Portrait of a Boy
John Singleton Copley, American, 1738–1815
Oil on canvas
48 5/8 × 36 1/4 in. (123.4 × 92.1 cm)

Habits of Mind

  • SYNTHESIZE Analyze and synthesize relationships and information / compare and contrast / understand the micro and macro implications


6, 7, 8



Exploring Portraits Through Photography and Painting

Discussion through works of art encourage how to approach ambiguous and complex ideas, thoughts, and feelings. The MFAH offers a democratic space where students and teachers can develop, practice and articulate these habits of mind. Remember that the quality of the conversation is what is important, not finding the artist’s “answer.” Slow down and take the time to make careful observations. Talk about what you notice, and try to avoid jumping to conclusions and interpretations. Be sure to give enough time for silent looking and thinking.


This Curriculum Connection also includes Earlie Hundall, Jr., Hip Hop.

Connecting to the Work of Art

In this portrait, John Singleton Copley depicts a confident, young boy, once thought to be the son of American patriot John Hancock. Though that has since been disproven, the boy’s identity remains a mystery. Still, it is easy to establish his social position. The grand nature of the portrait suggests that he is heir to a wealthy and socially ambitious family. His attire is elegant: gray suit, luxurious blue waistcoat, black necktie and shoes, and a pink buttonhole rose. He has fashionably styled hair and a confident, relaxed demeanor. While the setting is fictitious, it draws from images of classical and ornate architecture seen in popular prints of the time. Familiar objects such as expensive toys and a tri-cornered hat further suggest his aristocratic status.


Copley, born to poor Irish immigrants in Boston, rose through the ranks of colonial America’s class structure to become a member of the American aristocracy. Without any formal artistic training, he created his first works of art when he was fifteen, beginning with the most highly respected art form of the time—history painting. However, such works were not in demand in colonial America and Copley was forced to focus on portraiture.


This painting is emblematic of Copley’s American portraits. His greatest achievements as a portraitist include his strong contrasts of light and shadow, brilliant use of color, and the ability to capture the distinctive personalities of his sitters. The young boy, vividly depicted against a dark background, displays an easy confidence that was a characteristic endorsed by etiquette books of the time. Copley often utilized portrait d’apparat, the technique of portraying the sitter with items from his or her daily life. For children, this often included toys, such as the badminton battledore and shuttlecock shown here.


With no formal social hierarchy or established ruling class, status in colonial America depended on the display of luxury, wealth, and taste rather than on family lineage. Copley is an excellent example of this social order. Even though his parents kept a small tobacco shop on Boston’s wharf, he rose to the highest echelon of society. His children even acquired titles of nobility in England. Although Copley was rewarded with material success and social status, his greatest goal was to be a recognized artist and to raise the status of the artist from craftsman to that of a gentleman. In England, Copley became an internationally recognized history painter who helped revolutionize the genre of modern history painting. Distinguished by a more compelling and theatrical atmosphere and the depiction of multiple narrative scenes of a historical event, Copley, along with Benjamin West and John Trumbull, formed the “triumvirate of history painters” in the 18th century.


  • The boy´s slight smile and direct stare exude confidence. Copley used light and shadow to model the figure´s chubby, round features naturalistically. Gilbert Stuart, an artist who worked at the same time as Copley, once remarked that if you "pricked" one of Copley´s portraits, "blood would spurt out." Copley´s portraits were the product of many discussions between the artist and his patron. In this instance, the child´s parents paid Copley a large sum to capture their son´s appearance. What do the boy´s pudgy facial features suggest about his daily life? Why would his parents choose to have him depicted in this manner?
  • When Copley began his career there were no art schools or classes in America. Printed, black and white copies of European paintings were popular in the colonies and Copley used these prints as models for his own paintings.  As a result, artists in Europe criticized his paintings for "hardness in the drawing, coldness in the shades, and overminuteness." Do you agree with this critique? Why or why not?
  • The boy wears a gray suit, black necktie, blue vest with gold buttons, and pink buttonhole rose. What words would you use to describe the pieces of clothing and the materials used to make them?
  • What do you think the boy’s clothing says about his social standing and future? What clues does Copley include that make you think this?
  • The backdrop for the painting is not an actual location. Copley derived this setting from images of classical architecture seen in the prints he studied. The landscape he created is an idealized view of the American wilderness. How did Copley create a sense of distance in this area of the painting?
  • The boy leans against a stone railing with his knee slightly bent. Copley copied this pose from the black and white copies of European paintings that he studied. Like many aspects of this painting, the young man´s stance was meant to convey his personality and way of life. How would the painting change if the boy stood rigidly upright? What does his more casual pose tell you about his personality?
  • Copley portrayed his subjects with attributes, items associated with their daily life. The boy holds a battledore, or badminton racket. A shuttlecock rests at his feet and a braid-brimmed, tri-cornered hat sits next to it on the ground. What items would you ask an artist to include in a portrait of yourself?


