John Singleton Copley, American, 1738–1815 American
127 x 100.96 cm (50 x 39 3/4 in.)
Medium or Technique
Oil on canvas
Carolyn A. and Peter S. Lynch Gallery (Gallery 132)
When Copley painted this portrait of Joseph Warren in about 1765, Warren was a respected physician in Boston and just beginning to participate in the movement that would lead to the American Revolution. He had graduated from Harvard in 1759 and apprenticed in Boston with the London-trained Dr. James Lloyd. In 1763, when a smallpox epidemic struck Boston, Warren successfully inoculated scores of patients with a mild form of the disease and thus prevented their becoming more severely ill. John Adams, one of those whom Warren inoculated, described the doctor as “a pretty, tall, Genteel, fair faced young Gentleman,” qualities still apparent in Copley’s portrait. linkWarren’s reputation as a successful physician grew, and by the mid-1760s his was the largest medical practice in Boston. link
Warren had become a Freemason in 1761, and his lodge, Saint Andrew’s, would play a key role in the revolutionary movement. Paul Revere link, destined to become a close friend, was also a member of that lodge. Warren’s political sensibility was ignited by the economic downturn following the end of the French and Indian War in 1763 and by the passage of the Stamp Act in 1764 and the Sugar Act in 1765, all of which were detrimental to the colonists. He began to express his opinions in the press and through speeches he delivered at Faneuil Hall.
Warren would become famous for his radical political activities, but Copley portrayed him as a physician and a gentleman. He is seated in a chair with his left arm resting on anatomical drawings. His kindly expression and relaxed demeanor suggest the attitude of a physician rather than a firebrand revolutionary. Elegantly dressed in a black coat with a white silk lining and deep cuffs ornamented with embroidered buttons, Warren also sports a pearl-gray silk waistcoat, casually left open. Dr. Warren probably chose to sit for his portrait attired in black because that color was reserved for wear by professionals such as doctors and judges; black clothes did not come into general fashion for men until later in the eighteenth century. The white linen shirt, ruffled cuffs, and white silk stockings mark Warren as a man of some wealth and consequence. His powdered pigeon-wing wig completes his genteel appearance. link
The background elements of the painting—the column, landscape view, pink drapery and table covering, and matching pink chair—are Copley’s creations, serving to provide a suitably grand setting for Warren’s likeness and to signal the physician’s elevated taste. The chair, upholstered in a velvety material, has an exposed frame that is vaguely European in form. The sumptuous table covering is unlikely to have been used as such in colonial Boston, but instead reflects the convention in painting, popular since the Renaissance, of filling the background of portraits with luxurious fabrics. Copley was a master at depicting them and used such elements to dignify his sitters. linkAlthough this painting is not dated, Copley scholar Jules Prown assigned it a probable date of about 1765, based on the similarity of pose and setting to Copley’s portrait of John Hancock link, which the artist signed and dated 1765. link
In the ten years after Copley painted him, Warren contributed his organizational skills, fiery pen, and fervent oratory to the revolutionary cause. He delivered impassioned speeches on the anniversary of the Boston Massacre in 1772 and 1775, and was one of the leaders of the Boston Tea Party in 1773. He was the chief author of the Suffolk Resolves, which were endorsed by the Continental Congress in 1774 and represented an important step on the road to independence. On April 18, 1775, it was Dr. Warren who dispatched Paul Revere and William Dawes to warn John Hancock and Samuel Adams link in Lexington that British troops were headed in that direction. Warren, acting as both a soldier and physician, joined the militia attacking the column of British regulars retreating back to Boston after the battles at Concord and Lexington. He was appointed president of the Provincial Congress and commissioned a major-general in the army. On June 17, 1775, he fought and died at the Battle of Bunker Hill, where he served not as a general but as a volunteer soldier. His death made him the first great popular hero of the American people, mourned with eulogies and poems, and commemorated by John Trumbull in The Death of General Warren at the Battle of Bunker’s Hill, 17 June, 1775link. Paul Revere named his next-born son Joseph Warren Revere link after his good friend, while Abigail Adams wrote to her husband John, “Not all the havoc and devastation they have made has wounded me like the death of Warren. We want him in the Senate; we want him in his profession; we want him in the field. We mourn for the citizen, the Senator, the physician and the warrior.”link
Warren’s portrait descended in the family of his youngest brother, Dr. John Warren, to Dr. Buckminster Brown, who gave it to the MFA under the trusteeship of Joseph Warren’s direct descendants. Many replicas exist, including a copy with some changes by Edward Savage (Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston) and an unfinished, bust-length copy attributed to Copley (Adams National Historical Park, Quincy, Massachusetts). A pendant portrait of Warren’s wife, Elizabeth Hooten Warren link, long attributed to Copley, was reexamined by Prown, who suggested that it might have been executed by another hand. link
1. Clifford K. Shipton, Sibley’s Harvard Graduates, vol. 14 (Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society, 1968), 510.
2. Rhoda Truax, The Doctors Warren of Boston: First Family of Surgery, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1968), 35.
3. I am grateful to Pamela A. Parmal, David and Roberta Logie Curator of Textile and Fashion Arts, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, for her observations on Dr. Warren’s costume.
4. See Jonathan Prown, “John Singleton Copley’s Furniture and the Art of Invention,”in American Furniture 2004, ed. Luke Beckerdite (Milwaukee, Wisc.: Chipstone Foundation, 2004).
5. Jules David Prown, John Singleton Copley, vol. 1 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press for the National Gallery of Art, 1966), 53.
6. Abigail Adams quoted in Truax, The Doctors Warren, 63.
7. Prown, John Singleton Copley, 243.
Janet L. Comey