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Arts of North America

Art created in North America includes objects made by native cultures of the present-day United States and Canada; paintings and decorative arts produced during colonial times; 18th- and 19th-century masterpieces; and the work of contemporary artists and photographers.

American, 1738 - 1815
Portrait of a Boy
c. 1758–60
Oil on canvas

48 5/8 x 36 1/4 inches

The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

The Bayou Bend Collection
Gift of Miss Ima Hogg

Arts of North America

Characterized by bold color, theatrical lighting, and attention to fine detail, this portrait beautifully conveys the hallmarks of John Singleton Copley's early style. The artist surrounds the jaunty boy with the signs of privilege, wealth, and social standing expected of aristocratic 18th-century portraiture.

The identity of the boy is unknown, but such a relatively large, full-length portrait indicates that he was probably the first-born son and heir of a wealthy and socially ambitious family. His posture suggests nonchalance and easy confidence, esteemed characteristics of behavior endorsed by etiquette books of the period. Reinforcing the refined tone is the dapper rose pinned to the boy's jacket, a prop that is unique in Copley's oeuvre. The portrait's profusion of other props—a battledore and shuttlecock, a braid-trimmed tricorn hat tossed to the ground, a marble or stone architectural element that existed not in the colonies but probably in a mezzotint source of Continental or English portraits—and its complex landscape details point to a considerable effort on the part of Copley to impress his patrons with his knowledge of European prototypes and to flatter the boy's family.