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Portrait of Mrs. Nathaniel Allen:


Minneapolis Institute of Arts



Institution Minneapolis Institute of Arts
If you had lived in Boston during the 1760s and could afford to have your portrait painted by the best artist available, you probably would have gone to John Singleton Copley. Yet, he lamented his fellow Bostonian's limited appreciation for painting. "Was it not for preserving the resemblance of particular persons, painting would not be known in this place. The people generally regard it no more than any other useful trade, as they sometimes term it, like that of a carpenter, tailor, or shoemaker, not as one of the most noble arts in the world."1 Paradoxically,this pragmatic attitude of the colonists made it possible for Copley to exist as a portraitist and to become the foremost American artist of the 18th century.
Boston, which takes its name from a town in England, was settled in 1630 at a place where the Charles River flows into a natural harbor. Settled by the Puritans, its inhabitants were resourceful people who became ship builders, mariners, and merchants. By mid-18th century, when Copley lived in Boston, it was the largest and most important city in the Colonies, having a population of 15,000 people.

Many of Copley's patrons belonged to successful merchant families. Mrs. Nathaniel Allen (1729-1792), who was 34 when her portrait was painted, was born Sarah Sargent, daughter of Epes Sargent and Esther MacCarthy Sargent, in Gloucester, Massachusetts. In 1754, Sarah married Nathaniel Allen, who was engaged in the mercantile and shipping business and had interests in the fishing industry. Also a native of Gloucester, he was reputed to be a man of character and was that town's representative at the Great and General Court and Assembly for five terms. (Copley also painted his portrait in 1763.) Additionally, Nathaniel Allen was known to be a man of generous hospitality. Sarah was, therefore, a member of the new wealthy class who were proud of their prosperity and accomplishments and commissioned portraits made in the European style.

The portrait of Mrs. Allen reflects the taste of successful colonists, who chose to be portrayed in the manner of the English aristocracy. Like those English aristocrats, Mrs. Allen stands in a formal, three-quarter length pose in front of an indistinct background. (See Gainsborough's Sir John Langston for a comparative example.) Mrs. Allen's choice of dress reveals that she also wanted to be immortalized as a fashionable woman of her time.2
As an 18th-century colonist, Mrs. Allen would have had access to fashion dolls (mannequins) from which to choose her elegant garments. These mannequins were made in Paris and sent out monthly to European capitals as well as major cities of the New World. Once a garment was chosen, measurements and fabric selections were sent to the dressmaker. This was the beginning of "mail order garments." Fashion dolls continued to be made until the 1770s, at which time pattern books came into being.3
Mrs. Allen's dress is typical of the English style of the period—a fitted over-dress worn over a soft chemise. The fabric of the over-dress is a heavy blue silk satin. The bodice is tight, laced, and probably stiffened with a whale bone. To preserve her modesty, she wears a triangular scarf (fischu) made of a soft sheer fabric over her bosom and a chemise of the same fabric over her shoulders. The sleeves are full, gathered at the elbows with pearl pins. Around her neck is a "Betsie," a tiny collar of lace secured with a ribbon, named after the ruffs of Elizabeth I of England.

Her full skirt is dome shaped, supported by hoops. Under the skirt, many fancy petticoats trimmed with lace or embroidery would be worn. Of course, a corset was the foundation for such a garment. The corset not only pulled in the waist, but pushed up the bosom. Corsets were designed to present an ideal of feminine form, with little regard for comfort. To be socially correct, a fashionable lady wore gloves with elbow length sleeves. The gloves were of the softest leather and perfumed. Because gloves were imported from Spain and were very expensive, they were highly valued and often included in portraits of both men and women. Here, Mrs. Allen delicately slips on her glove, a gesture common to English portraiture, which indicates that she is a woman of refinement.

When a woman died, it would have been appropriate to bequeath a dress such as this to her heirs. Textiles ranked in importance in an estate right after land and silver. The high monetary value of garments is attributed to the fact that they were each hand made. (Sewing machines were not invented until 1846 and not mass produced until 1855.)

This portrait, painted early in Copley's career (age 25), reveals the artist's indebtedness to European art. The pose and style of dress are based on a mezzotint after a portrait of Frances, Lady Byron, by William Hogarth, 1736.4 Aspects of the Rococo style are evident in the soft colors and curving lines, particularly seen in the background foliage. Copley has adopted the Baroque convention of using reflected light to delineate a variety of surface textures, including the satin sheen of the dress and ribbon on her hat, the sheer cape, and the lace cap. (Compare the textures in this work to that of Largillière, Portrait of Catherine Coustard, Marquise de Castelnau, Wife of Charles-Léonor Aubry, with Her Son Léonor.)
Copley adapted these European conventions to the tastes of his Colonial patrons, who wished to be depicted honestly and accurately in portraits that conveyed their personality as well as their appearance. It is obvious that Copley made no attempt to idealize Mrs. Allen's masculine-looking features. Her firm mouth, strong chin, and piercing eyes give the impression of a serious woman. Her stern face is apparently indicative of her personality, if the following family anecdote is accurate. During her husband's last moments, his clergyman was smoothing his path to the other world by asking him if he was not afraid to meet the King of Terrors—"No," he whispered, "I have lived too long with the Queen."5
The portrait of Mrs. Allen exhibits the hallmarks of Copley's style prior to his arrival in England. Although many aspects of the portrait derive from European sources, particularly English portraiture, he combined these influences with his own keen observation and skill, responding to the environment in which he lived. This portrait demonstrates those characteristics of his Colonial style. Strong contrasts of light and shadow focus attention on the face. The figure is modeled to create a three-dimensional effect. Great attention is given to the rendering of texture and detail. The surface of the canvas is smooth, without visible brushstrokes. And, above all, Mrs. Allen is depicted with a realism that both describes her appearance with honesty and reveals her character. Copley seldom painted a portrait of only a sitter's head for he felt that attributes of the body, arms, and hands all convey an insight into the temperament of his sitters.6

