Adams Family Correspondence, volume 5



John Adams by John Singleton Copley 375[unavailable]

During his curtailed tour of England in the fall and winter of 1783, John Adams had fellow American and friend John Singleton Copley paint this grand portrait representing Adams as a dignified diplomat. Though Copley moved to England from Boston in 1774, followed by his wife and young children a year later, he was not a loyalist. xviiHis portrait of Adams celebrates the signing of the definitive treaty of peace with Great Britain.

When Abigail Adams arrived in London, she saw the portrait prior to meeting her husband. “I went yesterday accompanied by Mr. Storer and Smith to Mr. Copleys to see Mr. Adams picture. This I am told was taken at the request of Mr. Copely and belongs to him. It is a full Length picture very large; and very good likeness. Before him stands the Globe: in his hand a Map of Europe, at a small distance 2 female figures representing peace and Innocence. It is a most Beautiful painting” (Abigail Adams to Mary Smith Cranch, 6 July 1784, below).

Abigail Adams, perhaps focusing more on the image of her husband, whom she had not seen for four years, than on the details in the painting, inaccurately described the portrait and its commission. John Adams paid Copley 100 guineas for the portrait on 10 Dec. 1783 (receipt in the Adams Papers). He is depicted holding a scroll, presumably the treaty with Britain, and a map of America lays on a table. A single figure is in the background.

John Adams instructed his son, sent to meet both Abigails in London: “Desire Mr. Copeley to get a Frame made for my Picture and do you give him the Money. He will tell you how much and give you a Receipt. The Frame should be made, to take to Pieces, so that it may be removed to the Hague or to Boston, in time. Thus this Piece of Vanity will be finished. May it be the last” ( post 6 June 1784 , below).

Copley retained the portrait for over twenty years, ostensibly for engraving. Two engravers worked from the painting itself, first Noble, for the February 1786 issue of The New London Magazine, and later Hall, for the frontispiece to John Stockdale's 1794 edition of John Adams' Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United State of America. The second of these, a considerably better likeness, was the model for numerous later renditions. In 1796, Copley exhibited the portrait at the Royal Academy.

John Quincy Adams had the painting shipped from England in 1817, two years after Copley's death. Cousin Ward Nicholas Boylston kept it carefully for many years, in part because there was no suitable place in the Adams home in Quincy. With the family's agreement, he left it to Harvard College in his will.

See Andrew Oliver, Portraits of John and Abigail Adams , Cambridge, 1967, p. 23–38; Jules David Prown, John Singleton Copley, Cambridge, 1966, vol. 2, p. 300; DAB ; DNB .

Courtesy of The Harvard University Portrait Collection, Cambridge, Massachusetts. Bequest of Ward Nicholas Boylston to Harvard College, 1828.