“For a Noble Man, a Prince”: Images and Identity in Colonial America
Phyllis Hunter, University of North Carolina, Greensboro
Paul Staiti, Mount Holyoke College
Nicholas also commissioned Copley to paint his younger sister Rebecca who lived in the family home on School Street until she married in 1773, at the age of 46
First: Look at the portrait as a whole. What do you find interesting about this portrait? Write 2-3 sentences about your general impression of the painting and its subject.
Second: Look carefully at the portrait and its details. Items such as Rebecca Boylston’s clothing, her flowers and basket, the fountain, and her pose are all possible markers of class. Write a sentence or two about why you think each of these items was included in the portrait. Consider the following: Why would these markers be important to colonial Americans in the 1760s? How might they operate differently for men and women subjects? What sort of statement do they make about Rebecca Boylston in particular? How do the portraits of Rebecca and Nicholas help to construct an identity for colonial Americans?
Third: Look at these portraits of Samuel and Abigail Gardiner. Wealthy Bostonians, such as the Boylstons, could afford to hire Copley to paint their portraits. Less affluent families, such as the Gardiners, often lived outside the cosmopolitan port cities, but still wished to use visual objects as a statement about their identity and therefore turned to other artists. In 1763, Samuel Gardiner, a New London, Connecticut, merchant, hired William Johnston, an itinerant rural artist, to paint his and his wife’s portraits. New London was smaller than Boston in the 1760s and its merchants did not have the great wealth of their Boston counterparts. Still, they wanted to stand out from their peers.
Fourth: Compare the Gardiner portraits with the Boylston portraits. How are the Gardiners’ portraits different from the Boylstons’? What might New London viewers think when they saw these portraits? What do you think the Gardiners expected from their commission of William Johnston?
Fifth: Review your notes about the Rebecca Boylston portrait above, and think about how the painters (Copley and Johnson) and their clients (the Boylstons and Gardiners) went about making a statement about social identity (their status in colonial society) as well as their identity as colonial Americans (as distinct from people living in England). Write 2-3 paragraphs about one of the paintings considering the following: How were material objects used? What did client and sitter wish to accomplish through the portrait? Why? How did they go about constructing that image visually? How might such portraits help us think about historical processes such as the consumer revolution?