Portrait of John Codman IIIJohn Singleton Copley
Learning to Look
Most of us first look at a painting and see the overall image. We imagine being in the place where the artist was. Has the artist captured the mood of a rainy day in the city? What was the person in this portrait like? But we can also learn something by looking more closely at what’s on the canvas. How has the way the artist applied the paint enhanced the image? How does the composition direct your eye around the scene? How do the choices this artist made relate to those made by another artist?
Visitors in this exhibition’s third gallery, New England’s People, may notice that the faces of seven of the eleven individuals depicted there are framed by pristine white collars. In the past, a white collar signified the wearer’s financial ability to keep this prominent article of clothing clean. Most people worked—and sweated—for a living, which meant their collars (even detachable ones) were often discolored. In all of the portraits here, the sitters’ bright white collars suggest requisite financial resources, higher social status, and pride in one’s appearance.
For artists, a white collar was useful in setting off the face—a portrait’s most important and distinctive element—from the rest of the figure. But the collars also provided a technical challenge. In both life and art, white collars are rarely just flat blocks of white color. Instead, they are surprisingly complex zones of light and shadow: the same white fabric takes on a different tone as it curves around the neck or ripples down the chest.
In the section below, compare how all of these artists have handled the white in their sitters’ clothing.
John Codman III
A detail of the white collar of John Codman III in John Singleton Copley’s portrait of him.