Even in the increasingly materialistic climate of mid-eighteenth-century Boston, Nicholas Boylston (1716–1771) stands out as an unusually wealthy and stylish man. His firm, Green and Boylston, became extremely successful in the 1760s, importing from abroad the textiles, paper, tea, and glass...
Even in the increasingly materialistic climate of mid-eighteenth-century Boston, Nicholas Boylston (1716–1771) stands out as an unusually wealthy and stylish man. His firm, Green and Boylston, became extremely successful in the 1760s, importing from abroad the textiles, paper, tea, and glass eagerly sought by avidly consumerist Bostonians. He bought his house on School Street in about 1761. Known as the Mansion House, it was one of the city’s most elegant homes; his good friend and business partner Joseph Green [25.50], Richard Clarke (Copley’s father-in-law and also a prosperous importer), and lawyer James Otis were among Boylston’s neighbors. His entertainments were lavish, and his gardens were celebrated for their beauty. His love of elegant clothing, evinced in this portrait, is further documented in his will, in which one of the first items mentioned is all his “Wareing Appearelle,” left to his brother, Thomas.  For all his economic influence, Nicholas Boylston was not a very vocal participant in the ever more vehement political debates of his day. He was more inclined to pleasant socializing: he held no office higher than town auditor but was known to be an enthusiastic fisherman; he considered himself a moderate in politics, although he seems to have dined more often with Lieutenant Governor Thomas Hutchinson than with his radical neighbor Otis, and during the 1760s his business interests increasingly encouraged loyalty to Governor Francis Bernard.  He was deeply distressed by the destruction of Hutchinson’s property during the Stamp Act riots of 1765. Just at the time Boylston was sitting for Copley, his political perspective shifted: with a number of other businessmen (including Clarke), he declined to support the nonimportation agreement that was instituted among Boston merchants in 1769. Because he was perceived as one of the “First Merchants of the Town,” Boylston’s reluctance to support this boycott of British goods marked a significant break in the unity of colonial resistance; Samuel Adams denounced him and other similarly inclined businessmen as “enemies of their country.”  In October 1769 the brigantine Wolfe, which Boylston owned in partnership with Green, was seized and its cargo impounded when it attempted to enter Boston harbor laden with British goods. The acceleration of events might have pushed Nicholas Boylston’s political views and actions even farther toward the Loyalist side had he not died, after a brief illness, in August 1771. He was eulogized as a “Man of good understanding & sound Judgment,”  and, in fact, Boylston did show measured judgment in distributing his estate, devising a sharing out of property meant to perpetuate the interconnectedness of the family despite their political differences. Copley painted Nicholas Boylston three times. The first portrait, dated 1767 (Harvard University Portrait Collection, Cambridge, Massachusetts), was part of the suite of six likenesses Copley made for the Boylston family, including Nicholas’s sisters Rebecca [1976.667] and Lucy [1976.668]. It remains one of Copley’s most successful renderings of a wealthy gentleman at ease. Boylston appears informally, wearing a blue-green morning gown of heavy silk damask over a beige silk waistcoat, partially unbuttoned to reveal a ruffled white linen shirt that also has ruffles at the cuffs; a red velvet turban covers his shaved head. He sits in a graceful Massachusetts Chippendale side chair, in front of a grand swag of red drapery. The request for a second portrait gave Copley, an unusually ambitious and self-motivated painter, the occasion to try to improve upon his art. The result (the MFA’s canvas) was a portrait superficially quite similar to the first. The two half-lengths are identical in virtually every detail except the color. Copley may have been able to achieve this astonishing correspondence by tracing the figure: in a letter he wrote to his half-brother, Henry Pelham, from Italy the year after he painted the third portrait, he referred to his use of this technique. He explained: “when I was uncertain of the effect of any figure Or groop of figure[s] I drew them of the sise on a peace of Paper by themselves shaded them and traced them on the Paper on which my Drawing was to appear to the Publick, just in the way you have seen me proceed with