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John Singleton Copley, John Adams (1735-1826) (1783)

For Artwork in Focus we explore individual artworks, critiquing their style and discussing their socio-political context. Today we look at John Adams (1735-1826) (1783) by John Singleton Copley.

About the Work

Title : John Adams (1735-1826)
Artist : John Singleton Copley
Year : 1783
Medium : Oil on canvas
Dimensions : 238.1 x 147 cm (93 3/4 x 57 7/8 in.)
Location : Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

John Adams (1735-1826)

Copley’s portrait of America’s second President depicts him standing at a table, next to a globe. Adams looks head-on, confidently at the viewer, almost menacingly. The portrait marks the time when America got its independence from the British. In contrast to this expression is the painting in the backdrop, of a statue holding an olive branch signifying peace.

According to the digital catalogue of the Harvard Art Museums :

“Painted in London soon after the Treaty of Paris was signed in 1783, this grand portrait commemorates Adams’s role in securing American independence. The diplomat and future president gestures toward a map and globe that display the new lands he claimed for his government. In the background, in a gesture of peace, a classical statue extends an olive branch and lowers a torch.”

Adams’ demeanor and posture are confident, to the extent of seeming almost threatening. This portrait was initially scheduled to be displayed in Britain, as a celebration of America’s independence. However, the British public would have none of it. Resultantly, the work was first displayed in 1796, over a decade after it was made, at the Royal Academy.


Other Details

John Singleton Copley’s John Adams (1735-1826)  is housed in the Harvard Art Museums in Room 2410. It is part of the museum’s collection of the South Arcade.

To learn more about iconic artworks and their socio-political context, visit Artwork in Focus.

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