“What a strange power there is in clothing.” – Isaac Bashevis Singer
John Singleton Copley was largely self-taught, using the few resources that were available to him in colonial Boston. By the time he was twenty, his talent as a portraitist was widely known throughout early America. Both Copley and his patrons wanted to present themselves through portraiture—the artist, to demonstrate his technical abilities and attract new commissions; his sitters, to communicate their material wealth, status, and power.
This portrait of nineteen-year-old Mary Turner Sargent was painted in the year of her marriage to Daniel Sargent, the son of a Massachusetts shipowner. Mary stands next to a fountain, a sliver of sky visible above her head. She delicately gathers the skirt of her dress, perhaps to keep it away from the splashing water, and with her right hand she holds a scallop shell—an attribute of Venus, goddess of love and beauty. The goddess Venus was symbolically born out of a shell, as famously depicted in Sandro Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, ca. 1485 (The Uffizi Collection). Although the shell constitutes a small detail in Copley’s portrait, it serves to more fully convey a sense of the sitter’s character and feminine virtue.
John Singleton Copley, Mrs. Daniel Sargent (Mary Turner), 1763. Oil on canvas, 491/2 x 391/4 in. (125.7 x 99.7 cm). Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. John D. Rockefeller 3rd, 1979.7.31