The Philadelphia Museum of Art and The Historical Society of Pennsylvania announced today an agreement under which a masterwork of great national and regional significance will remain in Philadelphia in perpetuity. John Singleton Copley's Portrait of Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Mifflin (Sarah Morris), a splendid double portrait and the Boston-based artist's only portrayal of Philadelphia subjects, will join the Museum's permanent collections. The historic agreement has been unanimously approved at meetings of the respective boards of trustees of The Historical Society and the Museum. The Historical Society will be joined by the Museum in a petition to the Orphans' Court in Philadelphia, seeking approval of the agreement.
The Museum's commitment to raise the funds for this historic transaction has been launched by a generous gift from Mr. and Mrs. Fitz Eugene Dixon, Jr., in addition to income from the George W. Elkins and W.P. Wilstach endowed purchase funds for Museum acquisitions.
"Painted in 1773, a scant year before Copley left the New World for the Old—Copley would live in London for the rest of his life—the Portrait reveals an outstanding painter of the colonial period at the height of his talents," said Darrel Sewell, the Robert L. McNeil, Jr., Curator of American Art at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. "As a penetrating portrait of an undoubtedly happy marriage, it has few peers among paintings of any era."
Immediately acclaimed as one of Copley's greatest works, the Portrait was celebrated for its inventive composition (traditionally, portraits of couples consisted of two separate, paired canvases), and for its "modern" representation of an egalitarian and affectionate marriage. Thomas and Sarah Morris Mifflin were active participants and contributors to the political, cultural and financial currents that precipitated and accompanied the American Revolution. Thomas Mifflin (1744-1800) established himself as a successful merchant while still young, later served as a general in Washington's army, and became the first governor of Pennsylvania after the United States achieved independence. Sarah Morris (1747?-1790), whom Thomas married in 1767, was an accomplished, witty and supportive partner and spouse. In the Portrait, Mrs. Mifflin's handwork (she is weaving a fringe) represents the couple's support of non-importation agreements, statements of the colonists' resolve to boycott British goods.
Inspiration for Copley's Portrait may have come from Philadelphia's own Charles Willson Peale (1741-1827), who had brought from a sojourn in London the newly fashionable idea of showing groups in informal poses. Peale's famous portrait of The Cadwalader Family (1772), now in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, presents husband, wife and baby together in a single composition.
The Portrait descended in the family of Mrs. Mifflin's sister, Susannah Morris, until it was bequeathed to The Historical Society by Mrs. Esther F. Wistar in 1900. Since that time, it has been universally recognized as a preeminent component of the Society's fine-arts collections, as well as one of the most important works of American art in Philadelphia.
"While pursuing ambitious efforts to establish itself anew as an unparalleled special collections library with vast holdings of archival manuscripts and works on paper, The Historical Society offered the Museum the wonderful opportunity to welcome Copley's Portrait to its distinguished collections," comments Anne d'Harnoncourt, The George D. Widener Director and Chief Executive Officer of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. "At the Museum, the Copley will join other celebrated American masterpieces with deep roots in Philadelphia, including Charles Willson Peale's Staircase Group, The Schuylkill Chained and The Schuylkill Freed by William Rush, Thomas Eakins' The Concert Singer, and the recently acquired and much beloved bust of Benjamin Franklin by Jean-Antoine Houdon. We extend heartfelt thanks to the Society and its Trustees, and our profound gratitude to Mr. and Mrs. Dixon, whose leadership gift generously supports the Museum's commitment to acquire this Philadelphia icon."
John Singleton Copley was born in Boston in 1738, the son of a poor immigrant family. Though self taught, he developed a highly refined style of painting that rendered the features, costumes and settings of his (mostly) New England subjects with compelling accuracy. Recognized by his American contemporaries as the era's foremost portraitist, Copley became increasingly prosperous and socially prominent throughout the 1760s, and in 1769 joined in an advantageous marriage with Susannah Clark, daughter of a wealthy Boston merchant. Though intent on remaining politically neutral, his father-in-law's English connections and his own strong ambition motivated Copley to relocate with his family to London in 1774. He successfully adopted the fashionable London portrait style, was elected to membership in the Royal Academy in 1779, and never returned to America. Copley died in London in 1815.
The Portrait of Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Mifflin (Sarah Morris) is one of only two works by Copley in Philadelphia public institutions (the other is in the collection of The Pennsylvania Academy of The Fine Arts). It featured prominently in John Singleton Copley in America (1995), a major touring exhibition organized by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, as well as American Visions: The Epic History of Art in America (1997), the popular television series and publication conceived by the critic Robert Hughes. The Portrait was painted in oil on ticking and measures 67½ by 54½ inches. It is on view in gallery 290 on the Museum's second floor.