Over the years, Copley's technique in pastel became more sophisticated. The greater availability of ready-made pastel sticks in a vast array of tones allowed the artist to apply and blend strokes of individual shades so that the general effect was one of subtle modulation rather than sharp contrasts between light and dark, as seen in such earlier pastels as Portrait of Mrs. Gawen Brown (see B.54.21). This more refined technique, which heightened the plasticity and realism of the sitter's form and props, is demonstrated in the portrait of Mrs. Henshaw, among the last pastels Copley produced. The uncorseted salmon-colored gown trimmed with brilliant white lace and bordered by brown fur, the velvet texture of the pearl-trimmed headdress, and the silvery luster of the necklace appear especially vivid, setting off the creamy quality of the sitter's skin.

Copley may have borrowed the pose for this portrait from a ca. 1770 allegorical print, Catherine McCaulay, in the Character of a Roman Matron Lamenting the Lost Liberties of Rome, circulating in the London Magazine of July 1770. The pose and headdress are, indeed, similar, although in the engraving the sitter holds a scroll. The specific gesture of clasping a mantle or garment, which Copley used five years earlier, perhaps derived from mezzotints of portraits by Sir Anthony Van Dyck or Sir Peter Lely, where it is used, for both male and female sitters, to suggest elegance and grace.

Sarah Henshaw (1736-1822) married her cousin Joseph Henshaw in 1758. From a wealthy mercantile family in Boston, Joseph graduated from Harvard before entering the shipping business himself. His first frigate was named for his fiancee. After they married, they lived first in Boston, then in Leicester, by 1773, and, following the Revolutionary War, in Shrewsbury. Sarah, who bore no children, was a brilliant needleworker, leaving behind an elegant family coat of arms (private collection) as well as an elaborate history piece, The Death of Absalom (MFA, Boston).

RELATED EXAMPLES: Copley painted several members of the Henshaw family: Sarah’s father, Joshua Henshaw, ca. 1770, Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco; her brother Joshua Henshaw, Jr., and his wife, Mrs. Joshua Henshaw, Jr., ca. 1770-74, private collection, unsold at Christie’s, New York, sale 5108, December 11, 1981; and Sarah’s husband, her cousin Joseph Henshaw, 1727-1794, private collection. Her hand gesture, in which her fingers delicately clasp her fur tippet, is also seen in Copley’s pastel portraits of Jonathan Jackson, ca. 1767-69, MFA, Boston; Joseph Barrell, ca. 1767-69, Worcester Art Museum, Worcester, Massachusetts; Mrs. Elijah Vose, ca. 1770-72, Hirschl and Adler Galleries, New York: and Mrs. Henry Hill, ca. 1770, Art Institute of Chicago; and is similar to the oil portraits of Mrs. Joseph Scott, ca. 1765, Newark Museum, Newark, New Jersey; and Mrs. Henderson Inches, ca. 1765, The Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens, San Marino, California.

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.

Cataloguing data may change with further research.

If you have questions about this work of art or the MFAH Online Collection please contact us.

John Singleton Copley, American, 1738–1815
Portrait of Mrs. Joseph Henshaw (Sarah Henshaw, 1736–1822)
c. 1770
Pastel on paper, mounted on linen
24 × 17 3/4 in. (61 × 45.1 cm)
Credit Line

The Bayou Bend Collection, gift of Miss Ima Hogg

Current Location
Not on view
Accession Number
Drawings, Pastels & Watercolors

The sitter; descended in family to sitter's great, grand-nephew, Dr. J. McLean Hayward; to Sidney W. Hayward, Wayland, Mass., until about 1936; to Herbert Lawton, until 1937; sale, American Art Association, Anderson Galleries, N.Y. The American Collection of Herbert Lawton, April 2-3, 1937, no.345; to Mr. and Mrs. 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. Luke Vincent Lockwood," Parke-Bernet, May 13-15, 1954, lot 453; to Miss Ima Hogg, in 1954.