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James Perkins, 1822 by Gilbert Stuart

James Perkins, 1822,  Oil on canvas, 111.3 x 86.5 cm, by Gilbert Stuart.

Gilbert Stuart, North Kingston, Rhode Island 1755 – 1828 Boston, Massachusetts. James Perkins, 1822.Oil on canvas, 111.3 x 86.5 cm. Athenæum purchase, 1822.

Cultural institutions such as the Boston Athenæum seem to have felt responsible for establishing and exhibiting records of human greatness, usually in the form of painted or sculpted portraits of famous men (and sometimes women). The worthies thus recognized could be local, national, or international, and an institution’s commemorative goals could be general, covering all times and places, or specific, targeting a group of related geniuses such as military figures, congressmen, institutional benefactors, etc.[1]

This concept of a “hall of fame” appeared early in the history of the United States thanks to the American entrepreneur and painter Charles Willson Peale, who, in Philadelphia in the late 1770s, established this country’s first museum. Eventually, an important component of that museum was a large group of portraits of famous Americans—politicians, soldiers in the American Revolution, and patriots—that Peale painted in the 1790s, in many cases from life, and displayed in rows on the walls of his gallery.[2]

While the Boston Athenæum did not adopt a systematic approach to this concept of collecting, as had Peale, the Library did begin to amass images of well-known people from its earliest days. One of the first of these portraits to enter the collection was a bust of Alexander Hamilton that had been copied by John Dixey (d. 1820) from the original by Italian sculptor Giuseppe Ceracchi (1751-1802) and given to the Athenæum in 1817 by Samuel Salisbury, Jr.[3] During the following ten years or so, busts of the Duke of Wellington, John Adams, Sir Walter Scott, William Pitt, and Isaac Newton, and painted portraits of Benjamin West, John Quincy Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and even King Kamehameha of Hawaii entered the collection. By the time of the Civil War, the Athenæum owned over eighty portraits of men and women of various origins and epochs.

While a majority of these images were gifts to the institution, solicited or not, the most informative, in terms of the Athenæum’s own collecting habits, are those for which the Athenæum gave the original commission or acquired through a dedicated subscription. Predictably, these works tended to be of persons who were not only famous locally or nationally, but who had a special relationship to the institution itself. The earliest of these – the first work of art to enter the Athenæum’s collection as the result of a specific commission from its Trustees – was Gilbert Stuart’s portrait of James Perkins, Jr. (1761-1822).

Perkins was born in Boston, the son of James Perkins and Elizabeth Peck, and the brother of Thomas Handasyd Perkins (1764-1854) who, like James, Jr., would be an important early patron of the Boston Athenæum. This interest was somewhat predictable; as it appears that in their father the Perkins brothers had a good role model, not only as a businessman but also as a philanthropist. When James Perkins, Sr., died in 1773, his widow, Elizabeth Perkins, mother of Thomas and James, took charge of his affairs and quickly made a place for herself in Boston’s business world. She was widely known for her strength, common sense, and interest in charities, all qualities she passed on to her children.[4]

When he was in his late teens, James Perkins, Jr., apprenticed to the Boston merchants W. & J. Shattuck, where he worked until he was twenty-one. Then, in about 1782, he shipped out to Cape Francis, in what is now Haiti, and began to make his fortune as an agent for the trading firm of Wall & Tardy. His success was such that by 1785 he set up his own company in partnership with Walter Burling and his own younger brother Thomas Handasyd Perkins. In 1792, back in Boston, the Perkins brothers founded the firm that operated under the name J. & T. H. Perkins until James’s death in 1822, and that survived under a variety of other names until Thomas retired in 1838. Their success as merchants and as owners of ships that plied the China trade became legendary in Boston in the early nineteenth century.[5]

At the same time, they became well known and universally lauded for their philanthropy. They were both involved in founding and supporting hospitals in Boston, including what would later become McLeans Hospital, and James was a benefactor of Harvard College and a founder of the Perkins Institute for the Blind. Both brothers were also instrumental in the founding and early success of the Boston Athenæum. In the latter regard, James Perkins’s charity was particularly timely. He was one of the original subscribers to the Athenæum, a Trustee of the institution from 1807 to 1819, and, briefly, in 1820, its vice-president.[6] But his greatest contribution to the Library came shortly before his death in 1822, when he deeded his mansion on Pearl Street in Boston to the institution. Until Perkins’s remarkable gift, the Athenæum had moved from one more-or-less inadequate location to another. The acquisition of the Pearl Street address represented a new chance for the institution not only to increase its library holdings, but also to establish itself as a venue for the display and collecting of art. It is not coincidental that it was only after it moved to Pearl Street that the Athenæum set up a Fine Arts Committee, established an art gallery, and, in 1827, began holding annual exhibitions of both contemporary and historic art. Perkins’s beneficence made it possible for the Athenæum to thrive on Pearl Street for the next twenty-seven years.

