This painting depicts an unidentified marine commander standing amidships, his steady hand resting on a balustrade adjacent to the towering mast at his back. Another ship rests offshore in the harbor visible behind him. The man’s posture conveys confident authority. His uniform identifies him...
This painting depicts an unidentified marine commander standing amidships, his steady hand resting on a balustrade adjacent to the towering mast at his back. Another ship rests offshore in the harbor visible behind him. The man’s posture conveys confident authority. His uniform identifies him as an officer of the East India Company; further evidence of that association is found on the ship in the background, which flies the flag the company used in the eighteenth century. Founded in 1600 as a British trading consortium, the East India Company had been heavily and fatefully involved in trade with the North American colonies prior to the Revolution. It was in order to protect the economic interests of the company that the British Parliament passed the Tea Act of 1773, granting the East India Company a monopoly over the colonial tea trade. Despite the fact that the law reduced customs duties, actually lowering the cost of tea, the act exacerbated resentment over taxation without representation. Some months later, Bostonians famously demonstrated their displeasure by dumping East India Company tea into the waters of Boston Harbor. By the time of this painting, the company’s interests had moved primarily to China and India, where the trading firm evolved into a quasi-governmental agent of British rule. While the uniform and flag confirm this commander’s service in the East India Company, there is little additional information to identify him further. The artist signed and dated the painting just below the commander’s left cuff: “M. Brown. pinx / 1786.” Yet exhibition records from the annual shows held from 1786 to 1788 at the Royal Academy in London, where Brown usually exhibited his latest work, do not list any likely candidates. In 1789, Brown displayed Portrait of an Officer (Mr. Lindegreen) at the Royal Academy, offering one possible match for the MFA’s painting. East India Company records show that Charles Lindegreen was promoted in 1786 and it seems logical to assume that he might commission a portrait to commemorate that achievement. Yet Lindegreen was only 32 in 1786, a difficult fact to reconcile with the visual evidence of the painting, which seems to depict an older man. Brown’s canvas bears a second inscription on the reverse, listing the artist’s fashionable Cavendish Square address and giving the year 1790, suggesting that Brown exhibited the painting that year, but again no obvious sitters can be identified in the records of Royal Academy exhibitions. Mather Brown had left Massachusetts as a young man, achieving his fame in the mid-1780s as a portrait painter in London with prestigious commissions of prominent sitters from both sides of the Atlantic. John Adams sat for Brown in 1785 and 1788 (the second time at the behest of Thomas Jefferson), while Jefferson himself commissioned a portrait in 1786, the same year as this unidentified East India Company Commander. Brown’s British patrons included members of the royal family, among them Frederick Augustus, Duke of York, painted in 1788, and the duke’s older brother, the Prince of Wales, later to become George IV, who commissioned a full-length portrait in 1789. Almost twenty years later, John Singleton Copley painted the same sitter in an ambitious equestrian portrait [25.98] now in the collection of the MFA. A Commander demonstrates Brown’s ability to balance a compelling and believable likeness of a sitter with expressive artistic flourish. His facile handling of paint enlivens the image. For example, a single quick flowing brushstroke defines most of the cuff of the commander’s proper left sleeve, while similarly fluid brushwork accentuates his ruffled collar and the gleaming decorations of the East India Company uniform. Two-tone dabs of paint suggest the jacket buttons twisting at different angles, a signature detail that appears in other Brown portraits. In recognition of his skill and service, Brown was named Portrait Painter to his Royal Highness the Duke of York and later, by appointment of the king’s third son, the future King William IV, he earned the title Painter to their Royal Highnesses the Dukes of York and Clarence. Despite such accolades, Brown’s reputation has suffered, in part due to the absence of a strong national identity. As Dorinda Evans observed in her definitive 1982 study of the artist, “he is frequently considered neither to be American by the Americans nor English by the English.”  Nonetheless, at the height of his success in the 1780s and 1790s, he competed with the best London painters, including North America’s first expatriate artists, the luminaries of an older generation. These included Brown’s former instructor Benjamin West; fellow Bostonian John Singleton Copley; and Gilbert Stuart, who first taught Brown, at age twelve, to draw, and acted as an instructor’s assistant while Brown was studying with West. While the reputations of these men remained strong, Brown’s career and health declined in the first decades of the nineteenth century. He died sick and impoverished in a London boarding house in 1831. Notes 1. Dorinda Evans, Mather Brown, Early American Artist in England (Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1982), x. Cody Hartley
Lower right: M. Brown. pinx/1786.
By June 16, 1950, Christie's, London, lot 110, to M. Bernard, London. 1953, John Levy Gallery, New York. Kennedy Galleries [?]. 1954, M. Knoedler and Co., New York. 1954, Hirschl and Adler Galleries, New York City; 1954, sold by Hirschl and Adler to the MFA for $1,350. (Accession Date: April 5, 1954)
A. Shuman Collection—Abraham Shuman Fund