Before political exigencies compelled his departure for England on the eve of the Revolution, John Singleton Copley produced colonial America’s most distinctive portraits, notable for their strikingly appealing realism. Once abroad, the hard-edged, linear planarity characterizing his more familiar American work gave way to the painterly, richly embellished manner current in London, of which Elkanah Watson is a superior example while retaining vestiges of the artist’s convincing early realistic style. Elkanah Watson (1758–1842) was an American who traveled extensively both as an agent for John Brown, merchant of the distinguished Rhode Island family, and on his own behalf, establishing a successful trading firm in Nantes, France. Twenty-four when Copley painted his portrait in London, Watson later recalled the historic circumstances surrounding its production: "Soon after my arrival in England, having won at the insurance office one hundred guineas . . . , and dining the same day with Copley, the distinguished painter . . . , I determined to devote the sum to a splendid portrait of myself. The painting was finished in most admirable style, except the back-ground, which Copley and I designed to represent a ship, bearing to America the intelligence of the acknowledgment of independence, with a sun just rising upon the stripes of the Union, streaming from her gaff. . . . This was, I imagine, the first American flag hoisted in old England."
Student label, AAS 349 / ART 364, Seeing to Remember: Representing Slavery Across the Black Atlantic, Spring 2017:
Elkanah Watson, a merchant involved in the slave trade, was born in 1738 in Plymouth, Massachusetts, and is known for his posthumously published 1857 book Men and Times of the Revolution. Watson conveyed information from the Continental Congress to Benjamin Franklin while Franklin was in France, and he played a key role in many of the events of the American Revolution. The painter, John Singleton Copley, was one of the most respected portrait painters of his era.
In the background, a ship is sailing into the sunrise, hoisting the new American flag. This portrait, set in England, was commissioned by Watson in 1782, around the end of the American Revolution, and the symbolic flag may have been one of the first in England. It reminds us that Watson’s life was intertwined with the birth of the new American republic. The embroidered flowers and gold tassels on his bright red coat, paired with his wig, a traditional symbol of authority in English society, depict Watson as a man of wealth and high standing.
In Watson’s hand and directly to his right, on the table, are handwritten letters. One of the letters on the table is visibly addressed to “John Brown, Providence Rhode Island.” Brown was a merchant and slave trader for whom Watson worked from a young age. Watson’s wealth stemmed directly from a trade system based on slavery. This reality is completely absent from this portrait, illustrating the erasure of slavery and the black body from the colonial and revolutionary narrative.
Joshua Gardner Princeton Class of 2020
In this portrait, Elkanah Watson’s wealth and status are the main focus. However, the sources of this wealth and power—namely, trade systems rooted in slavery—are only alluded to. Watson is painted with bright hues and powerful colors, particularly the bright red of his coat and the gold of his ornate vest. The rest of the portrait lacks this brightness, causing us to focus on Watson himself. His gaze is slightly aloof, suggesting his disinterest in the viewer, a sign of his power and status. His letters, books, and quill indicate that he is a learned man. However, one of these letters also suggests something more disconcerting. It is addressed to John Brown of Providence, Rhode Island, a noted merchant and slave trader who employed Watson for most of his life.
Watson is situated in an imaginary setting, which largely conceals his role as a merchant tied to the slave trade. He is surrounded by Doric columns, linking him to the art and culture of European antiquity and thus emphasizing his status as an educated white European. Watson was intimately involved in the American Revolution, relaying information from the Continental Congress to Benjamin Franklin during his time in Paris, and later writing a popular memoir. The flag in the background probably refers to Watson’s role in the narrative of the American Revolution. Watson’s wealth, status, and involvement in American Revolution were the direct result of his involvement as a merchant in a trade system based on slavery, yet the role of slavery in his life and in the revolutionary narrative is completely absent from this portrait.
Joshua Gardner Princeton Class of 2020 (prepared for the course AAS 349 / ART 364, Seeing to Remember: Representing Slavery Across the Black Atlantic, Spring 2017)
Princeton University Art Museum: Handbook of the Collections, (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Art Museum, 2013).
Princeton University Art Museum, Princeton University Art Museum: Handbook of the Collection, (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2007).
Selections from The Art Museum, Princeton University, (Princeton, NJ: The Art Museum, Princeton University, 1986).
Frances Follin Jones, "A daughter of Elkanah Watson", Record of the Art Museum, Princeton University 30, no. 1 (1971): p. 7-12.
The painter and the New World = Le peintre et la Nouveau Monde: a survey of painting from 1564 to 1867, marking the founding of Canadian Confederation, exhibited from June 9 to July 30, 1967, (Montreal: Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, 1967).
H.R.H., "The Art Museum at Princeton University: a selection from the collections", Art Journal 26, no. 2 (Winter, 1966-1967): p. 172+174+176+178.
"Galleries from the bequest of Sterling Morton class of 1906", Record of the Art Museum, Princeton University 25, no. 1/2 (1966): p. 34-35, 37-38.
"Acquisitions of 1964", Record of the Art Museum, Princeton University 24, no. 1 (1965): p. 20-23.
"Recent Acquisitions," Record of the Art Museum, Princeton University 24, no. 2 (1965): p. 26-39.
An Educated Eye: The Princeton University Art Museum Collection (Friday, February 22, 2008 - Sunday, June 15, 2008)