There is a certain awkwardness apparent in this portrait in the rendering of the body and in the treatment of the hands, which suggests that Copley was still learning. His attempts at modeling are apparent in areas of the face like the chin where the dark underpainting has worn through to make Mrs. Allen look as if she needs a shave. Despite these quirks, this portrait is a triumph in the rendering of surface textures and reveals the high level of technical skill Copley acquired as a self-taught artist. Above and beyond this skill, Copley's ability to perceive the character of his sitter and bring it to life is a major source of his success.

John Singleton Copley was born and lived in Boston until 1774, when he moved to London to study and never returned. Like other aspiring artists in the Colonies, he was largely self-taught because there were no local art schools. His first teacher was his step-father, Peter Pelham, a Boston engraver, portrait painter, and art dealer. Pelham influenced Copley's development as an artist by giving him his first painting lessons, exposing him to many artists, and showing him European prints.

Copley was further influenced by John Smibert, a Scotsman who was the first trained artist to live in the Colonies, and by Joseph Blackburn, an English artist living in the Colonies, who was very adept at the Rococo style of 18th-century London. By 1757, Copley had established himself as a professional portrait painter in Boston. At age 19, he was the first artist to be able to rely solely on painting as a means of livelihood. (Painting was a secondary trade of most Colonial artists. For example, Joseph Badger, whose portrait's of Mary Crosswell and Abigail Gowen are in the MIA collection, was a glazier (window glass cutter) as well as a painter.)

In 1765, Copley sent a painting, Boy With a Squirrel, to London to be exhibited. It was shown at the Society of Artists and drew the attention of Benjamin West, a newly arrived painter from Philadelphia, and Joshua Reynolds, the dean of British painters. At their urging, Copley moved to London. In England, he continued portraiture but expanded his repertoire to include the historical genre painting so esteemed in England. Although genre painting became the chief basis of his fame abroad, many of the portraits from the Colonial period are considered to be his greatest work.

Deetz, James, In Small Things Forgotten: The Archaeology of Early American Life, Anchor Press, 1977.

Laver, James, Costumes and Fashion: A Concise History, Thomas and Hudson, 1982.

Payne, Blanche, History of Costume, Harper and Row, 1965.

World Book Encyclopedia.

Yarwood, Doreen, The Encyclopedia of World Costume, Scribner, 1978.

  • Use on the following tours:
    • American Art
    • Highlights of the Museum's Collection
    • People and Places
    • Women and Art
  • After viewing the portrait, visit the Providence Room and examine the Templeman silver to imagine the kind of lifestyle Mrs. Allen might have had.
  • On a Women and Art tour, compare Mrs. Allen's portrait to several other portraits, such as:
    • West, Portrait of Diane Mary Barker
    • Eakins, Portrait of Elizabeth Burton
    • Bellows, Mrs. T. in Cream Silk No. 2
    • Largilliére, Portrait of Catherine Coustard, Marquise de Castelnau, Wife of Charles-Léonor Aubry, with Her Son Léonor
    • Lehmann, Mme. Alphonse Karr
    • A Ukiyo-e painting or print
  • How has each artist conveyed the character of the sitter to us? What is emphasized—the physical appearance or the psychological makeup of the person? How do other details of the composition (background, costume, etc.) enhance or detract from the characterization of the person?
  • Examine the rendering of the costumes in each of the above portraits. Compare the painterliness of the Eakins, for example, to the smoothness of the Copley. How does the technique affect our impression of the sitter?
  1. Barbara Novak, American Painting of the 19th Century (New York: Praeger, 1969), p. 27.
  2. We do not know if this dress actually belonged to Mrs. Allen. Sometimes a sitter in the 18th century would choose a garment from prints of stylish English portraits. In a few of Copley's portraits, the same dress has reappeared more than once. However, the information given here was generally true at the time and can certainly be discussed in reference to our portrait.
  3. Research on costume contributed by Angela Sangster. See bibliography for sources.
  4. Fairbrother, Trevor J. "John Singleton Copley's Use of British Mezzotints for his American Portraits: A Reappraisal Prompted by New Discoveries," Arts Magazine, The Minneapolis Institute of Arts, vol. 55, no. 7, March 1981, pp. 122-130.
  5. Epes Sargent of Gloucester and His Descendants, arr. by Emma Worcester Sargent, with biographical notes by Charles Sprague Sargent. (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1923), p. 46.
  6. Daniel Mendelowitz, A History of American Art (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc., 1970), p. 120.
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Source: Docent Manual entry for John Singleton Copley, <i>Portrait of Mrs. Nathaniel Allen,</i> The Minneapolis Institute of Arts Education Division (1998).
Rights: ©MIA
Added to Site: March 10, 2009