At the invitation of Captain Stephen Kemble, who had arranged a number of commissions for him, Copley came to New York by June 1771, encountering sufficient demand for his work to keep him there until...
At the invitation of Captain Stephen Kemble, who had arranged a number of commissions for him, Copley came to New York by June 1771, encountering sufficient demand for his work to keep him there until Christmas of that year. Several circumstances suggest that the museum’s Portrait of a Lady may have been painted while Copley was in New York: the letter the subject is holding is dated 1771; the placement of the sofa is similar to Copley’s New York portrait of Captain Kemble’s daughter, Mrs. Thomas Gage, 1771 (Timken Art Gallery, San Diego); the discovery of the portrait in England may reflect the fact that many of his New York sitters were Tories who would have taken their portraits back with them to England during the Revolution.
The closest one can come to the identity of the lady is the earliest known owner of the painting, a granddaughter of Hester Thrale who married the fourth marquis of Lansdowne in 1843. The granddaughter was the last of the descendants of Mrs. Thrale and could have inherited the painting from any of a number of aunts and their relatives by marriage. One would hope that one of these branches could be traced to someone who was in America in 1771. In any case, the source of the inheritance apparently led to the misidentification of the museum’s painting as a portrait of Mrs. Thrale, the friend and patron of Dr. Johnson.
The strongest candidate for the identity of the sitter for this painting is a "Miss Johnston" whose name appears on the list of subscribers for portraits prepared by Captain Kemble to induce Copley to come to paint in New York. She is the only subscriber for a fifty-by-forty inch portrait whose portrait has not been identified and who was the age of the sitter in the museum’s portrait. (However, the bottom of Captain Kemble’s torn list is missing, and other New Yorkers contracted for fifty-by-forty inch portraits after Copley’s arrival.) Given the fact that Captain Kemble’s list reflects his associations with the Tory elite of New York City and New Jersey and the English military, the Miss Johnston on his list probably was Ann Johnston, daughter of Dr. Lewis Johnston, a prominent landholder in Perth Amboy, and his wife Martha Heathcote, daughter of the celebrated Caleb Heathcote, as has been suggested by Mr. Edward Sprague Jones. She married a Captain (later Lieutenant Colonel) John Burnet of the Eighth Regiment, British Army. The Johnston family left New Jersey and moved to New York during the Revolution. Afterward, Ann Johnston Burnet and her daughter lived with her father-in-law in Plymouth, England. John Burnet appears in Army lists up to the year 1792, but thereafter no record can be found of him either in War Office records or in the half-pay and pension returns of the Paymaster General. From 1783 to 1831 Ann Johnston Burnet was granted a Loyalist pension. It has not been possible to trace wills for either Captain Burnet or his wife.
In contrast to his more decorative work of the 1760s, Copley’s portraits of the early 1770s are sober. As in Portrait of a Lady, the subject usually is posed before a vacant, dark background. A strong light partially illuminates the figure, which is otherwise enveloped by shadows. An almost stark simplicity gives the portrait at once a greater sense of sculptural form and a tougher, more forceful realism.
Although the setting of the portrait is simple, it contains a prominent note of luxury and even ostentation, the large camelback sofa upholstered in a plum-colored damask. Upholstered sofas were prohibitively expensive and rare in the American colonies. Of course, the sofa need not have belonged to the subject of the portrait. Copley sometimes dressed sitters in dresses that appeared in others of his portraits, and he sometimes copied costumes from prints. Often the settings were adapted from prints or were invented. The shape of the sofa and the pattern of the decorative nailing in the museum’s portrait are the same as in Copley’s portrait of Mrs. Gage, although the color of the upholstery is different. A distinctive feature of the museum’s painting is the evidence it alone provides as to the use of cushions on American sofas. The subject of the portrait is depicted reclining upon both a box-edge cushion and a knife-edge cushion. The box-edge cushion may have been either a seat cushion or more likely a back cushion. The knife-edge cushion may have been one of the pillows placed at each end. In the third edition of his Gentlemen and Cabinet-Maker’s Director (1762), Thomas Chippendale advised that sofas "have a bolster and pillow at each end and cushions at the back, which may be laid down occasionally."
The subject wears a white dress of the style seen in portraits of as much as forty years earlier in the works of JOHN SMIBERT, for instance. By the time the museum’s portrait was painted this type of dress was no longer worn in public, becoming a kind of formal undress comparable with the turbans and dressing coats in which Copley’s men sometimes appear, something to be worn in the presence of family and close friends. The subject wears no jewelry. The relaxed, reclining pose of the subject, unique in Copley’s work enhances this impression of our having been admitted into a private setting.
Another interpretation of the costume would suggest a distinctly different mood within this painting. In contrast to Copley’s Boston subjects, who usually wore their best street clothes, his more sophisticated New York sitters were aware of the current fashion in London for portraits in fancy costume. For instance, Mrs. Gage wears what was known as Turkish dress. The simple, crossed-over loose dress worn by the subject of the museum’s painting is similar to the classical costume worn by the subjects of Sir Joshua Reynolds’s grand manner portraits employing personification from mythology or ancient history. If it was meant to suggest classical costume, the utterly simple dress in the museum’s painting would indicate to the viewer of that period not informal relaxation but sophisticated elegance.
In contrast with Mrs. Gage, who looks away, the subject of the museum’s painting gazes directly at the viewer. The art historian Jules Prown remarks upon the exceptional degree to which Copley here concentrates upon the character of his subject: "There is a strong sense of the sitter’s personality here, whoever she may be, and a warm rapport is created between the viewer and the subject of the painting."