Detail: Right hand
Detail: Left hand
John Singleton Copley (American, 1738–1815)
125.73 x 100.33 cm (49 1/2 x 39 1/2 in.)
Medium or Technique
Oil on canvas
Carolyn A. and Peter S. Lynch Gallery (Gallery 132)
In this celebrated portrait, Adams is shown at what he himself would always consider his greatest moment: his confrontation with Royal Governor Thomas Hutchinson the day after the Boston Massacre of March 5, 1770, during which Adams demanded the expulsion of British troops from the town. He points to the charter and seal granted Massachusetts by King William and Queen Mary; in his right hand is the clearly legible petition “Instructions of … Town Boston,” prepared by his aggrieved fellow citizens.
Copley’s portrait brilliantly conveys the electricity of the moment. By about 1770 he had come to work in a relatively austere manner, markedly decreasing his reliance on prints as models for poses and accessories and reducing the decorative elements in his pictures. Instead of embellishing his portraits with a wealth of detail, Copley concentrated on personality, which he emphasized through a simplified palette and, above all, through an increased attention to the expressive potential of light-dark contrasts. In Samuel Adams, dramatic style and dynamic sitter are admirably matched. Adams is placed slightly off-center, his body shifted to the left, his head turned back. He crowds the table, pushing forward and threatening the viewer’s space. Using a deliberately muted palette, Copley called special attention to Adams’s head and hands, which seem spotlighted, while Adams’s dull reddish-brown suit barely emerges from the dark background. Adams’s proportions, like those of many of Copley’s male sitters, seem peculiar: his head is overlarge and his torso appears small and ungainly; he is barrel chested and has sloping, shrunken shoulders. But characteristics that are often attributed to deficiencies in Copley’s drawing have a vital expressive effect here: Adams’s leonine head becomes all the more impressive and commanding, his piercing stare all the more intense, in contrast to his paltry frame. Despite these dramatic effects, Copley provided evidence of his sitter’s modesty, depicting Adams in a simple suit of dark wool, with no ornamental braid or embroidery, and with a single ruffle of linen at the wrist. The lapels of his waistcoat are bunched and sloppily folded over, and two buttons of it are undone, suggesting Adams’s utter lack of vanity and of concern for appearances (although his detractors would have seen this as evidence of his wildness and unreliability).
According to tradition, this portrait was commissioned by John Hancock [L-R 30.76d], Adams’s sometime partner in revolutionary activities. In the early 1770s, Adams was certainly in no position to pay for it himself. The inheritor of a thriving malt-producing company, he had no aptitude for trade and ruined the family business not long after his father’s death. From the 1760s, he devoted himself almost entirely to politics. In addition to dominating the Boston Town Meeting and manipulating the machinery of local politics, Adams cultivated a group of younger men to help him promote the revolutionary effort, including Joseph Warren, John Adams, and especially Hancock, who sought to overcome his image as a young dandy in order to become a significant figure in Boston politics. Although the relationship between Adams and Hancock had cooled somewhat by the late 1760s, when Hancock came to believe that Adams’s radicalism was hurting the patriot cause, the Boston Massacre and subsequent events renewed Hancock’s appreciation for Adams’s powers. The usefulness of an incendiary image of Adams, and the advantages of a certain measure of identification with him after he successfully defied Hutchinson, would have been clear to Hancock, whose commissioning of the portrait would more likely have been a shrewd political move than a gesture of affection. Hanging in Hancock’s house, the site of important political meetings in the 1770s, the portrait of Adams could not fail to inspire. The image became widely known; it was copied in oil and several prints [M27880] were made after it. Both on the wall of Hancock’s house and in reproduction, Copley’s image of Adams became an instrument of propaganda, an implement of the Revolution.
Although Copley was careful not to advertise his political views, the commission to paint Adams gave him the opportunity to experiment with a kind of portraiture that was as radical as his subject. Most of his earlier paintings adhered to the convention of including attributes that alluded in only a general way to the career of the sitter—a merchant might be shown with a ledger, a landowner against a grand architectural backdrop, and so on. A portrait occasioned by a significant event in the sitter’s life—such as marriage or coming into an inheritance—would refer to the event obliquely, if at all. In an era when portraits were meant to present an ideal conception of the subject, more direct allusions would have been considered too particularizing. But in Samuel Adams there are no distancing, moderating decorative accessories; the sitter is commandingly real, almost terrifyingly present. Copley linked the portrait to a specific historic moment that was urgently familiar to all who saw it. Yet at the same time he created an image with a larger-than-life message. Adams’s defiant gesture and gaze arrest the viewer, who is cast in the role of Governor Hutchinson himself. The charge to Hutchinson, who unlike other royal representatives was not imposed upon Massachusetts from abroad but was himself a Bostonian, was also a challenge to the viewer’s loyalty, a challenge at once stirring and discomforting. Adams’s declamatory gesture, worthy of a Roman senator, connotes power and authority; his figure is unusually sculptural. Although his zeal is undeniable, there is little of the fanatic, the incendiary here. The documents he points to insist upon the rule of law, not emotion, and the classical columns behind him underscore an association with republican virtue and rationality. Adams is presented as a man of reason, and the image is all the more potent for it.
For Copley, Samuel Adams was a stirring history painting in the guise of a portrait. In its electrifying characterization, its enactment of a contemporary event, and its moralistic admonition, it was the forerunner of such groundbreaking canvases as Watson and the Shark [89.481], a history painting that would prove to be one of the masterpieces of Copley’s British career.
This text was adapted 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).
About 1772, to John Hancock (1737-1793), who according to tradition had commissioned the portrait; 1793, by inheritance to his widow, Dorothy Quincy Hancock (1747-1830); by 1827, purchased by a grandson of the sitter, Samuel Adams Wells (1787-1840). By 1841, to Adam W. Thaxter, Jr.; 1841, given by Adam W. Thaxter, Jr. to the City of Boston; 1876, deposited by the City of Boston to the MFA.
Deposited by the City of Boston