Copley’s Mercy Otis Warren at the MFA

With her serious gaze and sumptuous attire, Mercy Otis Warren (1728–1814), in the American wing of the MFA is definitely worth a look, both for its execution by John Singleton Copley (1738–1815) and for her remarkable life.

John Singleton Copley, Mrs. James Warren (Mercy Otis) c. 1763 Oil on canvas
On view at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, Carolyn A. and Peter S. Lynch Gallery (Gallery 132)

The portrait of Mrs. Warren is traditional in its format, with her body in profile and her head facing forwards.

The background is only vaguely rendered: there are trees behind her, perhaps out a window, and what one imagines to be curtain sweeps behind her head and towards the line of her shoulder and dress. The dark brown of the curtain, left only as a wash, allows her pale complexion and shining dark eyes to engage the viewer. Copley has captured a complex gaze: one might interpret it as soulful, given the fact that her sister, Mrs. John Gray is known to have died the same year that this portrait was painted (1763).

Mrs. Warren’s hands delicately reach out as if to touch the flowers in front of her (thought to be nasturtiums, a flower associated with the American Revolution), yet do not touch the blossoms themselves. Her right index finger curls around a small green shoot.

With most of her writing days lay ahead, the choice of this flower and her support of a tendril are prescient of her role in the American Revolution as a poet, writer and propagandist. Copley doesn’t acknowledge or support this future career of Warren’s; he could have painted her with a quill in her hand instead of a flowering vine (a vine being more adept at representing a family than a career). Yet, Warren was to be her own woman, forging a path for herself as an American political and creative voice.

Despite the uniqueness of Warren as an individual, the focal point of this piece could be argued to be the beauty of the clothing, which was actually painted multiple times by Copley on different women, all associated with the Warren family.

The MFA’s website has an excellent explanation:

Mercy Warren’s dress appears in two other portraits by Copley: Mrs. Benjamin Pickman (Mary Toppan) (1763, Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, Connecticut) and Mrs. Daniel Sargent (Mary Turner) (1763, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco). Mrs. Pickman and Mrs. Sargent were much younger than Mercy Warren, and were painted at the time of their marriages. Art historian Margaretta Lovell has suggested that the expensive blue dress belonged to the Warrens and that they loaned the dress to Mrs. Pickman and Mrs. Sargent for the purpose of wearing it for their portraits, augmenting it with different trimmings but emphasizing family friendships and alliances.

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

A rich blue, in all images, the dress shines with the texture of silk. The ruched edging and gold braid show off its opulence. Warren’s version is the most modest of the three; with a transparent lace shawl covering her shoulders and the low neckline. Her positioning in profile also shows off less of the dress’s complex embroidery, whereas the portraits Mrs. Pickman and Mrs. Sargent, both are more revealing both of the women’s bodies and of the dress.

Mercy Otis Warren is not merely remembered as a subject of a Copley portrait, or the owner of an extravagant blue dress. In terms of Warren’s intellectual accomplishments, few women of the revolutionary time period can be considered her equal. Warren was a pamphlet writer, poet, playwright, historian and prolific correspondent with many of the founding fathers. Alexander Hamilton is quoted as having said of her, “In the career of dramatic composition at least, female genius in the United States has outstripped the male.”(1)

As a pamphlet writer Warren is known to have advocated for the inclusion of a Bill of Rights in a version of the constitution (and as such her work, published anonymously as “A Colombian Patriot” under the title Observations on the new Constitution, and on the Federal and State Conventions actually opposed that version’s of the constitution’s ratification). During the revolutionary time period, her work was published anonymously, as was almost all works, to avoid retaliation by the British. This may have allowed it to be judged on its merits. She is considered one of the few women of her time period to have written for publication. In the 1790s she published poetry and plays under her own name; rare for her time.

Warren was a prolific correspondent, originally answering letters on behalf of her father and brother when necessary, and later doing the same for her husband. Her keen wit and passion for the cause of the revolution shines through in the following anecdote:

During the war, Warren worked as her husband’s personal secretary and managed their Plymouth farm while he was away governing as president of the Massachusetts provincial congress. She kept up a frequent correspondence with John Adams, a protégé of her brother’s, and his wife, Abigail. In November 1775, as the British held Boston under siege, James Warren wrote to Adams, a friend and delegate to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, urging him to give up on trying to reconcile with George III. “Your Congress can be no longer in any doubts, and hesitancy,” he wrote in his lawyerly style, “about taking capital and effectual strokes.”

Mercy insisted on adding a paragraph of her own. “You should no longer piddle at the threshold,” she dictated. “It is time to leap into the theatre to unlock the bars, and open every gate that impedes the rise and growth of the American republic.”

Smithsonian Magazine

Warren is also the author of the three-volume History of the Rise, Progress, and Termination of the American Revolution. The title may be a reference to The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Edward Gibbon’s epic six volume work published from 1776-1789. This series is considered the first history of the American Revolution written by a woman, and one of the definitive versions from that time period, although it should be noted that John Adams believed it to be an oversimplification of the Revolution’s history. It did include the concept that the “Battle of Yorktown” was not actually a battle at all.

An accomplished writer, and a woman who was able to push her political agenda with her pen, Mercy Otis Warren’s portrait at the MFA should be admired not only for its beauty, but also for the complexity and character of the woman it represents.

  1.  Zagarri, Rosemarie (2014). A Woman’s Dilemma: Mercy Otis Warren and the American Revolution (Second ed.). Somerset, NJ: Wiley. p. 142.

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