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Object: Mrs Humphrey Devereux

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Title Mrs Humphrey Devereux
Production Copley, John Singleton (artist), 1771, Boston
Medium summary oil on canvas
Materials oil paint, canvas
Classification oil paintings, portraits
Dimensions Image: 1020mm (Height) x 810mm (Width)
Frame: 1180mm (Height) x 975mm (Width) x 85mm (Depth)
Credit line Gift of the Greenwood family, 1965
Registration number 1965-0013-1

On 23 March 1770 John Greenwood wrote to John Singleton Copley from London, commissioning him to paint a portrait of his mother, the widow of Captain Humphrey Devereux. Greenwood explained, ‘I am very desirous of seeing the good Lady’s Face as she now appears’.1 Copley was an established portrait painter in Boston and well known for capturing a good ‘likeness’ - one of the primary requisites for a good portrait. Greenwood made only one stipulation: that ‘gravity is my choice of Dress’.2 This request worked in Copley’s favour and prompted him to produce one of the most notable and least artificial portraits from this period of his practice.

Mrs Humphrey Devereux has all the characteristics of Copley’s Boston portrait style: the splendid rendition of fabrics and textures, and the strong dynamic pose that engages and holds the viewer’s attention. Copley has controlled and unified these elements to produce a portrait of striking naturalness. The colours are subdued browns and black, with a sombre dark umber background, against which the white of the lace cap, cuffs and scarf underlines and focuses the strong light that falls on the subject’s face. The disposition of the arms forms a triangle with the head and draws attention to Mrs Devereux’s averted gaze. Her non-engagement with the viewer only makes her presence and character more compelling.

Mrs Humphrey Devereux was shipped to London from Boston on 25 January 1771. The portrait was well received by John Greenwood and favourably commented on when it was shown in London at the Society of Artists of Great Britain exhibition in May of that year. It remained in London until Dr John Danforth Greenwood and his family emigrated to New Zealand on the Phoebe in 1843. Mrs Humphrey Devereux was among their possessions and was given a prominent position in their house in Motueka. In 1965, on the painting’s return from a touring Copley retrospective in America, Mrs Humphrey Devereux was donated to the National Art Gallery by the Greenwood family.

Tony Mackle

This essay originally appeared in Art at Te Papa, (Te Papa Press, 2009).

1. Cited in Carrie Robora, Paul Staiti, Erica E Hirshler, Theodore E Stebbins Jr and Carol Troyen, John Singleton Copley in America, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1995, p. 269.
2. Ibid.

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