Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of Frances Montresor of New York (1744-1826), 1771 

John Singleton Copley RA (1738 1815)

Portrait of Frances Montresor of New York (1744-1826), 1771, John Singleton Copley
Oil on canvas
18th Century
30 x 25 in (76.2 x 63.5 cm)
The portrait was requested for loan by Metropolitan Museum for the 1995 John Singleton Copley exhibition and for display in the American galleries before and after the exhibition but the request was declined by the family.
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Writing to his wife in 1776, five years after the present portrait was executed, John Adams, later second president of the United States, described Copley as ''the greatest master that ever was in America''.1 Copley himself was aware of the elevated position he held in his native country's pantheon of artists. A year before Adams's letter, he wrote to his half-brother Henry Pelham, ''it is a pleasing reflection that I shall stand amongst the first of the artists that shall have led that Country to the Knowledge and Cultivation of the fine arts''.2 In the centuries that followed his death his fundamental importance to the development of art in America has been repeated time and again. Most recently an examination of his critical history in the catalogue of the 1995 Metropolitan Museum exhibition was entitled The Study of America's First Old Master, a designation which would surely have pleased the artist. The reasons for his success in achieving this position of pre-eminence by the time of his mid-thirties are two-fold. It came about, as Staiti writes ''from his ability to handle paint and produce images that in their proficiency eclipsed anything created by his predecessors in America'' but also (and more fundamentally) by his ''identifying with those who expressed the prevailing ethos....and, until their world collapsed, by capturing and confirming their values and hopes''.3 Few works encapsulate these twin aspects of Copley's success as well as this portrait of Frances Montresor. Painted in New York in 1771 the portrait and its companion piece of the sitter's husband (Detroit Institute of Fine Arts) are characterised by Poesch as ''hardly short of magnificent''.4 It is an elegant summation of some of the best qualities in Copley's art of his American period while at the same time providing a fitting coda to the pre-Republican era of American history. Arguably, together with Mrs Frances Gage, Frances Montresor is the most conventionally beautiful of Copley's colonial sitters and this portrait highlights and at the same time transcends the newly created American aesthetic.

John Montresor (1736 - 1799) husband of the sitter, was one of the most colourful and energetic figures serving in the crown forces in North America in the second half of the eighteenth-century. Despite his military rank he appears in many ways to have identified himself with the American colonies where he spent almost the whole of his working life. He was born in Gibraltar on April 6th 1736 where his father James Gabriel, a military engineer had served at the capture of the Rock in 1727. Montresor came to America in 1754 serving under General Braddock with the rank of ensign. In the battle of July 9th 1755 in which Braddock was killed Montresor who had just been made a lieutenant was wounded. Montresor was an engineer of outstanding ability and energy. He served all over the continent from the Bahamas to Quebec, building fortifications, canals and roads, surveying land, drawing maps and laying siege to defenses, in some cases those which he himself had created. A man of artistic and well as practical ability, in 1759 he painted a portrait of General James Wolfe at Montmorenci, near Quebec, while his map of New York of 1767 dedicated to Thomas Gage is beautifully designed as well as cartographically precise. Montresor settled the long standing dispute between the states of New York and New Jersey as to the boundary between them, establishing the line by astronomical observation. In addition to engineering fieldwork, Montresor took part in the Battles of Bunker's Hill, Lexington and Brandywine among others. He recorded many of these activities and campaigns in a series of journals which giver a vivid flavour of military life in some of the remotest areas of the continent as then explored: This morning we were attacked by a Body of Indians.....we had 3 men killed one of whom was scalped and tomahawk''d on the Beach''.5 On 1st March 1764 Montresor married the beautiful Frances Tucker of New York. Her family were originally from Bermuda but settled in New York where she had been born, after her mother's re-marriage to the Reverend Samuel Auchmuty of Trinity Church New York.

The portraits of the Mr and Mrs Montresor were painted during Copley's sojourn in New York from mid-June to December 1771. Copley and Montresor were already acquainted, seemingly through the latter''s father Colonel. James Gabriel.6 In the Fall of 1771, presumably when he was at work on the pair of portraits, Copley notes in a letter to his half-brother Henry Pelham: ''Capt. Montresor is a Gentleman we have received great Civility from''. In a subsequent letter he advises Pelham to consult Montresor on how to gorgeous fabric and the simple string of pearls on her arm characterize her elevated, yet somehow timeless, status. Almost half of Copley's portraits represent a sitter whose spouse the artist was also to portray. Stebbins has written acutely on the dynamics at work within these paired portraits. In contrast to earlier Dutch and English prototypes where the wife is usually posed demurely awaiting her husband to speak he notes that Copley''s women seem ''capable, independent people who look out boldly of the paintings, their eyes meeting ours''10. This is clearly the case with the present pair of portraits. John Montresor is shown pensive and preoccupied looking into the distance, his wife by contrast engages us with an almost flirtatious gaze and smile. Some years later when both artist and sitter were in England, Copley painted Mrs Montresor again (Diplomatic Reception Rooms, Department of State, Washington DC). The contrast between the two versions is marked and is nicely indicative of the difference between Copley's American and English periods.

