Adams Family Correspondence, volume 6


Cotton Tufts to Abigail Adams

Abigail Adams 2D, July 1785, by Mather Brown 217[unavailable]

This large portrait, long in the possession of members of the Adams family, is now owned by the Adams National Historic Site in Quincy, where it hangs in the large parlor. Its artist was the popular young portrait painter Mather Brown (1761–1832), a native of Boston and a student of Gilbert Stuart in America and of Benjamin West in London. Its date and place of execution are given by its sitter, in a letter of 4 July 1785 (below) to her brother John Quincy Adams: “By the way, I must not omit to tell you, what a rage for Painting has taken Possession of the Whole family. One of our rooms has been occupied by a Gentleman of this profession, for near a forghtnight. . . . Mr. Brown was very sollicitous to have a likeness of Pappa, thinking it would be an advantage to him, and Pappa Consented. He has taken the best likeness I have yet seen of him, and you may suppose is very Proud, when so many have failed before him. Mama has set for hers, and I, followed, the example. It is said he has taken an admirable likeness of my Ladyship, the Honble. Miss Adams you know. It is a very tasty picture I can assure you, whether a likeness or not. Pappa is much pleased with it, and says he has got my character, a Mixture of Drolery and Modesty.”

Of the three portraits which Abigail Adams 2d refers to here, only that of herself survives. It is the first of two known likenesses. The second, a portrait by John Singleton Copley executed sometime between 1785 and 1788, owned first by John Quincy Adams, then by Abigail and John Adams, and after John's death by Abigail Adams 2d's daughter, Caroline Smith de Windt, was perhaps destroyed in the 1862 fire that consumed the de Windt home, and so many of the letters written to Abigail Adams 2d. Caroline de Windt had an engraving of the Copley portrait made for the frontispiece of her first volume of her mother's Journal and Correspondence (1841).

Compared with the engraving of Copley's work, Mather Brown's portrait is the more revealing likeness, conveying the poignancy of a sensitive and reserved young woman who had, as her father observed, an element of “Drolery” mixed with her modesty. Brown also conveys a certain wistfulness, perhaps partly a reflection of xivAbigail 2d's difficult decision, which she was making just at this time, to terminate her relationship with Royall Tyler. A loyalist merchant from Boston living in London grudgingly described young Abigail as having “an agreeable look,” though he did not “like the breed or name” (Thomas Aston Coffin to Mary Aston Coffin, 3 August 1785, Coffin Papers, MHi).

Mather Brown's portrait of Abigail Adams was thought for several years to be the “Portrait of a Lady” now owned by the New York State Historical Association, in Cooperstown, N.Y., but recent scholarship has cast grave doubt on the attribution of both the artist and the subject of that painting (Andrew Oliver, Portraits of John and Abigail Adams, Cambridge, 1967, p. 47, illustration on p. 51, 53–54, 244; Abigail Adams 2d to John Quincy Adams, 4 July 1785, note 29, below; Dorinda Evans, Mather Brown, Early American Artist in England, Middletown, Conn., 1982, p. 195).

Brown's 1785 portrait of John Adams is also lost, but a second one survives, completed in March 1788 for Thomas Jefferson, and now owned by the Boston Athenaeum (Portraits of John and Abigail Adams, p. 47–53, 244, illustration on p. 50). Brown also made a portrait of Thomas Jefferson, in the spring of 1786, for John Adams. John Adams' opinion of Brown's 1785 portraits, particularly that of himself, may have been more complex than Abigail 2d allows in the passage quoted above. Writing in her journal, evidently in early September, and referring to paintings that were almost certainly those by Brown, she records: “we had some conversation upon the pictures below. Papa said they were spoiled; he was not at all content with his own, yet thought it the best that had ever been taken of him. No one had yet caught his character. The ruling principles in his moral character, were candour, probity, and decision. I think he discovered more knowledge of himself than usually falls to the lot of man; for, from my own observation, I think these are characteristic of him; and I add another, which is sensibility. I have never discovered a greater portion of candour in any character. I hope if I inherit any of his virtues it may be this; it is a necessary attendant through life. . . . and in the mind of a woman, I esteem it particularly valuable” (Journal and Correspondence, 1:80–81).

At some time in the late 1780s, Mather Brown also made a portrait of Col. William Stephens Smith, who would marry Abigail Adams 2d in June 1786 (Katherine Metcalf Roof, Colonel William Smith and Lady, Boston, 1929, p. 334–336, and illustration facing p. 336).

Courtesy of the U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, Adams National Historic Site, Quincy, Massachusetts.