The Bowdoin College Museum of Art (BCMA) has added to its series of portraits of Elizabeth Bowdoin, augmenting its collection with the installment of a pastel by colonial artist John Copley. On September 21, the Museum held a discussion about the visiting portrait and Copley, who is traditionally regarded as one of the most well-known portrait painters from the American colonies. 

Elizabeth Bowdoin was the older sister of James Bowdoin, the founder of the College. The portrait, completed in 1767 and titled “Lady Temple (Elizabeth Bowdoin),” came to the Museum on loan from a private collection. Installed next to three other works of Elizabeth Bowdoin, Copley’s work showcases the chronology and political history of her life as well as the development of American colonial art.

Led by Joachim Homann, museum curator, and Laura Fecych Sprague, consulting curator of decorative arts, the discussion centered around the pastel in the context of Bowdoin’s collection. According to Sprague, the recent addition has strengthened the overall collection of portraits as well as provided valuable insight into Elizabeth Bowdoin and her family’s patronage of art in early America.

“It is her life in pictures, painted by the best artists of the time, who happened to be the founding fathers of American art,” said Homann. 

Copley painted during a time when “America was an outpost of wonder,” according to Linda Docherty, associate professor of art history emerita.

“[Copley] very much aspired to paint at the level of the distinguished painters, who were English,” she said. 

According to Homann, Elizabeth Bowdoin also represented the transition from a European identity to a colonial one. Her husband, Sir John Temple, was the first British ambassador to the United States. 

“They lived a beautiful, glamorous life in New York City in this strange situation representing the former colonial power,” Homann said.

According to Docherty, the portrait of Elizabeth Bowdoin was painted on the occasion of her marriage as a pairing to John Temple’s portrait by Copley a few years prior and showcases an interesting time in colonial history when anti-British sentiment was beginning to form an identity for colonial values. 

In its introduction of art as a way to emphasize the individual, the newly-added piece represents a shift from previously held conceptions about American portraiture.

“[The portrait is] a dialogue from soul to soul, person to person, through the mediation of the work of art,” Homann said. “Previously it was just about marking status and family connections, and establishing one’s rank in the world.” 

American portraiture, especially pastels done by Copley, embodied ideas of the Enlightenment–that each person had their own natural talents and character to be expressed through art. 

“This immediacy was best expressed in pastel portraits,” Homann said. “Because they are born out of a moment.” 

According to Docherty, this spontaneous nature of pastel portraiture was used by Elizabeth Bowdoin as a medium of communication. When living in London, Bowdoin wrote to her parents about the portraits she had sent, telling them where to hang them. Before the days of internet and iMessage, the portrait was a medium of visual communication with relatives.