John Singleton Copley, American, 1738–1815
127.32 x 101.6 cm (50 1/8 x 40 in.)
Medium or Technique
Oil on canvas
Norma and Roger Alfred Saunders Gallery (Gallery 128)
Copley’s paintings of Ezekiel and Elizabeth Goldthwait rank among his most successfully unified pendant portraits. The Goldthwaits are each depicted at three-quarter length, seated in darkened interiors, he at a desk and she at a table. Their bodies are turned toward each other but both look out at the viewer. The portraits are painted in the same subdued rich browns, a muted palette Copley substituted for the dazzling rococo colors he had employed during the previous decade. A powerful light issuing from a single source at the left plays against the quiet tones and dramatically illuminates the face and hands of each sitter. Copley charged each portrait with a sense of uncontrived immediacy, showing his sitters interrupted in the course of their actions to regard the viewer: holding quill and papers, Ezekiel turns from writing at his desk, and Elizabeth pauses as she reaches for a piece of fruit.
In each portrait Copley included a profusion of textures and objects—polished tabletop, lace, silks, pearls, chairs—that serve to indicate not only his virtuosic skill at illusionistic representation but also the material wealth of his subjects. For Ezekiel Goldthwait (1710–1782), who was born in the North End of Boston to a merchant family originally from Salem, was prosperous indeed. The Goldthwait family lived on Hanover Street in the North End in a “Mansion House,” according to the ten-page inventory recorded after Ezekiel’s death. linkHe also owned houses on State Street and Ann Street; a chaise; considerable china, silver, glassware, and furniture; over thirty pictures (none of which was described specifically); some two hundred books; and a gold watch.
Goldthwait spent most of his life in public office. From 1740 to 1776 he served as Suffolk County registrar of deeds, and, for two decades beginning in 1741, he was simultaneously the town clerk for Boston. In addition, at various times he held the posts of selectman, town auditor, and Town Meeting moderator. Copley alludes to his subject’s profession of record keeper by depicting him seated at a desk with writing implements and with quill and inscribed papers in hand.
Ezekiel Goldthwait commissioned Copley to paint the portraits of himself and his wife toward the conclusion of his public career. In June 1771, Copley charged Goldthwait £19.12 for each painting and £9 for each frame (the original bill is in the Museum’s archives). The portraits of Ezekiel and Elizabeth Goldthwait remained in the family until they were given to the Museum in 1941.
1. Ezekiel Goldthwait, inventory, January 19, 1784, docket no. 17872 (Suffolk County Probate Records, vol. 83, pp. 113–22), Archives, Supreme Judicial Court, Boston.
This text was adapted by Karen E. Quinn from her own 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).