Although largely self-taught and without benefit of European study, John Singleton Copley invented a powerfully convincing style of portraiture that summarized the expansive ambitions and self-confidence of colonial American society on the brink of revolution.
We know little about Katherine Graves Russell of Charlestown, Massachusetts, except that she was the daughter and wife of magistrates and the mother of eleven children. Her grave marker solemnly proclaims, “Her life was distinguished by undissembled piety and the exercise of the most amiable social virtues.” Her portrait suggests she possessed a formidable personality. Elegantly, if soberly, dressed, Mrs. Russell eyes us with calm assurance. The artist heightens the woman’s physical presence by placing her against a dark background and illuminating her from the side to “sculpt” her features with light and shadow. He encourages a ready rapport by the informality of the pose: apparently we have interrupted her reading.
Colonial Boston was too provincial for an artist of Copley’s gifts and ambitions. Not long after painting Mrs. Russell, he sailed for England, where he embarked on a new career as a painter to kings and aristocrats. One of his finest English paintings, Sir William Pepperrell and His Family, is also in the Museum’s collection.
tags: fashion, identity, observation, perspective, place, women