John Singleton Copley, Samuel Adams, c. 1772

From the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston:

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. 

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.

 

Posted on July 7 2012, with 33 Notes

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