The Portrait of a Lady : Identity, Gender, and Power in Colonial American Portraiture
Greening, Claudia Quinn
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In eighteenth-century Boston, elite families commissioned portraits to hang in their city mansions as decorations and reminders of a specific moment in their lives. The custom, which gained prominence in the second half of the eighteenth century, was dominated by distinct artists who became well known based on their talent. The portraits present men, women, and families as they would have existed in Boston on the eve of the American Revolution. One ofthe most popular artists, especially once the Revolution had begun, was Boston-born John Singleton Copley. Copley painted the wealthy individuals while building up a reputation for himself throughout the colonies, specifically in Boston and New York. The portraits he painted of eighteenth-century women offer a glimpse into the presentation of identity in eighteenth-century America. The portraits of the women, which are diverse in terms of age but little else, reflect the expectations of gender and class during this politically unstable moment. The women who appeared in the images worked alongside Copley and their own family members to create their images— each of which is unique and reflective of specific interests while still revealing collective characteristics about elite women. Elite communities throughout colonial America used portraits as a way to create an exclusive identity, built upon emblems of wealth and power. These physical objects allowed for the wealthy colonists to communicate to one another about cultural expectations and trends. The patterns that emerge from the portraits, therefore, act as evidence of what elite communities placed value on in the second half of the eighteenth century. John Singleton Copley's work in Boston is representative of the creation of genteel identity around colonial America.