Arts and Leisure

How John Singleton Copley Painted John Adams’ World

John Singleton Copley painted exquisite portraits of individual New Englanders before the American Revolution. Put his pre-revolutionary paintings together (or visit the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston) and you’ll discover a tightly knit society of wealthy merchants, artisans and dignitaries.

How tightly knit? Take John Adams. He was related to many, knew most and had opinions about just about all of them.

Copley and Adams were singularly talented, driven men who recorded the extraordinary time they lived in. Copley, a self-taught artistic genius, painted and drew hundreds of likenesses during his lifetime. Adams, revolutionary leader and diplomat, kept copious records of his daily life in diaries, notes and official papers.

Both seemed to know everybody on both sides of the Atlantic.

Copley left for England in 1774. Like many of his subjects, he maintained his loyalty to the Crown. Some of the wealthy aristocrats he painted in and around Boston lost most of their fortunes during the war, as the patriots confiscated their property.

Adams in 1777 left for France to serve in the first of several diplomatic posts he would hold over the next decade. He negotiated the Treaty of Paris to end the American Revolution. John Singleton Copley painted him shortly afterward. Abigail liked the work. Her husband, not so much.

John Adams upon completion of the Treaty of Paris. Courtesy Harvard Art Museums.

John Singleton Copley Painted a Who’s Who

Copley’s paintings of the most famous revolutionaries are still widely recognized and duplicated. Below is a selection of portraits of people connected in some way (or in many ways) to Massachusetts’ most prominent revolutionary, John Adams.

Adams himself supplied a sometimes catty guide to the real people of the portraits and the society they lived in.

John Winthrop

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Harvard’s second Hollis Professor of Mathematics and Natural Philosophy, John Winthrop. Courtesy Harvard Art Museums.

John Winthrop, the great-great-grandson of John Winthrop, the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay colony. A Harvard graduate, he taught mathematics and natural philosophy at Harvard from the age of 24 to his death 40 years later. He taught John Adams, influenced his thinking and later threw his weight behind the patriotic cause. Winthrop is credited with founding the science of earthquakes, or seismology. When John Adams was in the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, Winthrop wrote him a letter of support and sent it with his son.

John Wentworth

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New Hampshire Gov John Wentworth.

John Wentworth attended Harvard with Adams, where they formed a close friendship. Wentworth returned to New Hampshire after college, and received an appointment as royal governor. He was a capable and popular leader — until he wasn’t. As a Loyalist, he fled Portsmouth when revolutionaries pointed a cannon at his door. Wentworth eventually sailed to England, and then back to North America where he served as governor of Nova Scotia.

Samuel Quincy

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Adams’ friend Samuel Quincy, courtesy Museum of Fine Arts Boston.

Samuel Quincy was another friend of Adams at Harvard and his distant cousin. Adams fell in love with his sister Hannah, but they broke up before he courted Abigail. Adams disapproved of his cousin’s social ambitions: “Cards, Fiddles, and Girls, are the objects of Sam….Kissing, fidling and gaming.” Quincy had a brilliant legal mind, though, and faced off against Adams in the trial of the soldiers prosecuted for the Boston Massacre. When John Singleton Copley painted him around 1767, Quincy was moving into the Loyalist camp. He boarded a British ship on Evacuation Day and sailed to England, where he lived out the rest of his life.

Nicholas Boylston

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Nicholas Boylston, courtesy Museum of Fine Arts Boston.

Fashionable Nicholas Boylston made a fortune through his mercantile firm, Green and Boylston, importing textiles, paper, tea and glass. His attire reflects the fashion among the elite in 1767. John Singleton Copley painted him in an exotic robe, or banyan, reflecting the fascination with the Orient (real or imagined) and a turban, also exotic and reflecting a stylish, dishabille look of the day. Boylston was John Adams’ great uncle. When Adams was 30, he had dinner at his house, which blowed him away. “An elegant Dinner indeed! Went over the House to view the Furniture, which alone costs a thousand Pounds sterling. A Seat it is for a noble Man, a Prince. The Turkey Carpets, the painted Hangings, the Marble Tables, the rich Beds with crimson Damask Curtains and Counterpins, the beautiful Chimny Clock, the Spacious Garden, are the most magnificent of any Thing I have ever seen.” But Boylston did not join the boycott against British goods and Samuel Adams denounced him and his brother as “enemies of the country.” He died in 1771.

