c. 1767-1769
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
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Physical Descriptions
Oil on canvas
126.9 x 102 cm (49 15/16 x 40 3/16 in.)
The sitter; 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
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Publication History

Catalogue of the Second Exhibition of Paintings in the Athenaeum Gallery, exh. cat., Boston Athenaeum (Boston, MA, 1828), p. 39, cat. 7

Henry T. Tuckerman, Book of the Artists: American Artist Life, Comprising Biographical and Critical Sketches of American Artists, Preceded by an Historical Account of the Rise and Progress of Art in America, Putnam (New York, NY, 1867), p. 72

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

Susan Nichols Carter, "Paintings at the Centennial Exhibition", Art Journal (1876), vol. 2. pp. 283-285, p. 284

Clarence Cook, "The Fine Art Department. American Pictures: Second Notice", New York Daily Tribune (June 3, 1876), p. 2, p. 2

"The Fine Arts: United States Section--Painting in Oil", Philadelphia Evening Bulletin (Philadelphia, PA, June 23, 1876), p. 1, p. 1

United States Centennial Commission, International Exhibition, 1876, Official Catalogue, Art Gallery and Annexes, exh. cat., John R. Nagle & Co. (Philadelphia, PA, 1876), p. 19, cat. 91

Boston Art Club, Massachusetts Centennial Art Exhibition, exh. cat. (Boston, MA, 1876), cat. 121

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., pp. 93-94

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), p. 16

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), p. 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

Royal Cortissoz, "The Art of Copley at the Metropolitan", New York Herald Tribune (New York, NY, December 27, 1936), sec. 7, p. 8, p. 8

Laura M. Huntsinger, Harvard Portraits: A Catalogue of Portrait Paintings at Harvard University, ed. Alan Burroughs, Harvard University Press (Cambridge, MA, 1936), p. 24

Paintings of John Singleton Copley, exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York, NY, 1936), fig. 20

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), p. 46, pl. 77

Oskar Hagen, The Birth of the American Tradition in Art, Charles Scribner's Sons (New York, NY, 1940), pp. 103-104, pl. 92

James Truslow Adams, Album of American History, Charles Scribner's Sons (New York, NY, 1944), ill. p. 305

Laurence C. S. Sickman, The Century of Mozart, brochure, William Rockhill Nelson Gallery of Art (now Nelson-Atkins) (Kansas City, MO, 1956), pp. 14, 26, 67, cat. 13, fig. 36

Face of America: The History of Portraiture in the United States, exh. cat., Brooklyn Museum (Brooklyn, NY, 1957), cat. 15, fig. 22

H.C. Warwick and Henry C. Pitz, Early American Dress, B. Blom (New York, NY, 1965), pl. 35B

Jules David Prown, John Singleton Copley, Harvard University Press (Cambridge, MA, 1966), vol. 1, pp. 54-55, 66, 104, 210, pl. 183

Elizabeth Ripley, Copley: A Biography, J. B. Lippincott (Philadelphia, PA, 1967), pp. 28-29, 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

American Portraits by John Singleton Copley: An Exhibition Organized for the Benefit of the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, exh. cat., Hirschl & Adler Galleries (New York, 1975), cat. 25, ill.

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

Carol Troyen, The Boston Tradition: American Paintings from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, exh. cat., American Federation of Arts (New York, NY, 1980), p. 64

Anne H. Vogel, American Colonial Portraits from the Fogg Art Museum and Harvard University, exh. cat., Milwaukee Art Museum (Mikwaukee, WI, 1983), cover, ill. n.p.

Sandra Grindlay, "Harvard's Portraits: An American Treasure", Harvard University Art Museums Review (Fall 1992), vol. II, no. 1, pp. 6-7, p. 6

Karin Calvert and Cary Carson, "The Function of Fashion in Eighteenth-Century America", Of Consuming Interests: The Style of Life in the Eighteenth Century, The University Press of Virginia (Charlottesville, VA, 1994), pp. 267-268, fig. 5

Carrie Rebora and Paul J. Staiti, John Singleton Copley in America, exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York, NY, 1995), pp. 222, 228, ill. p. 225

John C. Eastberg and Eric Vogel, Layton's Legacy: A Historic American Art Collection, 1888-2013, University of Wisconsin, Madison (Milwaukee and Madison, 2013), p. 384, ill. p. 387

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. 141-142, 463, cat. 88, ill.

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

Massachusetts Centennial Art Exhibition, Boston Art Club, Boston, 04/01/1876 - 04/30/1876

International Exhibition, Philadelphia, 1876, Philadelphia, PA, 05/10/1876 - 11/10/1876

The Paintings of John Singleton Copley, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 12/22/1936 - 02/14/1937

The Century of Mozart, William Rockhill Nelson Gallery of Art (now Nelson-Atkins), Kansas City, 01/15/1956 - 03/04/1956

The Face of America, Brooklyn Museum of Art, Brooklyn, 11/15/1957 - 01/26/1958

Paul Revere's Boston 1735-1818, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Boston, 04/18/1975 - 10/12/1975

American Works of John Singleton Copley, Hirschl & Adler Galleries, New York, 12/03/1975 - 01/03/1976

American Colonial Portraits from the Fogg Art Museum and Harvard University, Milwaukee Art Museum, Milwaukee, 06/01/1983 - 06/30/1983

32Q: 2240 18th Century, Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge, 11/01/2014

Subjects and Contexts

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Related Works

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