When newly rich New Hampshire merchant Woodbury Langdon wanted to commission portraits of himself and his eighteen-year-old wife, Sarah, two years after their marriage, there was no question of any other artist in Boston-indeed, in the colonies-for the job. In a little more than a decade, John Singleton Copley had parlayed a partial artistic education and his own teenage courage and ambition into a dazzlingly successful style. What clients like the Langdons responded to-and what viewers today can still appreciate-was Copley's miraculous way with the rendering of textures. Under his brush, oil paint became hair, flesh, and fabric, which is readily apparent in this pair of portraits. Copley also liberally borrowed costumes and poses from mezzotint engravings, allowing his clients to emulate the fashionable attire and self-presentation of the motherland.
Copley's self-assurance with materials and close attention to detail, however, contrast vividly with his awkwardness with spatial relationships, seen in particular in the proportions of Woodbury Langdon's right arm or in the difference in scale between Sarah Langdon's head and shoulders. Such difficulties were due to Copley's lack of formal training. While he deplored this as a condition of being in a provincial environment, generations of art historians-and viewers-have found this to be part of the artist's charm.
Copley left Boston on the eve of the Revolution (his father-in-law was the merchant whose shipments were destroyed during the Boston Tea Party). After travel in Italy, he settled in London with his family, where, with encouragement from expatriate artist Benjamin West, his style became ever more refined. At home, the Langdons prospered, eventually having ten children and obtaining high political and judicial offices.