British painter Joseph Blackburn (active 1752–78) provided a pivotally important example of the British rococo to colonial America, where he worked from 1754 to 1762. He was among just a handful of portrait painters active in New England before the ascent of native-born John Singleton Copley (1738–1815), who matured as an artist in the late 1750s under Blackburn’s influence. Copley’s emergence as a serious competitor likely persuaded Blackburn to move to Portsmouth, New Hampshire, by 1760. In 1763, Blackburn returned to England, and he remained active there and in Ireland until at least 1778.
Little is known of Blackburn’s origins, but his poses and his skill in painting lace and other clothing details point to a familiarity with high-style British portraiture. He first appears in the record in 1752 in Bermuda, where he painted many of the island’s leading families. He worked briefly in Newport, Rhode Island, before moving in 1755 to Boston, where to his good fortune he found little competition in the field of portraiture and quickly developed a large and devoted clientele of prominent sitters.
His portrait of Jonathan Simpson (1711–1795), 1758, is one of the artist’s boldest and most compelling male portraits. Simpson was born to a prominent Boston family of merchants and followed his father, Deacon Jonathan Simpson, into the family’s shopkeeping business. The younger Simpson married Margaret Lechmere (b. 1719) and established a home on the site of the old Boston Music Hall, now the Orpheum Theater. In 1757, Deacon Simpson commissioned Blackburn to paint his portrait (Springfield [Mass.] Museum of Fine Arts), and the following year Jonathan Simpson followed suit, sitting not only for the present portrait but also engaging Blackburn for a second likeness along with a pendant portrait of his wife (both in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston). A loyalist, Jonathan Simpson moved in 1778 to Bristol, England, where he remained until his death. His son, Jonathan Simpson, Esq. (1750–1834), moved his own family to Halifax, Nova Scotia, but later returned to Boston.
In contrast to some of Blackburn’s earlier work in the Colonies, such as his 1755 portrait of Isaac Winslow and his family (see illustration), the portrait of Jonathan Simpson retains only vestiges of the decorative rococo style. Although the angle of Simpson’s body and the placement of his right arm derive from the earlier work, Blackburn presents Simpson in a more natural stance and within a composition that includes little adornment beyond the sumptuous fabric of Simpson’s beautifully tailored suit. Blackburn also portrays Simpson with more convincing volume than is seen in many of his previous works and projects the illuminated figure forward by silhouetting it against a dark background. With his direct gaze and slight smile, Simpson conveys a stately yet pleasant aura of confidence and ease. As much as Blackburn had powerfully influenced the maturing Copley, this portrait suggests that by 1758, the tables had begun to turn. Blackburn’s Simpson is a flesh-and-blood figure rendered in a polished manner associated with Copley’s evolving style.
The portrait also magnificently portrays the typical attire of an older, upperclass gentleman as seen in Boston and Europe in the late 1750s. Simpson wears a wig (a practice that was beginning to go out of favor among younger men around this time) and carries a tricore hat in the characteristic fashion, under the arm. His dress suit is of the finest brown silk satin, with a white lining and the wide cuffs popular during the era. No braid or trim adds further adornment to the exquisite, luminous fabric. (Textiles were among the most valuable and prevalent imports from England, and the satin Simpson wears is his most obvious marker of wealth.) The present picture, which retains its original frame, descended in the Osgood family of Salem and Boston, Massachusetts, until 2007. It is the earliest American painting in the Hood’s collections.