Portrait of a Boy, c. 1758–1760
John Singleton Copley, American, 1738–1815
Oil on canvas
48 5/8 × 36 1/4 in. (123.4 × 92.1 cm)
The Bayou Bend Collection, gift of Miss Ima Hogg
Habits of Mind
- OVERCOME FEAR Overcome fear of ambiguity / fear of failure or being wrong / fear of the unknown
- OBSERVE DETAILS Observe details / time to think and reflect
Painting with Words
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.
- Analyze a work of art
- Study the historical or cultural context of a work of art
- Relate art and literature
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 15, 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.
- Analyze the way that Copley has used light, shadow, and color in this composition. Where are the major light areas? Where are the major dark areas? What effect do they have on the image as a whole?
- Has Copley chosen naturalistic colors for this painting? Has he used the same color scheme across the entire composition? What effects do his color choices have on the image?
- Look closely at the boy’s clothing. What words would you use to describe it? What materials are used, and how do they communicate information about the boy and his lifestyle?
- Similarly, analyze the setting that this boy is standing in. Where might he be? What do the architecture and landscape evoke?
- The background and setting are fictional, allowing Copley to take full liberty in creating the scene. How does he create a sense of distance and monumentality in this painting’s setting?
- Copley dedicated careful thought to the objects he placed in this portrait. Look closely at the objects surrounding the boy. What are they? What symbolic connotations might they have?
- What do the boy’s pudgy features suggest about his daily life? Why might the patron have wanted to portray him that way?
- Imagine if the boy were seated, or if he were standing rigidly upright. How do you think that change the message of this portrait?
- Similarly, imagine how the mood and message of the portrait might change if Copley had chosen a different setting. What do the stately architecture and faraway landscape add to the painting and its message?
- Why might this boy’s family have wanted his portrait painted? What value would this have had in their lives as a status symbol?
- Though he had no family history of nobility, Copley’s immense success as a painter earned him a spot in the upper echelons of English and American society. Looking at this example of his portraiture, why do you think Copley was in such high demand?
- How might this painting reflect the colonial American class structure, in which family ties were secondary to wealth and taste? How might this portrait have been different if it was intended for an English audience, with their family-based class system?
This painting can be used as inspiration for students’ original poems, allowing them to practice different styles of poetry while extrapolating information from complex visuals.
First, you can ask your students to imagine that this painting is the cover of a book. In a group discussion or writing assignment, have students use as many details from the painting as possible to develop a short synopsis of their book and a title. Which aspects of the painting did they highlight in their “book”, and how do their titles reflect the image?
After this exercise, students can practice writing poems using the information from their “book”. They can write these in a number of different styles, depending on your curriculum and goals for the class. If desired, students can model their poems or writings off of examples. You might consider:
- Investigative poetry (ex., Zhenya Gay’s “Wonderful Things”)
- Descriptive poetry (ex. Shel Silverstein, “My Rules”)
- Comparison-contrast poetry (ex. Anne Rose, “How does a Czar Eat Potatoes?”)
You can then have a class poetry reading, asking each student to share their poems. How did writing the poems help them learn more about the painting Portrait of a Boy? Did they learn anything surprising about the time period in which the artist lived and worked?
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.