John Singleton Copley, American, 1738–1815 American
124.8 x 100 cm (49 1/8 x 39 3/8 in.)
Medium or Technique
Oil on canvas
Carolyn A. and Peter S. Lynch Gallery (Gallery 132)
John Hancock (1737–1793) was at the threshold of his social, economic, and political destiny when Copley painted him in 1765. His origins had been poor and thus disenabling in the rigidly class-stratified society of mid-eighteenth-century Massachusetts. His father, the Reverend John Hancock, an inconsequential clergyman in North Braintree, died in 1744, leaving a widow, seven-year-old John, and two other children. But John Hancock—alone of his family—was rescued by his uncle Thomas, then the richest merchant in Boston, who adopted him, educated him at Boston Latin School and Harvard College, and attempted to train him in the social and business habits of the House of Hancock, the largest transatlantic shipping firm in Boston. He became a full partner in his uncle’s business in 1763 and sole owner after Thomas died in 1764.
Hancock commissioned Copley to paint his portrait for his house, a magnificent mansion on Beacon Hill that he inherited from his uncle. In this austere image, Hancock wears a dark blue frock coat trimmed in gold braid to accentuate the line of buttons and the edges of the plain wool material. On his head is a modest bob wig. He sits on an outdated Queen Anne chair of about 1740. His environment is almost extinguished, bare except for a piece of hanging drapery and a covered table on which rest an open account ledger and a small inkstand.
The costume and setting are unexpected for a man who enjoyed the luxurious prerogatives of extreme wealth. King Hancock, as he would later come to be known, was conspicuous in the 1760s for wearing silk-velvet suits, driving around Boston in a bright yellow carriage, and stocking his mansion with the finest fabrics, furniture, glass, and Madeira wines that he could import from England. Equally surprising is the depicted action: Hancock working in a business ledger, seemingly ready to make or having just finished making entries in it. If anything, he neglected the House of Hancock as well as financial matters in general.
His uncharacteristic engagement with the account book has been interpreted as an expression of Calvinistic virtues, especially the idea that material rewards in life are tangible proofs of God’s divine blessing. linkThis ascetic image of Hancock may also be considered in political terms. His economic empire was inextricably connected to politics and he had been using that political and economic capital since 1762, running for public office in Boston—testing his power in a period marked by increasing attacks by men such as Samuel Adams on the entitlements and extravagances of the highest classes. The assaults on the privileged reached a crescendo when the houses of some of the elite were ransacked during the Stamp Act crisis of 1765, the year Copley first painted John Hancock. The violence against flamboyant elites may have inspired the young merchant to negotiate with Copley for a disciplined image of a workingman in a stark setting—an image Hancock could use as part of an effort to claim political authority in an era in which Americans were rejecting deference and embracing the new republican ideal of the man of the people.
Copley painted two more portraits of Hancock between 1770 and 1772 (Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston, and private collection), when the businessman was increasingly identified as a radical Whig. These are identical, waist-length likenesses and, like the earlier canvas, are simple unadorned images, representing Hancock in bare settings. Between 1775 and 1777, when Hancock served as president of the Continental Congress, one of the later Copley portraits was rendered in mezzotint by Joseph Hiller.
Scholars have claimed that one of the Hancock portraits hung with Copley’s painting of Samuel Adams link in the drawing room of the Hancock mansion. Others have located the 1765 picture in the parlor over the fireplace. However, the probate inventory taken at Hancock’s death, though it shows there were 128 pictures in the house, does not specifically mention any Copley portrait. The painting was hung in Faneuil Hall in the nineteenth century.
1. Wayne Craven, Colonial American Portraiture: The Economic, Religious, Social, Cultural, Philosophical, Scientific, and Aesthetic Foundations (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1986), 324–26.
This text was adapted from Paul Staiti’s 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).