Draperys, etc., in my portraits.” While most of the details are the same, the two paintings are markedly different in expressive effect, an achievement that could not fail to please Copley’s discerning patron. The few discrepancies between them definitively establish the Harvard portrait as the initial composition and the one owned by the MFA as the second version. Although the two portraits have in the past been assigned the same date, 1767, stylistic differences suggest that there may have been a longer interval between them than is generally supposed. Between about 1766 and 1770, Copley’s style evolved: where he had previously lavished as much attention on details of costume and accessories as on the head of a subject, he now gave greater prominence to his sitters, particularly their faces and hands. In the second Boylston portrait, the color scheme of the costume—rich brown and purple—is much deeper than that of the first, contrasting with and setting off the head and hands. Copley also substituted the evenness of value seen in the first version for a more compelling variety of intensities: light and atmosphere were subtly adjusted to place a greater emphasis on the sitter’s face, and aspects of the picture Copley previously found so tantalizing—the pattern of a brocade, the textures of silk and velvet—are subordinated to the careful rendering of the face. The second Nicholas Boylston provides a more probing characterization and portrays the Boston merchant as a man of powerful presence and distinction as well as a man of lavish tastes. Aside from color, the most obvious difference in the MFA’s version is in the background vista, where a ship has been eliminated. Copley also made an adjustment (revealed by pentimenti) in the outline of Boylston’s turban. This headgear is flat across the top in Harvard’s painting; it was originally conceived the same way in the MFA portrait but subsequently was given a more peaked profile. The revised turban is more flattering to the oval shape of the sitter’s head and more gracefully echoes the diagonal of the drapery behind him. The third and last Copley portrait of Nicholas Boylston is the grandest, albeit the least successful (Harvard University Portrait Collection). This last version was commissioned by a grateful Harvard College in 1773, two years after Nicholas made a bequest of £1,500 to establish the Boylston Professorship of Rhetoric and Oratory. Basing the color scheme on his first portrait, Copley was required to expand his original conception so that it would conform to the full-length format of other likenesses already in the college’s Philosophy Room; he also added pilasters, columns, and a busily patterned Turkey carpet. Notes 1. Nicholas Boylston, Will, August 1, 1771, Suffolk County, Docket no. 14979 (Suffolk County Probate Records, vol. 70, pp. 223–25), Archives, Supreme Judicial Court, Boston. 2. Anne Rowe Cunningham, ed., Letters and Diary of John Rowe, Boston Merchant, 1759–1762, 1764–1779 (Boston: W. B. Clarke, 1903), 28–30, 196. 3. Governor Francis Bernard and Samuel Adams quoted in John W. Tyler, Smugglers and Patriots: Boston Merchants and the Advent of the American Revolution (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1986), 117, 129. 4. Boston-Gazette and Country Journal, August 26, 1771, quoted in William Bentinck-Smith, “Nicholas Boylston and His Harvard Chair,” Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society, 3rd ser., 93 (1981): 29. A cousin (who had been disdainful of Boylston’s ostentatious lifestyle) now described him as a “worthy relation whose inoffensive and useful life may console us for his loss and afford us a pattern for imitation” (John Boylston to Thomas Boylston, September 19, 1771, Boylston Papers, Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston). 5. Copley to Henry Pelham, March 14, 1775, in Letters and Papers of John Singleton Copley and Henry Pelham, 1739–1776, ed. Guernsey Jones (Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society, 1914), 298. This text was adapted from Carol Troyen’s entry in John Singleton Copley in America, by Carrie Rebora et al., exh. cat. (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art in association with Harry N. Abrams, 1995).
About 1769, the sitter; 1771, by descent to the Boylston family, Boston; 1770s, in the possession of Joseph Green, Boylston's business partner; 1778, Moses Gill. By 1873, Moses Kimball (1809-1895), Boston; 1895, by descent to his nephew, David P. Kimball (1833-1923), Boston; 1923, bequest of David P. Kimball to the MFA. (Accession Date: November 1, 1923)
Bequest of David P. Kimball