Rebecca Boylston Gill

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John Singleton Copley painted Rebecca Boylston in 1767, courtesy Museum of Fine Arts Boston.

Rebecca Boylston helped manage her brother Nicholas’ enormous estate until her marriage at the age of 46. John Singleton Copley painted her here in 1767 at 40 as a vibrant and attractive woman. She eventually married Moses Gill, son of the printer John Gill who helped instigate the Boston Tea Party. John Adams attended their wedding breakfast in 1773, calling it a ‘very cordial, polite and friendly reception.’ When the siege of Boston began, Adams in Philadelphia anxiously inquired if she’d been able to leave town. She did, and her husband became lieutenant governor of Massachusetts under Sam Adams and Increase Sumner. When Sumner died, Gill became acting governor, but he, too, died in office.

Silvester Gardiner

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Dr. Silvester Gardiner. Courtesy Seattle Art Museum.

Silvester Gardiner was a principal of the Kennebec Company, formed by the heirs of the original Pilgrim proprietors. The company wanted to settle Maine, thus expanding Massachusetts’ influence. John Adams was their lawyer. When a Chelmsford man bought some land from the company and then defaulted. Adams prepared a writ for the sheriff to attach the man’s house for non payment. Gardiner was also a physician, an importer of drugs and a Loyalist. He left for England during the American Revolution, leaving his property to be seized by the patriots. He came back anyway, still a rich man, and settled in Rhode Island. Adams didn’t think much of his client. He wrote, “Gardiner has a thin Grashopper Voice, and an affected Squeak; a meager Visage, and an awkward, unnatural Complaisance: He is fribble.”

Dorothy Quincy

Mrs. John Hancock, the former Dorothy Quincy. Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts Boston.

Dorothy Quincy was the youngest of Judge Edmund Quincy’s nine children and a distant cousin of Abigail Adams. As a young lawyer, John Adams frequently visited her home in Braintree, and flirted with her older sister Esther. When she married John Hancock in 1775, Adams called it, ‘the most unlikely Thing within the whole Compass of Possibility.’

John Hancock

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John Singleton Copley painted this portrait of John Hancock around 1771. Courtesy Massachusetts Historical Society.

John Hancock fell into an immense fortune at the age of 26 when his uncle made him a partner in his mercantile business. As a vain and wealthy young man, he paraded around Boston in lavender suits and a yellow coach. John Adams, who’d been baptized by Hancock’s father, called him, “the delight of the eyes.” John’s cousin Sam Adams quickly recruited Hancock for the patriot cause, though he wasn’t considered the brightest bulb in the revolutionary marquee. Before the war, Adams worked as his lawyer, successfully defending him from smuggling charges in the Liberty In 1772, he wrote, “For about 3 or 4 Years I have done all Mr. Hancocks Business, and have waded through wearisome, anxious Days and Nights, in his Defence.”The tables turned on their relative status.  Later in 1807 Adams wrote a letter explaining Hancock’s enmity, saying “Mr Hancock was ambitious of being President or Vice President. I stood in his way.”

Elizabeth Storer Smith

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Mrs. Isaac Smith, or Elizabeth Storer Smith. Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts Boston.

Elizabeth Storer Smith, Abigail Adams’ aunt, was the wife of wealthy merchant Isaac Smith, Sr. Upon hearing of her death in 1786, Abigail wrote a letter of condolence to her uncle. In it, she wrote, “the kindness with which my dear Aunt always treated me, was truly Maternal. As a Parent I loved her, as a Friend and companion I esteemed her. Ever pleasent and cheerfull, she filld every Relation in life with a constant—punctuality, and a strickt regard to that future State of existance to which it has pleased Heaven to remove her.”

Mercy Otis Warren

Mercy Otis Warren painted by John Singleton Copley. Courtesy Boston Museum of Fine Arts.

Mercy Otis Warren and her husband James were close friends of John and Abigail Adams, who often visited their home on Boston’s South Shore. She married James Warren, brother of fellow revolutionary Joseph Warren, and she wrote poetry and essays satirizing the colonial government. John Adams called her, ‘the most accomplished woman in America.’ Later they had a falling out when she accused him of abandoning revolutionary principles in her three-volume history of the Revolution. Adams panned it, writing to a friend, “History is not the province of the ladies.”

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