Continental late Baroque and Rococo fashion in the early 1700s included the production of pastel portraits, a trend that such artists as Henrietta Johnston (d. 1729) and Benjamin Blyth (see B.61.106.1) followed in the American colonies. Copley too, experimented with pastels, beginning in 1758, surpassing his precursors and colleagues. Despite his facility for working in pastel, he used the medium for only about fourteen years. As early as 1766, Benjamin West (1738-1820), Copley’s mentor abroad, discouraged him from continuing to practice in this medium, claiming it to be inferior to the oil medium used by the more serious history and Grand Manner portrait painters, whose ranks Copley aspired to join.

Portrait of Mrs. Gawen Brown (Elizabeth Byles, 1737-1763) is one of approximately fifty-five surviving pastel portraits by Copley. The portrait dates to 1763, one year after Copley expressed his ambition to succeed in this medium in a letter to the eminent Swiss pastellist Jean-Etienne Liotard (1702-1789). As he did for his oils, Copley borrowed props and poses from Continental and English portrait mezzotints, in this case, the portrait of Maria, Countess of Coventry, by Thomas Frye (1710-1762). Copley modified the prototype by reducing the elaborate headdress to single strands of pearls woven through the sitter's hair, which ends in a long braid; simplifying the necklace to three simple strands of pearls; and eliminating the dangle earrings altogether (the bracelet and luxurious ermine-trimmed robe remain). The artist also turned the head of the sitter so that she gently gazes toward the viewer. The feathery quality of the pastel medium endows the work with a soft, ethereal glow.

Although Copley portrayed Elizabeth Byles Brown as a modified version of an elegant countess, she was, in fact, the daughter of the minister Mather Byles (see B.61.69) and Anna Noyes and the wife of Gawen Brown (1719-1801), an esteemed Boston clockmaker. Something of a poet, she penned the following lines "on her Infant Son,” Mather Brown (1761-1831), who eventually would become a portraitist: “When with a Parents partial Eye / My Babe within my Arms I spy, / I form a thousand airy Schemes / And paint his future Life in Dreams. / But ah! how different may it be / From what a mother hopes to see / The lovely Infant ne’er may know / A joyous Moment here below: / Yet oh that Heaven would hear my Prayer, / And pour its Blessings on my Heir. / Grant him those Graces from above, / Of Faith, Humility and Love / Let him thy Loving Favor find, / As years increase enlarge his Mind. . . .” The sitter, however, did not live long after voicing her dreams, wishes, and prayers for her son; she died the same year Copley produced this portrait.

RELATED EXAMPLES: Copley painted the sitter again in oils in the same year, possibly after the pastel: Mrs. Gawen Brown, ca. 1763, private collection.

Book excerpt: Warren, David B., Michael K. Brown, Elizabeth Ann Coleman, and Emily Ballew Neff. American Decorative Arts and Paintings in the Bayou Bend Collection. Houston: Princeton Univ. Press, 1998.


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Artist
John Singleton Copley, American, 1738–1815
Title
Portrait of Mrs. Gawen Brown (Elizabeth Byles, 1737–1763)
Date
1763
Medium
Pastel on laid paper, mounted on bleached plain-weave linen
Dimensions
Sheet: 17 1/2 × 14 1/2 in. (44.5 × 36.8 cm)
Credit Line

The Bayou Bend Collection, gift of Miss Ima Hogg

Current Location
Not on view
Accession Number
B.54.21
Classification
Drawings, Pastels & Watercolors
Provenance

The sitter's niece, Mrs. William Almon(Rebecca Byles), Halifax, Nova Scotia; to her daughter, Mrs. George W. Hill (Emma Almon), Halifax; to her daughter Sophie A. Hill, Tunbridge Wells Kent; to Charles Henry Hart (1847-1918), New York; to Vose Galleries, Boston; to Thomas B. Clarke (1848-1931), New York, to 1919; sale, Thomas B. Clarke Collection Sale, Plaza Hotel, New York, Jan. 7, 1919; to Luke Vincent Lockwood, New York, until 1954; sale, Seventeenth-Eighteenth Century American Furniture and Paintings, The Celebrated Collection formed by the Late Mr. and Mrs. Luk Vincent Lockwood, Parke-Bernet, May 13-15, 1954, lot 452; to Miss Ima Hogg, 1954.