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

  • UNDERSTAND BIAS Understand assumption and various points of view / empathy

Exploring Portraits

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 John Biggers, The Cradle and Earlie Hudnall, Jr., Hip Hop.

Curriculum Objectives

  • Understanding of the urban experience
  • Symbolism in portraiture








Understand Bias

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 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, tricornered 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

  • Portraiture can tell a story and carry deep messages about the person depicted and the artist’s perspective. For example, these are all-American portraits, yet each person depicted lead very different lives. How do these portraits compare to your life/personal experience?
  • Art concepts like composition and value set the mood. How would the Biggers drawing be different if it were in color? How did the similar posing of Copley figure and the Hudnall figure tell us a similar story? Strike a pose that you think demonstrates your personality or tells a story about you.
  • A different approach for this artwork would be to ask students “what questions would they ask these individuals?” “What do you want to know about their life?” “What clues do you see in the photo that might answer your questions?”
  • As a history connection: Look at these four works of art. What time period do you think they lived in? What cultural change have they seen in their lifetime? (Revolutions, wars, hardships, civil rights, etc.)


  • When compared and contrasted, these images can further students’ understanding of the urban experience as a discussion or bell-ringer activity/warm-up.
  • Example of a bell-ringer activity: Give the students five minutes to compare and contrast the works of art and ask them to share their insights with the class. For more guided looking, provide the students with a question from “Connecting to the Classroom.”
  • This lesson could also be used in an introduction to portraiture or in connection with 8th grade history: have students place each person in the artworks in a time period they have studied in class. Students will then have to express what details of the artwork made them place each person in a time period.

Subject Matter Connection

It is very important for students to develop empathy at the middle school age. Students at this age judge people often at first glance and will make assumptions about that person. The activity of pairing these images of different people helps build awareness of what clues they use to judge a person. It also challenges them to look past their first opinions and learn more about a person’s story.

Together, these culminate in a deeper understanding of portraits and self-portraits. Students, when given a camera, resort to “Facebook” or “mugshot” looking photo portraits. Looking at posing and how the artists use a single image to relate a large amount of information about their portrait subject will lead to deeper symbolism in a portrait created by middle school students.

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