When Copley painted James Warren (1726-1808), his sitter had not yet reached the height of his fame. A graduate of Harvard, a prosperous merchant and farmer, and an ardent patriot, Warren eventually became active in politics, serving in the Massachusetts General Court from 1766 to 1778, presiding over the Provincial Congress of Massachusetts, and acting as Paymaster General of the Continental Army while it was in Cambridge and Boston. From 1777 to 1782 he served on the Navy Board. In 1787 he was elected speaker of the Massachusetts House of Representatives. At the time he sat for Copley, however, James Warren was active on a more local stage, operating his farm and conducting his mercantile business as well as fulfilling the duties of a sheriff of Plymouth County, south of Boston.
Warren’s likeness is a pendant to Copley’s portrait of his wife, Mercy Otis Warren (31.212), also painted before she made her name as a dedicated campaigner for the patriot cause and one of the first chroniclers of the American Revolution. The two canvases are a graceful complement to one another. The sitters’ heads are turned toward each other. Their settings are not identical or contiguous, but they do contain parallels in their emphasis on the natural world. James Warren is very much the country squire, walking stick in hand, ruddy complexion suggesting time spent out of doors overseeing his estate. The carefully demarcated architecture behind him suggests lands measured, cultivated, and controlled. He wears a bob wig and a gray coat over a long black waistcoat―a sober costume but by no means a poor man’s garb.
After 1788, Warren retired from active politics, although he did serve on the governor’s council from 1792 to 1794. He withdrew to his Plymouth farm to concentrate on scientific farming. He promoted and supported his wife’s literary ambitions, and through her writing Mercy Warren eventually became more famous than her husband. James might not have taken offense at his wife’s renown eclipsing his own. In 1775, he had written to John Adams, “I am content to move in a small sphere. I expect no distinction but that of an honest man who has exerted every nerve.”[i]
[i]Dumas Malone, ed., Dictionary of American Biography, vol. 19, New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1936, p. 478.