Sunday, December 1, 2019

Women's Work in Copley Portraits

Sarah Morris Mifflin (1747-1790) and her husband Thomas
Painted by John Singleton Copley, 1774 
Philadelphia Museum of Art

Sarah is weaving a decorative fringe on a small loom.

Perhaps like the edge on a quilt made a few decades
 after the 1783 end of America's Revolution.

Thomas Mifflin was a Quaker, thus the plain dress in shades of Quaker gray. He and Sarah were among Philadelphia's colonial elite, supported by the family's importing business.

I recently read a new biography of Copley by Jane Kamensky, which flips my picture of him as an American revolutionary artist. He was born a British subject and he remained a British subject, leaving Boston in 1774 and never returning. The stories of the Tories, the British loyalists, have not been well told and Copley's now is an exception. Both his mother and his wife's family were in the tea business in Boston so one can see where his prejudices might lie.

Mrs. Seymour Fort, 1778.
Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, Connecticut

Copley painted Mrs. Fort in London with her tatting after he and his family settled there.

UPDATE: LynneZ sez: These women in Copley's portraits aren't tatting---they are knotting! Tatting wasn't developed until the 19th century. Women would use these long lines of knots to make fringe and to use in embroidery, in which case the lines of knots were couched down to create the pattern.
Thank you for the info!

Needlework at the time was just called "work." Everybody knew what that meant.

Charlotte Pochin of Barkby Hall, Leicestershire
Recently auctioned.

Englishwoman Charlotte is also tatting  knotting with a similar satin bag to hold her work. Was the bag a studio prop? Or did one have to have SOMETHING TO DO when one sat by the hour for (or "sat to" the painter as it is called)... the meticulous, slow painter?

Copley was so skillful at the reflective satin fabrics that were the fashion. He seems to have thrown in yardage just for effect (probably shawls of some kind).

Elizabeth Oliver Watson (1730 - 1767)
Plymouth, Massachusetts, 1765
Smithsonian American Art Museum

Elizabeth's husband George was an importer. She is depicted with a Chinese or Delft vase to indicate her taste and the source of her wealth.

Abigail Adams got herself "trigd" (old term for tricked out, we can assume) and paid a visit to Elizabeth's daughters in 1779 during the Revolution, noting that they were loyalists.

"I am much with the family althoug they are of differend sentaments."

"Portrait of a Lady"  Los Angeles Museum of Art

Perhaps Ann Johnston Burnett of Perth Amboy, New Jersey, 
painted in New York City in 1771 when Copley spent a summer there.

Copley's portraits of fabric are enchanting. The sofa....

Portrait of Elizabeth Copley (Mrs. Gardiner Greene)

We are lucky enough in Lawrence, Kansas to have a Copley portrait at the Spencer Museum of Art on the University Campus (Thanks to the Crosby Kemper family). Next time you are there look up Elizabeth Copley Greene (1770–1866), his eldest child. Fabrics are sketchy but the face is exquisite. Copley painted this in London, capturing her likeness before she returned with her new husband to America where she was born.

More paintings of women working at the It's About Time blog:
Link to Abigail Adams's letter:

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