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Portrait of Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Mifflin (Sarah Morris)
Portrait of Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Mifflin (Sarah Morris), 1773
John Singleton Copley, American
Oil on ticking
61 5/8 x 48 inches (156.5 x 121.9 cm)
125th Anniversary Acquisition. Bequest of Mrs. Esther F. Wistar to The Historical Society of Pennsylvania in 1900, and acquired by the Philadelphia Museum of Art by mutual agreement with the Society through the generosity of Mr. and Mrs. Fitz Eugene Dixon, Jr., and significant contributions from Stephanie S. Eglin, and other donors to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, as well as the George W. Elkins Fund and the W. P. Wilstach Fund, and through the generosity of Maxine and Howard H. Lewis to the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, 1999
EW1999-45-1
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About This Painting

The couple in this painting appears to be enjoying a relaxed moment at home, instead of posing for a formal portrait. However, this picture is far from a spontaneous snapshot of everyday life. In fact, everything—from the couple’s clothing to their body language, facial expressions, and surroundings—has been carefully chosen to tell us about the sitters and what was important to them.

Philadelphians Thomas Mifflin (1744–1800) and his wife, Sarah Morris Mifflin (c. 1747–1790), were visiting Boston (see map) when they commissioned John Singleton Copley to paint their portrait. It was traditional in colonial America for a husband and wife to have separate portraits made, but here Thomas and Sarah appear in the same picture and sit very closely together. With a slight smile, Thomas turns toward Sarah and gazes admiringly at her. Their hands almost touch near the center of the painting. Through this physical closeness and visual connection, the artist communicated the couple’s genuine affection for each other.

Thomas and Sarah’s clothing conveys their wealth and status. Sarah’s gray silk dress and sheer linen cap and apron are made of expensive fabrics. A beautiful corsage adorns her dress, and the black ribbon tied around her neck is in the latest style. Thomas wears a fine, well-fitting wool coat and breeches, and his natural hair (instead of a powdered wig) is fashionably informal. The Mifflins could have chosen more formal and elaborate clothing, perhaps of brightly colored or patterned fabric with expensive lace or decoration. However, it was becoming popular during this time to dress more casually. The Mifflins’ clothing choices are also in keeping with their religious beliefs, since many wealthy Quakers like themselves chose to wear less elaborate, though high-quality, clothing. Their calm, composed facial expressions add to the sense of modesty and self-restraint.

This portrait also tells us about the Mifflins’ political beliefs. Thomas, who was a merchant, opposed the taxes that American colonists were required to pay on British goods. He protested these taxes by refusing to import products from England and encouraging other colonists to do the same. However, it is not Thomas but Sarah who sends a clear political message in this painting. She weaves her own decorative fringe, demonstrating her intention to boycott English goods and make her own instead. Using a loom, secured in place by a blue ribbon, Sarah weaves the threads with her right hand. The finished product is visible beneath her left hand. As a woman living in colonial America, she was prevented from holding public office, but her actions and confident look in this painting communicate her political sentiments.

In 1774, the year after this portrait was painted, Thomas attended the First Continental Congress, a meeting in Philadelphia in which delegates from the colonies discussed whether and how to resist British laws. He fought in the American Revolution (1775–83) and served directly under General George Washington. Mifflin held various positions in the Pennsylvania government, was a member of the Constitutional Convention in 1787, and was a signer of the United States Constitution. He is best remembered as the first governor of Pennsylvania after the colonies achieved independence.

Thomas and Sarah Mifflin lived in Philadelphia but traveled to other American cities, such as Boston and New York, to meet with other important colonial leaders. John Singleton Copley painted their portrait when they visited Boston in 1773. Copley lived and worked primarily in Boston before he moved to London permanently in 1774.

About This Artist

Born and raised in Boston, John Singleton Copley (1738–1815) was the son of poor Irish immigrants. He learned to draw by copying English prints and taught himself to paint. Copley was soon considered America’s greatest artist and painted portraits of its wealthiest and most prominent citizens. A keen businessman, Copley knew how to satisfy his clients by creating portraits that conveyed the messages they desired. His paintings were prized possessions, and people proudly placed them in their parlors, halls, and dining rooms.

Copley was a careful observer and made every detail in his paintings look as realistic as possible. For the portrait of the Mifflins, he asked Sarah to pose twenty times so that he could paint her hands accurately. He was so devoted to recording exactly what he saw that he often included features that might be considered imperfections, such as the scar on Thomas’s forehead. Copley also became well-known for his ability to paint different textures. For example, notice the glistening tabletop and the reflection of the threads on its surface, as well as the folds of fabric on Sarah’s dress and cap.

In the years leading up to the American Revolution, economic hardships and political tension hurt Copley’s portrait business. Some colonists even suspected that he sympathized with the British; in fact, Copley’s father-in-law owned the tea that was dumped into Boston Harbor during the Boston Tea Party of 1773. We do not know for certain how Copley felt about the political situation. He painted portraits of people on both sides of the growing conflict. Copley moved to London in 1774, where he continued his successful artistic career, and never returned to America.

Buy American!

During the eighteenth century, American colonists imported many products from England including textiles, glass, and tea. To increase their revenue, the British government passed laws that placed extra taxes on many of these items. These laws included the Sugar Act (1764), the Stamp Act (1765), and the Townshend Acts (1767–70). Colonists, including Thomas Mifflin, protested these laws by organizing a series of non-importation agreements, or boycotts, in which people agreed not to buy any goods from England until the taxation policies changed.

Portrait Miniatures

Portrait of Maria Bassett
Portrait of Maria Bassett, 1801
James Peale, American
Watercolor on ivory
2 3/4 x 2 1/8 inches (7 x 5.4 cm)
Bequest of Jane Barbour Charles, 1980
1980-101-1
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Few Americans in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries could afford to have large oil portraits made as the Mifflins did. Miniatures, like the one shown here, were a popular and less expensive alternative. Painted with watercolor on ivory, miniatures were small and portable. This example, painted by James Peale (brother of artist Charles Willson Peale) features Maria Bassett, the daughter of Colonel Burwell Bassett, a close friend and relative of George Washington. Can you find a miniature within this miniature? Look closely at the gold chain around Maria Bassett’s neck and you’ll see a miniature pendant, which may be a portrait of her father.

Across the colonies, boycotts were important precursors to the American Revolution. The most effective and widespread boycott was organized in December 1774 by a group of representatives from twelve of the thirteen colonies known as the First Continental Congress. Imports from Britain dropped sharply the following year. The success of these boycotts demonstrated the impact that colonists could have when they worked together. These actions further stirred emotions on both sides of the conflict and fueled the tension that eventually led to the outbreak of war.

This object is included in Pennsylvania Art: From Colony to Nation, a set of teaching posters and resource book produced by the Division of Education and generously supported by the Sherman Fairchild Foundation, Inc.

 

For more information, please contact The Division of Education by phone at (215) 684-7580, by fax at (215) 236-4063, or by e-mail at .

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