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
Analyzing Assumptions and Overcoming Bias:
Understanding the Law of Conservation of Energy
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 Hudnall, Hip Hop.
- The student knows that the Law of Conservation of Energy states that energy can neither be created nor destroyed; it just changes form.
- Students demonstrate energy transformations such as energy in muscle cells transforming chemical energy into kinetic energy.
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.
- 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?
Either in groups or as a class, present Portrait of a Boy alongside Earlie Hudnall, Jr.’s Hip Hop. Guide the class to analyze these works of art, imitating the boys’ postures and describing their expression, dress, and setting. Also ask the class to hypothesize where the boys might live. Do students think that the images show warm or cold climates? Why?
After discussing the works of art, use them to explore the Law of Conservation of Energy. Ask students: if energy cannot be created or destroyed, how can these artworks show energy transformation? For example, if the sun shone on the 20th-century boy’s necklace, how would thermal energy transfer occur? If the 18th-century boy threw the shuttlecock (birdie) into the air and hit it with his racket, how would the energy change in that situation? Prompt students to find other examples of the Law of Conservation of Energy in both artworks.
Subject Matter Connection
In science, the scientist has a lot to do with the success of the experiment. Cutting-edge work requires that the scientist be unafraid of failure, ambiguity, or the unknown. The more we address the overwhelming success of failure, the greater scientific risks students will take. The Law of Conservation of Energy is often misunderstood. The middle school student has a hard time understanding the abstract concept of energy not being created or destroyed, but transforming.
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.