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.
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.
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.
About the work
Unlike their European counterparts, Americans had more opportunity for upward mobility, and portraiture was one way for the 18th century colonial upper-class to fashion their self-image and make a statement about their social position. John Singleton Copley, the premier portrait painter in Boston at the time, was known for his accuracy when describing facial features, but often manipulated other parts of the portrait, such as costume, props, and setting, to convey his subjects’ aspirations. In his portrait of the Honorable Moses Gill, Esq., the light shines most brightly on Mr. Gill’s midsection, bringing attention to his silk waistcoat and protruding belly, both of which are class markers, positioning Mr. Gill in the elite sector of society.
Describe Moses Gill’s pose, facial expression, and clothing. What is communicated by this representation?
What clues can you point to that tell us about Mr. Gill’s age, status, and personality? What exactly do they tell us?
What does this image tell us about notions of male identity in 18th century colonial America? What values are expressed in this portrait?
John Singleton Copley was the premier portrait painter for the Boston colonial elite. What might his painting style tell us about American values in the 18th century?
To explore self-presentation, have students create a self-portrait. Ask your students to brainstorm some ways they present themselves before they begin working.
To imagine living as an 18th century colonial elite, have your students write a memoir of the life of Moses Gill. Using what they know about life in the colonies and what they discovered about Mr. Gill through his portrait, encourage them to imagine how he might have felt about living in Massachusetts Bay Colony and to describe what it may have been like to live there.