After settling in London, Copley at last fulfilled his dream of European study and began to paint history paintings, as he had long desired, but he also continued to make portraits in order to provide a steady income for his family. Among Copley’s London clients were American Loyalists such as...
After settling in London, Copley at last fulfilled his dream of European study and began to paint history paintings, as he had long desired, but he also continued to make portraits in order to provide a steady income for his family. Among Copley’s London clients were American Loyalists such as Gilbert DeBlois, whom the artist had known in Boston. DeBlois had evacuated with the British on March 17, 1776; he sat for his portrait sometime in the late 1770s, after Copley had studied in Italy for a year and had absorbed the work of leading British painters, including Sir Joshua Reynolds and George Romney. Copley’s portrait of DeBlois shows the evolution of his work from the restrained, austere, somberly colored, tightly painted style of his last American images to the more brightly hued, loosely brushed, fluid technique of his British canvases. The red drapery and green table covering seen here, for instance, are summarily painted, and Copley rendered the white stock and cuffs of DeBlois’s costume by drawing his loaded brush across the canvas to create the appearance of fine linen rather than painstakingly depicting the fabric with tiny, almost invisible brush strokes as he had in America. The strong light streaming from the left and the pale blue sky contribute to the overall brightness of the painting in contrast to Copley’s American canvases, which have darker backgrounds. Copley portrays DeBlois as the successful merchant that he was. He sits at a table working on papers with a quill pen and looks up thoughtfully, silhouetted against the large expanse of sky. DeBlois is expensively dressed in a brown suit over a white linen shirt and sports a powdered pigeon-wing wig. His pose is somewhat unusual in that most of his face is in shadow, but Copley skillfully used light to pick out DeBlois’s features—his lips, nose, and right eye—and he used shadow to show his fleshy chin. The detail of the bushy left eyebrow jutting out gives the likeness a distinctive mark that individualizes the sitter. Gilbert DeBlois (1725–1791) was descended from a French Huguenot family that had made its way to England and then to America. He was a wealthy merchant whose shop near the Old South Meeting House in Boston carried “all sorts [of] English, India & Scotch goods” including a broad assortment of fabrics, hardware, spices, dinnerware, powder and shot, and musical instruments. A staunch Anglican, DeBlois played the organ and was a pew holder at King’s Chapel, where he was also involved with the practical governance of the church as a vestryman from 1763 to 1776 and as one of two elected wardens from 1769 to 1776. In 1749, DeBlois had married Ann Coffin, daughter of stalwart Anglicans William and Ann Holmes Coffin [1991.1059]. They had sixteen children, of whom ten sons and one daughter grew into adulthood. DeBlois acquired impressive pieces of furniture for his family, including a rare Georgian clothespress [1987.254] in the 1740s and a magnificent Chippendale mahogany desk and bookcase (private collection) in 1756, probably made by the Boston cabinetmaker John Welch, who also carved many of Copley’s rococo-style frames. Copley and DeBlois had been neighbors in Boston. In 1754, Gilbert DeBlois and his brother Lewis had built the first concert hall in Boston at the corner of Hanover and Court Streets. Their shop, the Crown and Comb, was on the first floor, and the concert room, which was also used for meetings of the Grand Masons and other societies, was on the second floor. On the opposite corner was the Orange Tree Inn. In 1763, Copley had received a letter addressed to him as “Mr. John Copley, Limner, Near the Orange Tree in Boston.” In 1773, their lives intersected again when DeBlois was appointed one of three referees who adjudicated a dispute between Copley and John Joy, the builder of his estate on Beacon Hill in Boston. In the 1760s DeBlois had been a moderate Whig, but by 1770 he had become disaffected with the radical element in Boston. During the trial after the Boston Massacre of 1770, John Adams, who was defending the British soldiers, received suggestions from DeBlois about the composition of the jury. DeBlois himself ended up on the jury, and most of the soldiers were acquitted of murder. As the 1770s progressed, DeBlois was increasingly unwilling to resist British Parliamentary authority, and he left Boston in 1776 along with three of his sons, stopping first in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and then continuing on to England. His wife remained in Boston with the rest of the children. In 1778 he was proscribed and banished by the State of Massachusetts, and his property was confiscated. Later, his wife bought back his home on Tremont Street, and his son repurchased his warehouse. In 1789, DeBlois travelled to Boston for the wedding of one of his sons and rewrote his will. He returned to England, where he died in 1791. The portrait descended to Gilbert’s son Lewis and then to his daughter Charlotte before being sold at her death to Mrs. Augustus Thorndike Perkins, a great-granddaughter of Copley and the wife of his early biographer. It eventually made its way back to the DeBlois family and was bequeathed to the MFA in 1990 by Dr. Elizabeth DeBlois. A copy by Boston artist William Lovett (1773–1801) remains in the DeBlois family. Notes 1. Claudia B. Kidwell and Margaret C. Christman, Suiting Everyone: The Democratization of Clothing in America(Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1974), 20. 2. Jules David Prown, John Singleton Copley, vol. 1(Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press for the National Gallery of Art, 1966), 63. 3. Prown, John Singleton Copley, 65. Janet L. Comey
Late 1770s, the sitter, Gilbert DeBlois (1725-1791); 1791, by descent to his son, Lewis DeBlois (died 1833); by descent to his daughter, Charlotte (died 1881). By 1873, sold to a great granddaughter of the artist, Susan Hammond Timmons Perkins (Mrs. Augustus Thorndike Perkins, 1841-1894). By 1915, to Mrs. C. H. Parker, Boston. By 1930, George L. DeBlois, Boston; by descent to Dr. Elizabeth DeBlois (1901-1989), Boston; 1990, gift of the estate of Dr. Elizabeth DeBlois to the MFA. (Accession Date: May 23, 1990)
Gift of the Estate of Dr. Elizabeth DeBlois