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Portrait of a seated man in eighteenth century dress.

At center, a man is seated in three quarter profile, facing left, but turning his head to look at us, while resting his left arm on the back of his chair. He is clean shaven, has a pale complexion, dark eyes, and his thin, closely shorn hair is tucked into a large light pink beret-like cap. He wears a white cravat under a gold silk waistcoat, and a loose brown silk robe over that. Resting on his knee, his right hand holds a quill pen. Behind him, a desk holds an inkwell and sheets of paper with writing on them.

Gallery Text

John Singleton Copley was among the most prominent portraitists in colonial Boston. In 1766, he was commissioned to paint three portraits of the Boylston family, which had amassed a fortune sending enslaved Africans and foreign goods to the Americas. Like many of his Boston portraits, Copley’s likenesses are a blend of fact and fiction. He combined detailed renderings of the sitters’ faces and garments with invented settings to convey the family’s wealth and status.

Copley portrayed the Boylstons in extravagant imported clothing. Sarah (1696–1774), seen in the portrait nearby, wears a sumptuous satin dress, while her sons are draped in richly textured dressing gowns, or “banyans,” exotic attire that conveyed their cosmopolitan identity and global power. Other elements in the portraits, like the large ledgers and the ship in this portrait of Nicholas (1716–1771), suggest the family’s mercantile identity without showing what—or whom— they traded.

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
Persistent Link


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.)


Recorded Ownership History
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 (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
  • Patrick J. Kelleher and Ross E. Taggart, The Century of Mozart, brochure, William Rockhill Nelson Gallery of Art (now Nelson-Atkins) (Kansas City, 1956), cat. no. 13, pp. 14, 26, 67, fig. 36, repr.
  • 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 (U.S.) 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, 11/16/2014 - 08/06/2024; Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge, 11/16/2014 - 01/01/2050

Subjects and Contexts

  • Google Art Project

Related Works

Verification Level

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