Born in Boston in 1738, John Singleton Copley quickly rose to become the preeminent portrait painter in the American colonies. He began to garner attention abroad in 1766 when, at the age of 18, his portrait of Henry Pelham was exhibited to great acclaim in London. By 1774 Copley had moved overseas, seeking to further his artistic reputation and to escape the escalating conflict in America. He never returned to his native country.
Like Copley, Martha Crowninshield Derby was an American expatriate living in London who was aspiring to establish her reputation among the city’s social elite. Commissioning Copley to paint her portrait was a carefully calculated (and time-honored) means of furthering these ambitions. In this monumental painting, Copley took the traditional society portrait a step further, casting his sitter in the guise of Saint Cecilia, the patron saint of music. Surrounded by luxurious furnishings and wearing a fashionable empire-waisted dress, Mrs. Derby demonstrates her musical talents by playing a harp—an instrument likely chosen to echo her graceful figure and to emphasize her slender fingers—as she is gazed upon by adoring putti.
Partial and promised gift of Dr. and Mrs. Henry C. Landon III.
Accession Number: 2008.50