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Ostentatious Plainness: Copley's portrait of the Mifflins

John Copley's portrait of Mr. and Mrs. Mifflin showcases their Quaker lifestyle and wealth. Their plain yet costly attire and home-made goods reflect a political stance against British imports. The painting subtly promotes domestic manufacturing during the colonial era. Copley's skillful depiction of textures and materials adds to the richness of the narrative. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(jazz piano music) - [First Narrator] We're in the Philadelphia Museum of Art looking at a portrait by the great colonial American painter, John Copley. This is a portrait of Mr. And Mrs. Mifflin. What interests me most about this portrait is the way that we've lost some of the ability to understand their place in society and what this portrait meant. - [Second Narrator] Just owning a portrait, especially a life size portrait like this, was a sign of your social position. These were Quaker people who are discouraged from showy displays of affluence and yet here's an extremely expensive status symbol in their living room. - [First Narrator] The display isn't just in the size of the portrait, but also in what they're wearing. I see a fabulous silk dress, what looks like a fine woolen suit, even the furniture looks sumptuous. - [Second Narrator] But their choices are very restrained. What this is telling you is that they're Quakers. However, they're wealthy Quakers. They can afford the very best. This is an ostentatious statement of their plainness. She is wearing a dress made of Chinese silk. The most expensive fabric on the planet. If you look at that apron, this gauzy thing that looks like it was woven by the fairies. It's just fabulous. You can't actually imagine wiping your hands on this apron. It is exquisite. So everything about her dress is expensive, but very plain. When Mr. and Mrs. Mifflin went to Boston and had their portrait painted, when they walked down the street they would've turned heads for being plain. Boston ladies wore a lot of lace. Women of this class would've worn figured, that is patterned silks, and so the austerity of her dress is quite special. She's got no jewelry. Instead she wears a flower instead of pearls or silver. He doesn't have silver buttons on his jacket. - [First Narrator] We read so much about people and their class from what they wear. - [Second Narrator] When I ask people to guess how old the people are, they're actually much younger than you think. They're 20 somethings and the reason he looks older to us is that he's powdered his hair, but many men in a formal situation would've been wearing a wig. So he's again, choosing to be natural. In the same way that she's wearing flowers and not jewelry, he's being very no nonsense and not pretentious and just having a bit of powder on his hair. - [First Narrator] Copley has this amazing ability to turn paint into this variety of textures. The gleam of the wood, the reflection of the threads on the wooden table, the gleam of her silk dress, and at this point American colonists were importing a lot of luxury goods from Britain. - [Second Narrator] Her silk is definitely imported, probably the fabric on the chair behind her is imported from England. So their houses are full of imported goods, but the message of this painting actually is make things at home. Buy America first is the politics of this painting. - [First Narrator] This does focus our attention on Mrs. Mifflin and her work, which does support this idea that this is about colonists making things at home instead of importing them. And this is a politics that emerges after Britain imposed taxes on the colonists, on tea famously. And by refusing to import British goods, they could exercise their power against Britain. - [Second Narrator] And in fact, the reason that they were in Boston was to meet with John Hancock and other rabble-rousers who were agitating about these import taxes. - [First Narrator] So let's talk about what she's making. It looks like fringe. - [Second Narrator] It's upholstery fringe. It's something she's doing to make her house beautiful and so that's domestic production. Although we don't have any letter from Mrs. Mifflin saying I chose to be portrayed making something, that's why they were in Boston. He's a budding politician and you have to think that there's a message in this painting. - [First Narrator] And one of his great causes was this movement to not import and purchase British goods. - [Second Narrator] So it's an argument for domestic manufacturing, very subtly done. - [First Narrator] And Copley draws our attention to her and her work in so many ways. - [Second Narrator] She is spot-lit. She's actually forward in the painting. So she's a little bit in front and her husband just fixes this adoring look on her so that every time you look at him he makes you look back at her. It's a really unusual picture, having the woman be the center of interest. Copley stacks their hands up so that they make a circle. They almost touch even though in space he would have been farther behind her. It suggests their partnership in the loveliest way. It's a fantastic painting of a marriage because you see them as a team. Copley himself was a Royalist, a supporter of the King and yet as a portrait artist and a business man he had to take all comers and he painted people of every political persuasion. So these are people that he would not have agreed with politically. In the day you called them Whigs and they would have been agitating for the independence of the colonies. - [First Narrator] And we're right at the time of the Boston Tea Party, of rebellions against the imperial government. - [Second Narrator] In their living room they had this big political statement and maybe that took the edge off of the lavishness of the portrait itself. (jazz piano music)