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“John Adams” by John Singleton Copley

John Adams by John Singleton Copley

“John Adams” by John Singleton Copley

“John Adams” by John Singleton Copley commemorates Adams’s role in securing American independence. It was painted in London soon after the Treaty of Paris was signed in 1783. He gestures toward a map of the new lands claimed by the American government.

Adams was appointed as the American commissioner to negotiate the war-ending treaty, the Treaty of Paris. On September 3, 1783, the treaty was signed, and American independence was recognized.

A classical statue extends an olive branch in the background and lowers a torch in a gesture of peace. Though Copley planned to publicly display the painting in London, it proved too celebratory for British audiences, who had lost to the colonists.

Adams was appointed the first American ambassador to Great Britain in 1785. When a counterpart assumed that Adams had family in England, Adams replied:

“Neither my father nor mother, grandfather or grandmother,
great grandfather or great grandmother,
nor any other relation that I know of,
nor care a farthing for,
has been in England these one hundred and fifty years;
so that you see I have not one drop of blood in my veins, but what is American.”

Adams’s tenure in Britain was complicated by both countries failing to follow their treaty obligations.

After his term, Adams arrived back in Massachusetts in 1789 when the nation’s first presidential election was soon to take place. Washington became the nation’s first president, and Adams became its first vice president.

After Washington announced that he would not be a candidate for a third term, 1796 was the first contested American presidential election. 

In the end, Adams won the presidency by a narrow margin, receiving 71 electoral votes to 68 for Jefferson, who became the vice president; This is the only election in which a president and vice president were elected from opposing tickets.

The portrait had remained in Copley’s studio until 1796 when it was accepted and exhibited at the Royal Academy, the year that Adams became President.

Nearly twenty years after it was painted, the work reached Massachusetts, and Adams’s wife praised the portrait. The second President of the United States felt that it was “a Piece of Vanity.”

In 1826, the 50th anniversary of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence, Adams died. His last words included an acknowledgment of his longtime friend and rival:

“Thomas Jefferson, survives.”

Adams was unaware that Jefferson had died several hours before. At 90, Adams became the longest-lived US president until Ronald Reagan surpassed him in 2001.

John Adams

  • Title:                   John Adams
  • Artist:                  John Singleton Copley
  • Date:                   1783
  • Medium:             Oil on canvas
  • Dimensions:       238.1 x 147 cm (93 3/4 x 57 7/8 in.)
  • Type:                   History Painting
  • Museum:             Harvard Art Museums

John Singleton Copley

John Singleton Copley (1738 – 1815) was an Anglo-American painter active in colonial America and England. Born in Boston, Massachusetts, he is famous for his portrait paintings of wealthy and influential figures in colonial New England.

His portraits were innovative in their tendency to portray artifacts relating to these individuals’ lives.

Copley sailed in 1774 for London, where he connected with Benjamin West, another American born painter who together created a new kind of history painting, one with modern and current subjects.

Copley also met Sir Joshua Reynolds, and between 1776 and 1815, he sent forty-three pictures to exhibitions of the Royal Academy, of which he was elected an associate member. His election to full membership occurred in 1783.

Copley was the greatest and most influential painter in colonial America, producing about 350 works of art. Boston’s Copley Square and Copley Plaza bear his name, as do Copley Township, Summit County, Ohio, and Copley crater on Mercury.

A 5-cent stamp commemorating John Singleton Copley was issued by the U.S. Postal Service in 1965, the 150th anniversary of his death.

John Singleton Copley

John Adams’ legacy?

Virtual Tour of the Harvard Art Museums

The Revolutionary Art of John Singleton Copley


“In the hour of darkness and peril and need,
The people will waken and listen to hear
The hurrying hoof-beats of that steed,
And the midnight message of Paul Revere.”
– Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Paul Revere’s Ride


Photo Credit: 1) John Singleton Copley, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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