John Singleton Copley
Portrait of the Honorable Moses Gill, Esq.
John Singleton Copley
American, ca. 1738-1815
Portrait of the Honorable Moses Gill, Esq., 1764
Oil on canvas
126.4 x 100.3 cm (49 3/4 x 39 1/2 inches)
Jesse Metcalf Fund 07.117
(October 11, 2013 – February 9, 2014)
Moses Gill was 30 years old and a successful hardware merchant when he commissioned formal portraits of himself and his first wife, Sarah, seen at right. Their marriage added land to Gill’s assets, elevating his standing in Boston’s social hierarchy. Copley posed Gill in a fictional interior populated with luxurious draperies, a mahogany baluster, and paneled woodwork. Copley often “invented” clothing for his sitters, as is the case with this elegant costume with a fitted silk waistcoat that responds to his girth and acknowledges his prosperity.
After Sarah’s death, Moses Gill remarried (his second wife, Rebecca, is at his left) and pursued a successful political career. A supporter of colonial independence, he joined the Massachusetts legislature, was appointed lieutenant governor of Massachusetts, and in 1799 briefly served as acting governor.
Wow, look at that waistcoat! This painting’s powerful visual presence comes from Copley’s ability to capture light reflecting off that satin garment and his masterful manipulation of warm gray values to convey the texture of that expensive material. The painting’s power also comes from its geometry: the S curve running down the center of the composition was thought to be an ideal line in art theory of Copley’s time. Then there’s the remarkable repetition and mirroring of shapes throughout the painting, such as the triangular shape that appears in the door panel and below the elbow on the left side, and the curve of the outer coat which echoes the curve of the waistcoat.
Trent Burleson, painter and RISD professor (Illustration)
These imposing likenesses of the Honorable Moses Gill, Esq. (1734–1800) and his second wife, Rebecca Boylston Gill (1728–1798), are among four Copley portraits in the Museum’s collection. Along with his portrait of Gill’s first wife, Sarah Prince Gill, and his portrait of Theodore Atkinson, they indicate the breadth of the artist’s American career. Copley’s early forthrightness and clarity of obser-vation are apparent in the portrait of then-thirty-year-old Moses Gill, a merchant and landowner whose prosperity is emblematized by the silk waistcoat that accentuates his girth. Gill served as lieutenant governor of Massachusetts from 1794 to 1799 and then as acting governor until his death in 1800. Portrayed around the time of their marriage, his wife is depicted carrying long-stemmed lilies, her coiffure fashionably bound with a striped silk turban.
Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design. “Selected Works”. Providence: Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design, 2008.
Sarah Ganz Blythe, ed., Manual: a journal about art and its making (Providence: Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design) Issue 1 (Fall 2013): 1-48.
Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design. “A Handbook of the Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design”. Providence: Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design, 1985.
About the work
Unlike their European contemporaries, 18th-century Americans had more opportunity for upward mobility, and portraiture offered one way for upper-class colonial men and women to fashion their images and make a statement about their social positions. John Singleton Copley, the premier portrait painter in Boston at the time, was known for his accuracy in describing facial features, yet he often manipulated other aspects of his portraits—including costume, props, and setting—to convey his subjects’ social aspirations.
In Copley’s portrait of Moses Gill, the light shines most brightly on Moses’s midsection, bringing attention to his silk waistcoat and protruding belly, both of which, as markers of class status, position the subject in the elite sector of American society. The portrait depicts an affluent married man and hardware merchant whose political career is about to begin. Sarah Prince Gill, Moses Gill’s first wife, is presented in an idealized outdoor setting. She sits against a rocky ledge holding a leather-bound book, which suggests her religious upbringing and interests. The daughter of a Boston minster, Sarah was known for her diligent study, her religious devotion, and her thoughtful personality. The painter probably presents Sarah in invented costume, meaning she probably did not own or even pose in a dress like this one. In his commissioned portraits, Copley often embellished the truth, portraying his American sitters in the finest European fashions.
Describe Moses Gill’s pose, facial expression, and clothing. What do they communicate? What clues are we given about Gill’s age, status, and personality? What exactly do they tell us about him? Consider the same questions about Sarah Prince Gill’s portrait.
What does this image tell us about notions of white male and female identity in 18th-century colonial America? What values are expressed in these two portraits?
John Singleton Copley was the premier portrait painter for the Boston colonial elite. What might his painting style and ways of working tell us about American aspirations in the 18th century?
To explore how we present and represent ourselves, have your students create portraits. Ask students to brainstorm and make a list of ways they can present themselves before they begin working. To help students consider what it means to portray another person, pair students to create portraits of each other. This exercise might work best for younger students or students who are comfortable working together in pairs, especially in visual arts. The sitter can choose the setting of their portrait, what they will wear in it, and any objects they want to include to convey their identity. The maker of the portrait can work with the sitter to find an appropriate pose and expression and to determine the props (if any) and composition. Make sure to let students know that the goal is to focus on the pose, props, and setting, rather than to achieve a realistic portrayal.
To give students a better sense of what life as an 18th-century American colonial elite might have been like, have them write a journal entry of a day in the life of Sarah Prince Gill or Moses Gill using what they know about life in the colonies and what they’ve discovered about Sarah and Moses through their portraits.
Carrie Rebora, Paul Staiti, Erica E. Hirshler, Theodore E. Stebbins Jr., and Carol Troyen, with contributions by Morrison H. Heckscher, Aileen Ribeiro, and Marjorie Shelley. John Singleton Copley in America. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1995.
Maureen C. O’Brien. “The Reluctant Wife,” in Manual: a journal about art and its making, Sarah Ganz Blythe (ed.), issue 1, Fall 2013 (Providence: Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design): 18–32. Available online at http://risdmuseum.org/manual/80_inaugural_issue_of_manual_a_journal_about_art_and_its_making