Governor John Wentworth (1737-1820)
Pastel on laid paper, mounted on canvas
Gift of Mrs. Esther Lowell Abbott in memory of her husband, Gordon Abbott; D.977.175
John Singleton Copley is generally acclaimed as the greatest artistic talent of the American colonial period. Despite his lack of formal training, his extraordinary skill as a portraitist brought him prestige and prosperity in both America and England, where he spent the last forty years of his life. Although Copley expressed a preference for the delicate medium of pastel, only about fifty-five such works are known among the hundreds of likenesses he completed during his lifetime. In this composition he silhouettes the handsome Royal Governor John Wentworth (1737-1820) against a dark gray background, which projects the figure forward and sets off the delicate tones of his fair complexion, powdered hair, and light gray suit. The work reveals Copley’s full mastery of the pastel medium and its versatile textural effects. He delineated the sitter’s wig with layers of controlled fine lines; suggested the details of the costume with broad, energetic strokes; and meticulously modeled Wentworth’s elegant features by thoroughly blending individual strokes of pastel in a painterly fashion. Copley deftly rendered the most stylish features of the governor’s apparel—the silver buttons, lace jabot, and embroidered lapel—without detracting from the drawing’s primary focus: Wentworth’s direct and assessing gaze. Wentworth’s elegant dress and magisterial bearing befit his standing as one of the wealthiest, highest-ranking government officials in the colonies. He was initially popular among New Hampshire colonists for sympathizing with their opposition to the heavy taxes imposed by the British parliament. He granted Eleazar Wheelock (cat. 5) the charter for Dartmouth College in 1769, the same year he sat for this portrait. Wentworth eventually took a stand against the colonists’ resistance to the British and fled to England at the outbreak of the American Revolution, never to return to his native soil.
Last Updated: 5/6/09