John Singleton Copley (American, 17381815)
Oil and gold leaf on copper; 1 5/8 x 1 1/8 in. (4 x 3 cm)
Purchase, Martha J. Fleischman Gift, in memory of her father, Lawrence A. Fleischman, 2006 (2006.1)
The affluent Boston hardware merchant Moses Gill (17331800) commissioned this exquisite miniature from colonial America's finest painter as a wedding gift for his wife, Sarah Prince, in about 1759. It is one of only six miniatures John Singleton Copley is known to have painted in oil on copper. To add radiance to this portrait, Copley painted it on a gold leaf ground. Still in its original gold locket (with extraordinarily rare hairwork in the reserve on the back), the portrait was meant as a token of affection for Gill's wife to wear on a necklace.
Miniatures like this were commonly tiny replicas of larger works, but in this instance the routine was reversed and the diminutive likeness initiated the relationship between Copley and his affable, lavishly dressed young subject. Gill returned to the painter, with his wife, in 1764 for a pair of large portraits, which are now in the Museum of Art at the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence.