HISTORY in CONTEXT | Portraits and Perspectives

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Historical Background for Teachers

The American Revolution was the consequence of fundamental shifts in thought that began in England and Scotland in the seventeenth century, and in France in the eighteenth century. Philosophical and polemical writers like Voltaire, Jean Jacques Rousseau, and Olympe de Gouges changed the way Americans thought about liberty and slavery.[1]

Where did it all begin? The influence of the Whig Party in England, following the Glorious Revolution in 1688 and the Bill of Rights of 1689, extended to the New England colonies. After the publication of Sir William Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England in 1765, New England lawyers trained in the common law. They became an anglicized, rather than a provincial, profession.

What propelled this shift? With the expansion of trade, merchants and their customers had access to goods that were formerly rare and accessible only to the English elite. American colonists could now obtain both goods and ideas shared by their nation.

As American colonists became more like their English contemporaries in taste, habits, and politics—a process historians call anglicization—they began to adopt the ideas of the Glorious Revolution and its premier philosopher, John Locke.[2]

John Locke argued in Two Treatises on Government (1689) that property holders had a stake in governance and, therefore, had a right to representation. Their rights to life, liberty, and their property were essential rights—a message that resonated with white American property holders.

Locke belonged to the Whig Party, which had been responsible for the Glorious Revolution. Whigs were supportive of the rights of Protestants, both of the Church of England and Dissenters. They argued, when they ousted King James II in favor of Queen Mary and King William III, that there were signs of tyranny that needed to be recognized. One could recognize a tyrant when he suspended Parliament, eliminated constitutional rights like trial by jury, disarmed Protestant citizens, kept a standing army in a time of peace, abridged freedom of the press, or enacted taxation without the consent of the governed.

The publication of Cato’s Letters by Trenchard and Gordon in 1720-1723 and its dissemination in the colonies in the 1740s reminded the colonists of their Whig heritage. For white male Americans, unlike their English counterparts, property ownership was achievable, and it gave them a stake in government, according to Trenchard and Gordon, who echoed Locke in this regard.[1]

Connecting to the Art at the NBMAA

The first portraits in the NBMAA collection are representative of the types of artwork created by colonial or early American artists. Only the wealthy, or wealthy patrons, could afford to have their portraits painted or commissioned. The portraits narrate a slice of the American story and feature artists who lived and worked in New England, and consequently, reflect a geographical perspective.

Portraits in Colonial America provided important information in colonial society about social status, economic strength, or religious affiliation. Portrait painting took hold, not for aesthetic value, but for a functional purpose—to promote an image of success, refinement, and affluence for the proud, self-confident, self-made, middle-class person, not an aristocrat.

It’s estimated that less than 1% of Boston’s colonial population could afford to commission a portrait. The person in a colonial portrait stands at a historical moment in time. He or she is immersed in a culture and surrounded by emerging values that determine the social compact in which this person lives. Those values laid the foundation for the future. An exploration of these portraits opens the door into the lives of the earliest privileged members of the emerging nation.


The Colonial Family

Unknown Artist, Morgan Family Portrait, ca. 1790, Oil on canvas, 37 x 57 in., John Butler Talcott Fund, 1964.04

Scottish philosophers like David Hume and Adam Smith saw the family as the essential laboratory of the relationship between virtue and commerce.[3] The Morgan family portrait painted by an unknown artist around the year 1790 shows a family in the post-Revolutionary era who exemplifies republican ideals. Their virtue is evident in their plain, proper dress. Their serious expressions show their lack of frivolity.


Mather Brown, Sir Richard Arkwright, 1790, Oil on canvas, 50 3/8 x 40 3/8 in. (128 x 102.6 cm), Charles F. Smith Fund, 1957.8

The Colonial Entrepreneur

A contrast to the sober Morgan family is a portrait by Mather Brown, also executed in 1790, of the English inventor and industrialist Sir Richard Arkwright. The portrait shows the wealth the Industrial Revolution visited upon this prominent founding textile entrepreneur at the end of his life.


The Women

Well before the founding of the republic, women’s status was usually linked to their families. Such was the case of Lydia Lynde, painted by the preeminent portraits of the time, John Singleton Copley.

John Singleton Copley, Lydia Lynde, ca. 1762-64, Oil on canvas mounted on Masonite, 30 x 25 in. (76.2 x 63.5 cm), Stephen B. Lawrence Fund and through exchange, 1976.4

Accentuating his client with textured fabric embellishments, pearl-entwined coiffure, and a painted oval spandrel, Copley conveyed a British style portrait of an English lady.

In colonial times, virtuous republican motherhood gave women a central role in creating the early republic as the ones who raised their children to be good citizens. However, not all women who had a choice chose that important role.[5] Sometime after this portrait, Lydia Lynde married William Walter, the rector of Trinity Church in Boston in the early 1760s. She and her husband, William Walter, chose to remain loyal to England and fled before the revolution.

Sarah Miriam Peale, Mrs. Charles Ridgely Carroll (Rebecca Pue), ca. 1822, Oil on canvas, 29 × 24 1/4 in. (73.7 × 61.6 cm), Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Robert Vose in memory of Sanford Low, 1964.56

On the other hand, other women were supportive of revolutionary values. Mercy Otis Warren wrote plays, poems, and satires in support of liberty during the tumultuous 18th century in Boston. She published the first history of the revolution in the early republic. An internationally celebrated poet, Phyllis Wheatly was enslaved in Boston, but married a free African American upon her manumission.[6]

Sarah Miriam Peale and her sisters, born into a family of artists in the early republic in Philadelphia, remained unmarried. Sarah was a successful, self-supporting portraitist considered one of America’s first truly professional female artists. Her commissioned work of distinguished people included Mrs. Charles Ridgely Carrol (Rebecca Pue) in Baltimore in 1822. Newly married couples often ordered matching or single portraits to decorate their new homes and commemorate their marriage. This portrait was likely painted the year Rebecca Sue married Mr. Carroll. The expressive color, and rendering of fabric, furs, and laces, provides an image of the wealth the sitter conveyed.


Rembrandt Peale, George Washington, ca. 1850, Oil on canvas, 30 × 25 1/4 in. (76.2 × 64.1 cm), Gift of Dr. Timothy McLaughlin, 2010.120

A Patriarch

Traditionally, families required good patriarchs, and white Americans found one in their leader, George Washington.[7] The commander-in-chief of the Continental Army and first President tried to live publicly as a man of virtue. He cared about his fame—his worldly reputation—and was committed to revolutionary ideals.

His portrait, by Rembrandt Peale, (older cousin of Sarah Miriam Peale) shows a man worn by responsibility but still heroic. The majority of the former colonists felt a respectful and affectionate admiration for Washington. They were aware of the sacrifices he made for his country. While Washington’s legacy was complicated by his slaveholding, even in his day, his will freeing the more than 300 enslaved people at Mount Vernon after Martha’s death allowed many to see Washington as once again thinking of the good of the country by setting an example.


Audio Interview

Kate Haulman, Ph.D., Associate Professor of History, American University and author of The Politics of Fashion in Eighteenth-Century America.

  1. The role of clothing in the 18th century. (4:10)

  2. The role of clothing and hairstyle in shaping 18th-century identity for both free and unfree people. (4:00)

  3. Self-expression and clothing in the 18th century. (5:12)

  4. The 18th-century portraits at NBMAA (3:50)

  5. Clothing authenticity and symbols in 18th-century portraiture (5:28)

Historical Background Resources

John Locke

John Locke and the American Revolution (14:23) The relationship between John Locke’s philosophical arguments and the American Revolution, a podcast from Mountaintop History, produced by the Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello. (Transcript available)


Out of Many: Portraits from 1600-1900. The Faces of Early Portraiture at the National Portrait Gallery

Native American Women

Before and After the White Man: Indian Women, Property, Progress, and Power. The role of native American women in tribal society.

Lesson Plan

Click here to download a lesson planning guide for Portraits and Perspectives.


[1] Wim Klooster, ed. The Cambridge History of the Age of Atlantic Revolutions: Volume 1, The Enlightenment and the British Colonies (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2023).

[2] Bernard Bailyn, The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2017), 43, 60, 173; J.G.A. Pocock, "States, Republics, and Empires: The American Founding in Early Modern Perspective." Social Science Quarterly 68, no. 4 (1987): 703.

[3] Rosemarie Zagarri, “Morals, Manners, and the Republican Mother.” American Quarterly 44, no. 2 (1992): 192–215.

[4] Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, Good Wives: Image and Reality in the Lives of Women in Northern New England, 1650-1750 (New York: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2010), 87, 108; Amanda Porterfield, Female piety in Puritan New England: The Emergence of Religious Humanism. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), 32.

[5] Rosemarie Zagarri,. "Morals, manners, and the Republican mother." American Quarterly 44, no. 2 (1992): 192-215.

[6] Cornelia H. Dayton, “Lost Years Recovered: John Peters and Phillis Wheatley Peters in Middleton,” New England Quarterly 94, no. 3 (2021): 309-351, https://doi.org/10.1162/tneq_a_00901.

[7] Kathleen M. Brown, Good Wives, Nasty Wenches, and Anxious Patriarchs: Gender, Race, and Power in Colonial Virginia (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press Books, 2012), 16; Richard Norton Smith. Patriarch: George Washington and the new American nation (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1993), 64, 886, 9, 92.