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John Singleton Copley and Margaret Kemble Gage: Turkish Fashion in 18th Century America

April 23 through June 16, 1999

Left: John Singleton Copley, Mrs. Thomas Gage (Margaret Kemble Gage) ,1771, oil on canvas,50 x 40 inches, Timken Museum of Art; right: John Singleton Copley, Mrs. Adam Babcock (Abigail Smith), 1774, oil on canvas, 46 x 35 inches, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, Gift of Mrs. Robert Low Baco


The Canton Museum of Art is soon concluding a limited-run exhibition of the work of America's greatest artist of the 18th century, John Singleton Copley . An eighteenth-century fascination with Turkey and the Orient as the site of pleasure and leisure is the focus of John Singleton Copley and Margaret Kemble Gage: Turkish Fashion in 18th Century America. The exhibition came to Canton after an engaement at the Timken Museum of Art in San Diego's Balboa Park. The exhibit, organized by the Timken Museum, was sent to Canton in honor of the late Louise B. Timken, who actively supported the San Diego institution, Canton's Cultural Center for the Arts and the Canton Museum of Art.

The centerpiece of Turkish Fashion in 18th Century America is the masterful portrait which John Singleton Copley (1738-1815) produced in 1771 for Margaret Kemble Gage, the American-born wife of Thomas Gage, Commander in Chief of British forces in America. It is a prized part of the Timken Museum of Art's permanent collection. The artist himself deemed the portrait "beyond Compare the best Lady's portrait I ever Drew." The image of romantic fashionability, Mrs. Gage is depicted wearing an iridescent caftan over a lace trimmed chemise with a jeweled brooch at her breast and an embroidered belt at her waist. Pearls and a turban-like swath of drapery adorn her hair. Copley's depiction of Mrs.Gage in turban and uncorseted caftan make this one of the most sexually charged portraits produced in colonial America.

Mrs. Gage's wish to be portrayed in turquerie put her in the company of countless English women who were "going Turkish" to masquerade balls. Their American peers, however, who had no occasions to wear such costumes, participated in the exhilarating world of exotic disguise through portraiture. In the artist's studio, clients had the chance to look more stylish than they could in real life. Copley offered his subjects the option of selecting poses, settings, costumes, and coiffures from English sources. In the space of the painted canvas, he created for them alternate or desired appearances.

The exhibition is comprised of a select group of eight portraits drawn from public and private collections throughout the United States. While Copley's painting of Margaret Kemble Gage is generally considered the most historically prominent American picture in this style, many other colonial women participated in the drama of Oriental imagery. Featured in the exhibition are several important Copley works, including Mrs. John Greene, ca.1769, from The Cleveland Museum of Art and Mrs. Adam Babcock (Abigail Smith), 1774, from the National Gallery of Art, Washington. Also on view are examples of the genre by American painters Benjamin West and Ralph Earl. A ca. 1730 portrait of Mrs. Kiliaen Van Rensselaer by an unidentified artist is the earliest painting in the exhibition.

Guest scholar for the exhibition is Dr. Carrie Rebora Baratt, Associate Curator, American Paintings and Sculpture and Manager, The Henry R. Luce Center for the Study of American Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Dr. Baratt is particularly well suited for this project, having recently served as co-curator for the successful traveling exhibition, John Singleton Copley in America.

A 48-page softbound catalogue accompanies the exhibition. It features an essay by Dr. Barrat that examines the international vogue for turquerie and the ways in which such portraits connected American colonists to the social practices of their British peers.The catalogue includes full color plates of the exhibited works and comparative illustrations


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For further biographical information on selected artists cited in this article please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists.

rev. 10/18/10

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