  • The under drawing, the sketch Copley applied to the canvas before painting, indicates that he originally planned to portray the young man with a book under his right arm. How would your thoughts about the boy change if he still held the book?
  • Although the boy in this portrait is unidentified, much can still be discerned about him. Analyze the boy’s clothing and hairstyle, his demeanor, the setting, and other objects in the portrait. What does this say about the boy and his family?
  • Why would the boy’s family want his portrait painted? Discuss the notion of “status symbol” and how this painting serves that function.
  • Copley was a master painter of his time. Look at this painting and describe Copley’s skill as a painter. Copley was also known as a master colorist. Examine his color choices and consider how many vibrant colors Copley included in his palette. What does this say about him as an artist?


Connecting to the Classroom

  • Questions for Portrait of a Boy:
    1. Look at this portrait, describe what you are seeing. Analyze his clothing, hairstyle, demeanor, and setting.
    2. Look at the objects in the portrait, what do they say about the boy and his family?
    3. If you met this person in real life, what kind of attitude or personality do you think he may have?
    4. What is the mood of this painting?


  • Questions for the Hip Hop:
  1. Look at this portrait, describe what you are seeing. Analyze his clothing, demeanor, and setting. What do they say about the boy and his family?
  2. If you met this person in real life, what kind of attitude or personality do you think he may have?
  3. What is the mood of this photograph?
  4. This is a photograph of a boy in Galveston in 1993. How does that information change your opinion of the boy and his lifestyle?
  5. The artist titled this work of art Hip Hop. Why do you think the artist chose this title? Explain your answer.
  6. Should artists refrain from this type of subject matter? Why or why not?


  • Questions for comparing:
    1.  When you view these artworks side by side, what similarities do you see? What differences do you see?
    2. How do you think the boys in the artworks want to be perceived? Why do you think this?
    3. Remove each boy from his culture and time period. How would they fit in or function in the other boy’s culture? How would that change their attitude?
    4. What if each of the boys were sitting down, how would that change the mood of the artwork? What type of seated pose could you place them in that would communicate their confident attitude?


  • Give the students a mood or an attitude, and ask them to pose how they feel that they can show that attitude.
  • Have students create gesture drawings of each other in poses that communicate a mood or attitude.
  • Use this artwork as a connection to a proportion lesson on the human body.
  • For a lesson on Photography: Students will create a still-life photograph using objects that communicate important aspects of a family member’s personality, life, or culture. As in the Copley painting, students will use one strong light source in their photograph to create dynamic values. The objects should be arranged in a way that they will have a dialogue between each other and tell a story.
  • Students will create a portrait of themselves that tells something about the person in the portrait. Students will hold, use, or wear one object that speaks about their interests or culture. Accurate proportions will be applied and strong contrasts in light and shade will be used. To get the strong contrast, students will take a photo of themselves in a darkened room using one single light source. The photo will be gridded and drawn. The gridding process will teach them to analyze the proportion. Students will use acrylic paint and use a color scheme to define the mood. Students used their sketchbook to plan out their color scheme before starting with acrylic.

Subject Matter Connection

One of the major reasons artists create art is to communicate an idea. Understanding how to break apart a work of art to see what is being communicated is a vital part of learning about art and how to be an artist. Students who learn how to truly communicate thoughts and concepts create meaningful works of art that have an impact on society. In portrait art, the skill of capturing personality, mood, or social status, and communicating that to the viewer, adds depth to the work of art.

When learning to analyze these two artworks, students will gain a better understanding of how artists impart their culture. Art records history, and artists speak on their artwork. These artworks are from two different time periods and two very different cultures. This activity of analyzing and comparing will help students make a history and culture connection with their own artwork.

Additionally, we ask students to look at art from artists and other students to produce their own art. In the art classroom, we ask students to synthesize ideas from art into their own work. Thus, teaching them to analyze and compare these two artworks will help them develop a process for comparing, taking ideas, and creating.

Resources Available to Order

The Learning Through Art program is endowed by Melvyn and Cyvia Wolff.

The Learning Through Art curriculum website is made possible in part by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

All Learning and Interpretation programs at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, receive endowment income from funds provided by the Louise Jarrett Moran Bequest; Caroline Wiess Law; the William Randolph Hearst Foundation; The National Endowment for the Humanities; the Fondren Foundation; BMC Software, Inc.; the Wallace Foundation; the Neal Myers and Ken Black Children’s Art Fund; the Favrot Fund; and Gifts in honor of Beth Schneider.