In 1797, Abigail Adams, wife of John Adams (who had recently been inaugurated as the second president of the United States), quite unexpectedly received a shipping case. It contained this portrait of her twenty-eight-year-old son by John Singleton Copley, which Mrs. Susanna Copley had asked her husband to paint as a gift for her old friend. Abigail was delighted, and she wrote to John Quincy Adams on June 23, 1797, “It is allowed to be as fine a portrait as ever was taken, and what renders it peculiarly valuable to me is the expression, the animation, the true Character which gives it so pleasing a likeness . . . It is most elegantly Framed, and is painted in a masterly manner. No present could have been more acceptable.” John and Abigail Adams had visited London in the 1780s and had become friends with the artist and his wife, and Copley had painted a full-length portrait of John Adams in 1783 (Harvard University Portrait Collection, Cambridge, Massachusetts). Copley had also painted a likeness of Abigail Adams, daughter of John and Abigail Adams, probably at about the same time, which was subsequently destroyed by fire.
John Quincy Adams responded to his mother in a letter dated July 29, 1797, enlightening her on the circumstances under which his portrait had been painted:
The history of the Portrait which you received last March was this. While I was here, the last time, Mr. Copley told me that Mrs. Copley had long been wishing to send you some token of her remembrance and regard, and thinking that a likeness of your Son, would answer the purpose, requested me to sit to him; which I did accordingly and he produced a very excellent picture, as you see. I had it framed in a manner which might correspond to the merit of the painting, and after I left this Country it was sent out by Mr. Copley. . . . It is therefore to the delicate politeness of Mr. and Mrs. Copley, that we are indebted for a present so flattering to me, and in your maternal kindness so acceptable to you. They are well, with all their family and continue to remember you with affection. 
John Quincy Adams was serving as the United States Minister to the Netherlands in 1796 when he sat for Copley, having been appointed by President George Washington in 1794. He was resident in London for several months in 1795 and 1796 to conduct negotiations concerning the ratification of the Jay Treaty, which resolved many issues remaining from the American Revolution. Even though Adams was a relatively young man, he had been chosen for these important positions because of his extraordinary education and upbringing. Since he had often accompanied his father when he was sent to Europe on government business, the younger Adams had traveled to France, Spain, the Low Countries, England, the German States, Russia, and Sweden by the time he was seventeen. Often John Adams’s business required lengthy stays, and John Quincy Adams had therefore been enrolled in schools in Paris and Amsterdam. Back in the United States in 1786, Adams entered Harvard College, was elected to Phi Beta Kappa, and graduated the following year. Subsequently he studied law in Newburyport, Massachusetts, and then began to practice law in Boston.
Adams recorded seven sittings for his portrait from February to April 1796. Two of the notations provide an elucidating glimpse into the experience of posing for Copley. On March 4 he wrote: “At Mr. Copley’s all the morning sitting for my picture. Conversation with him political, metaphysical, and critical. His opinions not accurate, but well meaning.” On March 28: “At Mr. Copley’s all morning, sitting again for my picture. Stayed there too long gazing at his Charles [Charles I Demanding in the House of Commons the Five Impeached Members, 1782–95, City of Boston, in the custody of the Boston Public Library], and at a portrait of the three youngest princesses [The Three Youngest Daughters of King George III, 1785, Royal Collection, United Kingdom], a finely finished thing.” 
In a stylish oval format, the portrait shows a rather debonair John Quincy Adams with powdered hair, dressed in a black frock coat with a white stock and a glimpse of a pink waistcoat. He is set against a red curtain and a crepuscular landscape. Copley carefully delineated Adams’s features but painted the costume and background with dashing and loose brushwork. Art historian James Flexner found the likeness “more handsome than interesting” and commented on the painterly style of the background: “Copley sketched in, very rapidly, a little landscape about a foot square. Sky, hill, and meadow are not drawn but indicated with sweeps of color. The autumn tree is a squiggle of green . . . Should we frame this landscape for itself, it would seem to be a mid-nineteenth-century work, so completely is form subordinated to color.” John Quincy Adams demonstrates Copley’s ability to adjust his technique to suit the current taste. In London he had adopted a loose, Romantic style, a significant change from the more detailed, linear aspect of the paintings he completed in America.
Shortly after the portrait was completed, Adams became engaged to Louisa Catherine Johnson in London. He went on to a brilliant political career, serving in the United States Senate, as Minister to Russia, as Minister to England, and as Secretary of State. In 1825 he was elected the sixth president of the United States, and after he lost his bid for re-election, he represented Plymouth, Massachusetts, in Congress for the rest of his life. Adams also went on to have his portrait painted by many of the leading artists of his day; in all he sat for at least sixty likenesses. Of all these portraits, Adams decided that “Copley’s Portrait of 1796, Stuart’s head of 1825, and Durand’s of 1836 . . . are the only ones worthy of being preserved, with the Busts by Persico, Greenough [92.2857a-b] and Powers.”
1. Andrew Oliver, Portraits of John Quincy Adams and His Wife (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1970), 38.
2. Oliver, Portraits, 40.
3. Adams quoted in Emily Ballew Neff, John Singleton Copley in England, exh. cat. (Houston: Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; London: Merrell Holberton, 1995), 172.
4. James Thomas Flexner, The Light of Distant Skies, 1760–1835 (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1954; New York: Dover, 1969), 55.
5. Oliver, Portraits, 2.
Janet L. Comey
John Quincy Adams
- John Singleton Copley, American, 1738–1815
- 76.52 x 63.5 cm (30 1/8 x 25 in.)
- Medium or Technique
- Oil on canvas
- Accession Number
- On view
- Kristin and Roger Servison Gallery (The New Nation, 1800–1830) - 133