Mrs. Ezekiel Goldthwait (Elizabeth Lewis)
John Singleton Copley, American, 1738–1815 American
127.32 x 101.92 cm (50 1/8 x 40 1/8 in.)
Medium or Technique
Oil on canvas
Norma and Roger Alfred Saunders Gallery (Gallery 128)
Copley’s paintings of Elizabeth and Ezekiel Goldthwait link rank among his most successfully unified pendant portraits. The Goldthwaits are each depicted at three-quarter length, seated in darkened interiors, she at a table and he at a desk. 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: Elizabeth pauses as she reaches for a piece of fruit, and Ezekiel turns from writing at his desk.
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. The Goldthwaits were prosperous indeed. Ezekiel Goldthwait (1710–1782) was born in the North End of Boston to a merchant family originally from Salem. The 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 described specifically); some two hundred books; and a gold watch.
Elizabeth Lewis (1713–1794) married Ezekiel Goldthwait in 1732, before he began his political career. She was the sister of Ezekial’s older brother Joseph’s wife Martha. Little is known of the Lewis family. During the first twenty-five years of her marriage, Elizabeth bore thirteen children, five of whom, all girls, survived to adulthood. Scholars have proposed that Copley represented the matriarch with a bowl of apples, peaches, and a pear to indicate her fecundity, or to allude to the renowned Goldthwait gardens, or to indicate the sitter’s prowess as a gardener; it is also possible that he used the fruit here, as he may have used flowers in other portraits, as a generalized feminine symbol.
Ezekiel Goldthwait commissioned Copley to paint the portraits of his wife and himself toward the conclusion of his public career as town clerk. In June 1771, Copley charged him £19.12 for each painting and £9 for each frame (the original bill is in the Museum’s archives). The portraits 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).