Given these important connections, it was no surprise that within days of Perkins’s death on August 1, 1822, the Athenæum began negotiations to acquire a portrait of him. As luck would have it, Gilbert Stuart, America’s leading portrait painter at the time, was just completing a portrait of Perkins that had been commissioned by the Perkins family and that Stuart had painted, at least in part, from life.[7] Since the original painting was to go to the Perkins family, which commissioned it, the Athenæum established a subscription by which a replica could be ordered from Stuart. “Desirous to testify their gratitude to the memory of a distinguished Benefactor,” the Athenæum’s Trustees asked Sarah Perkins, James’s widow, for permission to do this. They would have commissioned a portrait of Perkins earlier, they wrote, “had not the great modesty of Mr. Perkins refused to receive while living any mark of their gratitude.”[8] With the support of Sarah Perkins and the rest of her family, the project went forward, and by August 1822 over forty prominent Bostonians had subscribed to it.[9] Two hundred dollars was allocated to Stuart to replicate the painting and slightly more than sixty dollars was paid to Boston craftsman John Doggett to make its frame.

Stuart began the new version of the portrait in September 1822, and, despite the artist’s famous dilatory nature, it was finished by the end of the next month.[10] The Athenæum’s portrait is larger and more elaborate than the original. For this replica, Stuart changed the position of the loose papers on the table and of Perkins’s left hand. Instead of having his sitter’s right hand grip the chair, as it does in the original, he gave Perkins a document to hold, giving a greater sense of immediacy and movement to the work. Perhaps the most notable change over the original, however, is that for the Athenæum’s version, Stuart upgraded the background by adding typical “grand manner” devices such as several classical columns, a swath of drapery, and shelves of books, indicative of Perkins’s intelligence and business sense.[11] In these ways, Stuart sought to present his subject in a more public and formal setting that would be more appropriate to the “hall of fame” in which the Athenæum intended to display it.


David B. Dearinger, from, Stanley Ellis Cushing and David B. Dearinger, eds., Acquired Tastes: 200 Years of Collecting for the Boston Athenæum (2006): 214-217. Copyright © The Boston Athenæum.

[1]One example of this scheme is Florence’s Uffizi Gallery which, beginning in the seventeenth century, systematically gathered the largest collection of portraits of artists in the world. See Silvia Meloni, “The Collection of Painters’ Self-Portraits,” in Mina Gregori, Paintings in the Uffizi & Pitti Galleries (Boston, New York, Toronto, and London: Little, Brown and Company, 1994), 596-597. In the United States, one of the best- known and most popular examples is Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol building, Washington, D.C.
[2]Edgar P. Richardson, “Part I. Charles Willson Peale and His World,” in Richardson, Brooke Hindle and Lillian B. Miller, Charles Willson Peale and His World (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1982), 60-67.
[3]Harding, 26.
[4]Elizabeth Perkins’s ability to handle complicated business affairs was sometimes acknowledged with the rather backhanded compliment of addressing her mail to Mr. Elizabeth Perkins. She was long remembered in Boston as “an excellent friend to active benevolence, and as a lady of dignified, but frank and cordial manners” (Thomas G. Cary, “Thomas Handasyd Perkins,” Hunt's Merchants’ Magazine 33 [July 1855]: 19-20).
[5]Carl Seaburg and Stanley Paterson, Merchant Prince of Boston, Colonel T. H. Perkins, 1764-1854 (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1971), 32-34, 434.
[6]Centenary, 115, 118, 125.
[7]Interestingly, Dorinda Evans has suggested that Stuart actually used life masks to work on Perkins’s portrait when he was too ill to pose and to complete it after his death (Dorinda Evans, The Genius of Gilbert Stuart [Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1999], 156n). A brief history of the commission by the Perkins family, including a statement about it by Thomas H. Perkins, is in George C. Mason, The Life and Works of Gilbert Stuart (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1879), 238.
[8]Peter O. Thacher and Theodore Lyman, Boston Athenæum, to Mrs. James Perkins, August 8, 1822 (BA Letter Book 2).
[9]“Subscription of the portrait of James Perkins Esq.,” August 3, 1822 (BA Letter Book 2). Among the subscribers were Harrison Gray Otis, Davis Sears, Peter Chardon Brooks, Amos Lawrence, Francis Calley Gray, Samuel Appleton, and George Brimmer. The entire list of subscribers is given in Centenary, 75-76.
[10]“Report of the Committee appointed to procure a portrait of James Perkins, Esq.” October 14, 1822 (BA Letter Book 2).
[11]Stuart’s original portrait of James Perkins descended in the Perkins family, where it remains. It is illustrated in Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design, Providence: Gilbert Stuart, Portraitist of the Young Republic 1755-1828 (1967), 101.