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Portrait of Thomas Aston Coffin

On view

Portrait of Thomas Aston Coffin

Artist: John Singleton Copley (American, 1738-1815; active in England after 1775)

Date: 1758
Medium: Oil on canvas
Overall: 50 x 40in. (127 x 101.6cm)
Framed: 55 1/2 x 45 3/4 x 2 1/2in. (141 x 116.2 x 6.4cm)
Credit Line: Museum Purchase
Object number: 58.1
Label Text
Copley’s portrait of the young Thomas Coffin, who later had a distinguished career in the British military, shows Coffin wearing a blue satin coat over an ivory petticoat. Up to around the age of 8, boys and girls were dressed about the same. To avoid any confusion about gender, the plumed hat, definitely masculine attire, is placed to the right side of the picture.

Copley painted this work when he was only 19 or 20, a fact that underscores his innate genius. He had no formal art instruction, but studied as much contemporary work as he could. This is, perhaps, one of the most successful portraits of a child painted in the American colonies up until this time.

Text Entries

This portrait represents Thomas Aston Coffin (1754-1810) as a little boy, well before he had started his distinguished career in the British colonial service, and it was painted when the young artist was at a most significant point in the early development of his career. The subject was born in Boston, the son of a merchant, William Coffin, Jr., and Mary Aston Coffin. He was graduated from Harvard College in 1772. His father was a Loyalist, and when the British evacuated Boston in 1776, Thomas accompanied him to Halifax. Young Coffin then became secretary to Sir Guy Carleton, Governor of Lower Canada, and eventually he was appointed Commissary to the British army in North America. He was with the English troops when they evacuated New York in 1783. Once more in Lower Canada in 1804, he was named Secretary and Comptroller of Accounts, and soon there-after became Sir Thomas Aston Coffin, Baronet.

Copley’s portrait shows young Master Thomas wearing a blue satin coat over an ivory-colored petticoat; up to around the age of eight children were dressed about the same, whether boys or girls. (1) To avoid any confusion about the gender, a plumed hat, definitely of masculine attire, is placed at the right side of the picture. The subject holds some cherries in his right hand, perhaps intending to feed them to his two pet pigeons that are tethered on a pink ribbon. A shuttlecock and battledore are seen at the lower left, instruments of a game (which prefigured badminton) that was then very popular in England and the English colonies. The other details of the picture—the enormous plant in the foreground, the blossoming morning-glory vine in the upper right, and the landscape with a stream winding through woods, with a mountain range on the horizon—may have been taken from an English mezzotint engraving, for it is known that Copley often drew upon such sources in his work of the 1750s.(2) It is typical of colonial painting that the background appears more like a backdrop, for, in contrast to the well-rounded and richly modeled objects of the foreground, everything beyond the figure seems generalized and flattened into a single scenic plane; typical, too, is the lack of integration between the foreground and background—the little boy stands in front of the landscape rather than being integrated with it.

Nevertheless, this is perhaps the most successful portrait of a child painted in the American colonies up to this time, for previous artists, such as John Smibert, Robert Feke, and Joseph Badger, had difficulty in capturing in convincing manner the special joys and beauties of childhood. Copley, however, became a master at doing so, as demonstrated in a double portrait also painted in 1758, representing young Mary and Elizabeth Royall, and of course his celebrated portrait of Henry Pelham, better known as Boy with a Squirrel of 1765 (both, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston). In both of these pictures the subjects are shown with their favorite pets, a motif that had come into colonial American portraiture early in the eighteenth century.

Copley was only nineteen or twenty years old when he painted the Thomas Aston Coffin, a fact that underscores the prodigy of his innate genius. He had no formal instruction, but of course had studied such work as he could see by former and contemporary New England artists such as Smibert, Feke, Badger, and Joseph Blackburn, the latter a fashionable painter from London who had arrived in Boston in 1753. Young Copley learned much from Blackburn’s art in the mid-1750s, for it carried with it the current Georgian mannerisms then in vogue in London studios. But in 1758, with portraits such as the Thomas Aston Coffin, Copley clearly shows signs of surpassing the English master, who, thereafter, would not be able to meet the competition of the young native-born artist and within a few years was driven to seek patronage elsewhere; that is, after about  1758—60, portrait painting in New England is clearly dominated by one man, John Singleton Copley, and the Munson-Williams-Proctor Institute Museum of Art’s portrait marks the beginning of his dominance.



1. See Karin Calvert, “Children in American Family Portraiture, 1670-18 10,” William and Mary Quarterly, vol. 39 (January 1982), pp. 87-113. Alice Morse Earle, Child Life in Colonial Days (New York: Macmillan Co., 1899), p. 52. The painting descended through Coffin’s only daughter, who remained in Massachusetts and in 1817 married Edward Hutchinson Robbins. It was left to their daughter, Miss Anne  Robbins, then passed within the family to Mrs. C. Wharton Smith, who sold it to the Munson-Williams-Proctor Institute Museum of Art through Childs Gallery of Boston.

2. See Jules David Prown, John Singleton Copley (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1966), vol. 1, p. 32. The plant at the bottom right of the painting may possibly be a large species of philodendron.


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