When Copley painted Mercy Otis Warren (1728–1814), at the age of about thirty-six or thirty-seven, she was a Plymouth, Massachusetts, housewife and mother of three sons (two more were to be born between 1764 and 1766); she would later make her name as one of the first chroniclers of the American Revolution and a dedicated campaigner for the patriot cause. Mercy’s upbringing was unusual for a woman in the colonies, for she was well educated—her parents, James and Mary Alleyne Otis (whose portraits, now in the Wichita Art Museum, Kansas, Copley had painted about 1760), had allowed her to attend her older brother’s lessons with a tutor as he prepared for Harvard. She had an unconventional marriage too: her husband, James Warren, a graduate of Harvard, a prosperous merchant and farmer, and an ardent patriot, also encouraged her intellectual pursuits.
Mercy Otis Warren began writing poetry in about 1759, five years after her marriage, but it was not until 1772 and the pseudonymous publication of her satiric drama The Adulateur in the Massachusetts Spy that her work reached the public. Over the next several decades she would pen a series of plays and parodies mocking Governor Thomas Hutchinson and other Loyalists, essays on political issues, and a volume of poems and dramas written in defense of human liberty and dedicated to George Washington. In 1805 she published her three-volume History of the Rise, Progress, and Termination of the American Revolution, which she had begun in the late 1770s and which, unlike most of her earlier efforts, appeared under her own name.
In Copley’s image, Mercy Warren does not allude to her budding literary ambitions but rather enacts prescribed feminine roles. Her portrait offers a graceful complement to that of her husband [31.211]. Their heads are turned toward each other, and she is slightly lower in the picture plane than he. Her body is in profile, and she is dressed in a most fashionable blue satin sacque dress trimmed with ruched silk and silver braid, with a lace stole and lace ruffles at her sleeve. Both the Warrens are portrayed as cultivators: he, the gentleman farmer, stands foursquare on his property; she fingers her nasturtium vines, plants that were valued as food and for their bright, colorful blossoms.
Copley first portrayed Mercy Otis Warren with roses—their ghosts can still be seen beneath the green nasturtium leaves—flowers that were more appropriate for cutting and arranging than nasturtiums. X-rays of the portrait suggest the possibility that Mrs. Warren originally stood before a masonry wall. The revisions in the setting allied Warren more directly with the world of nature; the flowers she tends, but does not cut, are a trope for her role within the family as nurturer of children. Like the cultivation of flowers, the training of children was the responsibility of women. Flowers were emblems of fertility—appropriate to Mercy Warren, who gave birth to sons both the year before and the year after she sat for Copley—but they were also tokens of the fragility of life and may have been meant to recall Warren’s beloved sister Mary (Mrs. John Gray, about 1763, Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston), who died the year this portrait was painted. Nasturtiums were also symbolic of patriotism and thus a prophetic choice of flower for this sitter.
Mercy Warren’s dress appears in two other portraits by Copley: Mrs. Benjamin Pickman (Mary Toppan) (1763, Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, Connecticut) and Mrs. Daniel Sargent (Mary Turner) (1763, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco). Mrs. Pickman and Mrs. Sargent were much younger than Mercy Warren, and were painted at the time of their marriages. Art historian Margaretta Lovell has suggested that the expensive blue dress belonged to the Warrens and that they loaned the dress to Mrs. Pickman and Mrs. Sargent for the purpose of wearing it for their portraits, augmenting it with different trimmings but emphasizing family friendships and alliances. The gown is cut low, and in the portraits of both young sitters, the pale skin of their chests is exposed in advertisement of their beauty. Mercy Warren’s costume, however, has been augmented with a lace stole, a modest touch appropriate to her age and status as matron. She looks directly at the viewer; the levelness of her gaze and the determined set of her mouth suggest (at least to the present-day observer with the luxury of hindsight) the side of her character that will within a decade venture forth from the realm of such acceptable feminine pursuits as gardening and child rearing into the masculine sphere of dramaturgy, political satire, and historical analysis.
1. Margaretta M. Lovell, “Mrs. Sargent, Mr. Copley, and the Empirical Eye,” Winterthur Portfolio 33, no. 1 (Spring 1998): 34.
This text was adapted and expanded by Janet L. Comey from Carol Troyen’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).
Mrs. James Warren (Mercy Otis)
- about 1763
- John Singleton Copley, American, 1738–1815
- 126.05 x 100.33 cm (49 5/8 x 39 1/2 in.)
- Medium or Technique
- Oil on canvas
- Accession Number
- On view
- Carolyn A. and Peter S. Lynch Gallery (Revolutionary Boston) - 132