Rebecca Boylston was forty years old and unmarried the first time Copley painted her in 1767; the canvas was one of a set of six Boylston portraits he was commissioned to make for the walls of the family mansion on School Street in Boston. About six years later, in 1773, on the occasion of her...
Rebecca Boylston was forty years old and unmarried the first time Copley painted her in 1767; the canvas was one of a set of six Boylston portraits he was commissioned to make for the walls of the family mansion on School Street in Boston. About six years later, in 1773, on the occasion of her marriage to the wealthy landowner Moses Gill, Rebecca sat for Copley a second time (Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design, Providence). Among Copley’s more than three hundred American portraits, it is rare to find a female sitter painted a second time in commemoration of a change in status. The MFA’s picture is the earlier of the two likenesses. Rebecca Boylston is depicted in a manner that sets her apart from most of the women of her own age in Copley’s work, those “plump, formally attired, contented matriarchs who sit passively upon upholstered chairs in dim rooms;” Copley shows her instead as the mistress of the vast estate of her wealthy, unmarried brother Nicholas [23.504]. This was a role seldom assumed by older unmarried women in colonial society, who on the whole had an unenviable lot: most were dependent on the hospitality of relatives. Such women were generally considered inferior to their married sisters in a social hierarchy that already was based on the assumption of the dependent, subordinate status of all women. Rebecca’s wealth (she had been allocated a share of her father’s ample estate and would also inherit from Nicholas), her intelligence, and her “singular degree of obliging civility,” which “procured her the confidence and esteem of all who were so happy as to be introduced to her acquaintance,” guaranteed for her a more prominent position. Copley was one of many who were charmed by her; in a letter written shortly after her marriage and his arrival in Rome in 1774, he instructed his wife, Susanna, to “remember me to all my friends . . . particularly to Docr. Byles, to Mrs. Gill, and all others that think me worth inquiring after.” Copley portrays Rebecca Boylston as slim and handsome, wearing a showy, low-cut gown and standing before a dark grotto whose mystery adds to her allure. Her clothes and the openwork basket brimming with flowers that she carries are features that Copley usually reserved for much younger women. Rebecca appears en négligée, uncorseted and garbed in a succession of flowing, brilliantly colored draperies that she would never have worn in public. Art historian Aileen Ribeiro notes that Rebecca’s “heavy, slithery white satin” gown was not an actual garment but an artistic conceit, an example of “studio dress, possibly painted when it was pinned and/or draped on the lay figure [mannequin]” that “looks alive and convincing because of the painter’s virtuoso skill and perhaps his particular rapport with the sitter.” The rich reds, iridescent purples, and silvery tones of these satin, velvet, and lace garments, as well as the variety of their textures, testify to the sitter’s great wealth (and are a declaration of the painter’s great dexterity), and harmonize with the equally opulent and informal garb worn by her brother Nicholas in his portrait [23.504]. Unlike Rebecca’s fanciful costume, Nicholas’s dress is based on fact, and he likely owned the morning gown in which he is portrayed. About half of Copley’s female sitters appear in such invented costumes, which avoided the rapid changeability of contemporary fashion that could cause portraits to seem outdated. In addition, Copley’s invented dress (and that of other British and American artists) was considered especially suitable for women’s portraits, which often represented imagined ideals of womanhood and thus were often less specifically related than male portraits to the sitter. Rebecca Boylston’s pose is lively, expansive, and relaxed: one arm rests on the fountain, and one knee pushes forward. She is seen frontally, in full light against a dark ground; the portrait is a sparkle of decorative details woven across the picture surface. Her fluid posture is echoed by the sinuous contours of the garden ornament behind her; the spray of water from the fountain picks up the brilliant highlights of her satin robes. Flowers appear in many of Copley’s images of women, and they are particularly appropriate here. The Boylston house on School Street had long been noted for its “large, beautifull and agreeable” gardens. As Leslie Reinhardt has pointed out, Rebecca Boylston is the very image of Hospitality, which a contemporary emblem book described as “the figure of a very fine woman in a graceful attitude . . . [with] a large cornucopia . . . she is dressed in white drapery with a red mantle over it.” Copley’s painting of Rebecca Boylston descended in the Boylston family. It was on loan to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, from 1903 until 1976, when it was bequeathed in to the Museum by Barbara Boylston Bean, a collateral descendant of the sitter. Notes 1. Trevor J. Fairbrother, “Rebecca Boylston,” in A New World: Masterpieces of American Painting, 1760–1910, by Theodore E. Stebbins Jr. et al., exh. cat. (Boston: Museum of Fine Arts, 1983), 197. 2. Quotes from eulogies for Rebecca Boylston Gill, excerpted in Barbara Neville Parker and Anne Bolling Wheeler, John Singleton Copley: American Portraits in Oil, Pastel, and Miniature, with Biographical Sketches (Boston: Museum of Fine Arts, 1938), 45. 3. Copley, letter to Susanna Copley, November 5, 1774, Copley Family Papers, Acc. 10, 122.1, reel no. 171, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. 4. Aileen Ribeiro, “‘The Whole Art of Dress’: Costume in the Work of John Singleton Copley,” 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), 105. 5. Leslie Reinhardt, “‘The Work of Fancy and Taste’: Copley’s Invented Dress and the Case of Rebecca Boylston,” Dress 29 (2002): 4–18. 6. Lyman H. Butterfield, ed., Diary and Autobiography of John Adams, vol. 2 (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1961), 85. 7. Reinhardt, “‘The Work of Fancy and Taste,’” 14. This text was adapted and expanded by Janet L. Comey 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).
Center left, on pedestal: JSCp 1767 [JSCp in monogram]
By 1873, descended in Boylston family to Mr. William Boylston, Princeton, Mass.; to the great-grandniece of the sitter, Louise C. A. Nightingale (Mrs. Edwin J. Nightingale), Providence, R.I.; by 1903, to the Estate of Louise C. A. Nightingale; by 1925, by descent to the niece of Louise C. A. Nightingale, Miss Barbara Hallowell Boylston, Leesburg, Florida; [in 1941, Barbara Hallowell Boylston became Mrs. Paul Webster Bean, Auburn, Maine]; 1976, bequest of Barbara Boylston Bean to the MFA. (Accession Date: September 8, 1976)
Bequest of Barbara Boylston Bean