When John Smibert’s health began to fail in the early 1740s and Boston was once more in need of a competent portrait painter, John Greenwood, along with Robert Feke, stepped in to fill the void. The American-born son of a Harvard graduate, Greenwood was forced at age fifteen to apprentice with...
When John Smibert’s health began to fail in the early 1740s and Boston was once more in need of a competent portrait painter, John Greenwood, along with Robert Feke, stepped in to fill the void. The American-born son of a Harvard graduate, Greenwood was forced at age fifteen to apprentice with Boston engraver Thomas Johnston when his father died, leaving the family short of funds. After three years, Greenwood turned to painting. A man of ambition, he would ultimately complete some fifty-five commissions from sitters in Boston and Salem. However, he seemed to realize that his career and fortune would be limited in the colonies, and he immigrated first to Surinam in 1752, and later to Amsterdam and London, where he became a prominent auctioneer. At the age of twenty, Greenwood undertook the extraordinary challenge of painting this imposing group portrait of his family. Group portraits were relatively rare in mid-eighteenth-century America, because they were both more difficult to compose than single-figure canvases and more costly. The models for Greenwood’s project were Smibert’s famous Bermuda Group (1728–39, Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, Connecticut), then on view in Smibert’s Boston studio, and Feke’s Isaac Royall and His Family (1741, Harvard Law School Library, Cambridge, Massachusetts). As in those two paintings, Greenwood’s figures are arranged around a table. They are united through a lyrical arrangement of hand gestures, and their heads are tilted rhythmically, producing a charming, if naive, ensemble. The basket of needlework and the flame-stitch canvaswork displayed on the table suggest the accomplishments of the women. Their literacy and sophistication are implicit in the volume of The Spectator, the popular early-eighteenth-century English periodical written by Joseph Addison and Sir Richard Steele. The linearity of Greenwood’s style and the abrupt modulations between light and dark undoubtedly reflect his earlier training as an engraver. The artist has portrayed himself standing behind the woman on the right, with palette and brushes in hand and a velvet turban protecting his shaved head from the cold, as he was not wearing a wig. Although a nineteenth-century note attached to the back of the painting indicates that the figure in the center was Greenwood’s betrothed, it is more likely that the woman on the right in front of the artist is his fiancée and cousin Elizabeth Lee. Her white dress and blue bow complement Greenwood’s jacket, and furthermore, his hand is intimately juxtaposed to her head. The other figures are, from left to right, the artist’s youngest sister, Hannah; his mother, Mary Charnock Greenwood; his sister, either Mary or Elizabeth; and his cousin Martha Lee. This text was adapted from Elliot Bostwick Davis et al., American Painting[http://www.mfashop.com/9020398034.html], MFA Highlights (Boston: MFA Publications, 2003).
By descent in the Lee family to Louisa Lee Waterhouse (Mrs. Benjamin Waterhouse) (d. 1864), Cambridge, Mass. By descent to Colonel Henry Lee (1817-1898), Brookline, Mass. By 1935, by descent to his grandson, Henry Lee Shattuck (1879-1971), Brookline, Mass.; 1971, to his sister-in-law, Virginia C. Shattuck (Mrs. George C. Shattuck), Brookline, Mass., residuary legatee under the will of Henry Lee Shattuck; 1983, bequest of Henry Lee Shattuck to the MFA. (Accession Date: January 12, 1983)
Bequest of Henry Lee Shattuck in memory of the late Morris Gray