Boston on the Eve of Revolution and The New Nation
These galleries feature paintings and decorative arts produced during the period of the American Revolution and the creation of the United States, in a society whose focus was at once intensely local and increasingly global. The US achieved political independence from Britain in large part thanks to the wealth it accumulated through commerce with Europe and Asia and the international slave trade. Colonial American merchants also had connections to both Latin America and the Caribbean, importing raw materials—mahogany, silver, and sugar extracted by enslaved African and Native laborers—and reselling them as finished luxury goods. Beautiful works of art created at this time thus relied on oppressive economic systems, raising questions about the notions of liberty that inspired many of their makers and collectors.
Early American portraits tie politics to painting and often mask an uncomfortable history. John Singleton Copley (1738–1815) depicted figures who played major roles in the Revolution: among them, Samuel Adams, who confronted the Loyalist governor after the Boston Massacre; and Mercy Otis Warren, who later documented the fight for independence in her poetry and drama. Yet some of his sitters, including John Hancock as well as Copley himself, held people in slavery. In the New Nation gallery, Thomas Sully’s dramatic Passage of the Delaware (1819) shows General George Washington already mythologized as a symbol of the intrepid new nation. The group of soldiers at right includes William Lee, an enslaved man who served as Washington’s valet during the war. Peering out from the background, his presence calls attention to the role that people of color played in the Revolution and references the broader debates over the future of slavery in the new nation.