Copley uses the present portrait to show-case all aspects of his masterly technique. The face is precisely drawn, particularly apparent in the sculptured cheekbones. Partly by merit of its unusually well preserved state, it is possible also to determine that the hair is painted almost strand by strand with remarkable delicacy, recalling his experience as a miniaturist. In contrast, Copley employs bolder brush strokes for the glorious colour of the drapery. The coalescence of these two techniques may be seen as indicative of the successful combination in the one portrait of Copley's instincts towards linear draughtsmanship and an incipient colourism. This success combination of line and colour had, of course, been one of the central tenants of artistic theory since Vasari's analysis of Michelangelo on the one hand and Titian on the other. More recently Copley had been criticized by Reynolds for his provincial ''hardness in the Drawing, Coldness in the Shades...over minuteness''.11 Staiti has suggestively written on how descriptive linearism can be viewed as a distinctively American aesthetic. In the Portrait of Mrs Montresor this aspect of Copley's artistic make-up, the most American aspect of his style, reaches its high point and at the same time he prophetically anticipates the influences that were to mould his style after his visit to Europe.

In letters to West and others in London, Copley repeatedly articulates his feeling of artistic isolation in America. Writing to his step-brother Peter he longs ''to be heated with the sight of the enchanting Works of a Raphael, a Rubens, Corregio [sic] and a Veronese''.12 However, Copley in America certainly had access to prints after the old masters as well as many of the latest theoretical writings on painting. No doubt self-consciously, as a young man he hung an engraving after Raphael in his Boston bedroom. However, these engravings offered no clue to the defining glazes, rich colour or general painterlyness of the old masters and indeed it has been suggested that they may have helped mould the linearity of his early style. Despite this, on the eve of his departure for Europe, Copley here intuitively seems to understand the construct a proper ''peaza'' for his new house.7 It may be noted that Pelham, like Montresor was involved in the mapping of the cities of the north-eastern seaboard, producing in 1777 an important map of Boston. In Copley's portrait of Montresor (Detroit Institute of Fine Arts), this relationship of friendship and mutual respect is clearly apparent, resulting in a painting of great sympathy and charm. The famous military-engineer is shown in paradoxically tranquil, almost melancholy pose, resting on a tree stump and looking into the distance. As Rebora notes: ''it is apparent ...that Copley understood that his patron's occupation involved creative art as much as exact science. By portraying him in a manner he had previously reserved for artisans and clothed in his distinctive military garb he expressed both facets of Montresor''s talent''.8 In addition to the 1771 pair of portraits Copley was to paint Mrs Montresor again a few years later, while portraits of their daughters Frances and Mary Lucy and son Lieutenant-John Montresor who died in India in 1805 are also recorded.9 The year after Copley painted their portrait the Montresors bought an island near Harlem eight miles above New York, previously known as Belle Isle or Little Barn Island and subsequently Montresor''s Island. The survival of the present work together with its companion piece in Detroit is something of a feat. Many of the family possessions were destroyed in two fires in New York, while Montresor notes in his journals that during his residence in America he lost his belongings no less than six times. After the family settled in England their home at Belamont, Kent was also burned. The 1770s was of course the defining decade in American history. The Boston Massacre occurred the year before the present portrait was painted while Copley's in-laws the Clarkes, as agents of the East India company, were the direct victims of the Boston Tea Party three years later. In contrast the year 1771 was relatively peaceful and Copley's lengthy stay in New York has been seen as the final great flowering of his American period. Within a few years of Mrs Montresor sitting to Copley both artist and sitter had left America never to return.

The compositional treatment of Mrs Montresor is in many ways characteristic of those that Copley painted of female subjects during his period in New York, though defined by the sitter''s unusual beauty. It is particularly close to his Portrait of Mary Verplack McEvers (private collection). Mrs Montresor is shown half-length in a beautifully painted pink dress and blue robe. She looks directly at the viewer with a quizzical half smile crossing her lips. The portrait radiates quiet assurance and lively intelligence. A large pentiment (see attached condition report) to the left of her face indicates how Copley most likely changed the angle of her head adapting a more frontal pose to a three-quarter profile. Unlike many of Copley's female portraits there is a deliberate omission of defining attributes, none of the ornaments, birds, flowers, parasols, books which, it must be said, often give a quite cluttered feel to his American portraits. Instead the dark background from which Mrs Montresor's striking physical beauty emerges places the focus on the sitter in all her individuality and humanity. At the same time her classically inspired dress of capturing Frances Montresor's warmth, humour and humanity. America''s ''first old master'' produces an image of iconic power recalling in its presence and ambiguity of expression Leonardo''s Mona Lisa.13 John Adams, who as we have noted above praised Copley as the finest American artist, equated countries on the eve of Revolution with taste, politeness and elegance of dress, all qualities which the present portrait magnificently exhibits, showing how much Copley was in tune with the self-image of his age. The early 1770s, the years before revolution broke out, can be seen as the end of the one era just as much as the beginning of another. It was an epoch which America''s ''greatest master'' epitomized, and rarely more so than in this portrayal of enduring sophistication and beauty.
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