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John Adams, 1788

John Adams, 1788 by Mather Brown

Mather Brown. Boston, Massachusetts, 1761 – 1831, London, England. John Adams, 1788. Oil on canvas, 34 ½ x 27 ¼ in. (90.2 x 71.3 cm). Bequest of George F. Parkman, 1908.

Given the importance of John Adams to the history of the city of Boston, the American colonies, and the United States, it is not surprising that he is represented by a number of portraits – including paintings, sculptures, and engravings – in the collection of the Boston Athenæum, notably a painting of Adams attributed to Gilbert Stuart (see entry 61), John B. Binon’s sculpted image of Adams in old age (see entry 81), and this painted portrait by Mather Brown.[1]

Mather Brown was a native of Boston, and it was there that he produced his first paintings, which were miniature portraits. As was typical of his generation, he went to England in 1780 to study with Benjamin West, the best-known Anglo-American artist of the day and the first great American-born art teacher. With West’s help, Brown was successful enough by 1782 to have his paintings accepted for the annual exhibitions of the Royal Academy of Arts, and in 1784 he opened his own studio in London.[2] Brown’s accomplishments in portraiture and eventually in history-painting prompted him to remain in London, which became his home more or less for the rest of his life.[3]

It was in London in 1785 that Brown painted portraits of John Adams, who was serving as the American ambassador to the Court of St. James, his wife Abigail, and their daughter, also named Abigail but known as “Nabby.” In a letter to her brother John Quincy Adams, Nabby wrote of Brown’s interaction with the family. A “rage for painting has taken Possession of the Whole Familey,” she reported; “one of our rooms has been occupied by a Gentleman of this profession, for near a fortnight, and we have the extreme felicity of looking at ourselves upon Canvass.”[4]

Nabby’s wording in this letter implies that Brown painted John Adams’s portrait without a specific commission and as a way to promote his own career. Whatever the case, he did the same within a year with Adams’s colleague and friend Thomas Jefferson, who was the American ambassador to France and who was in London to work with Adams on certain trade agreements. Jefferson’s sittings for Brown took place in the spring of 1786 and resulted in his earliest known portrait. Adams was pleased with the portrait and asked Brown to replicate it for him.[5] Jefferson reciprocated the compliment and, in October 1786, he asked Adams’s son-in-law, William Stephens Smith, to act as his agent in commissioning Brown to paint a portrait of Adams. As Jefferson told Smith, he hoped to add Adams’s portrait “to those of other principal American characters which I have or shall have”.[6]

In commissioning the portrait, Jefferson made it clear that he did not want a replica of Mather Brown’s existing portrait of Adams, as might be expected, but a fresh image of his colleague. Of course this meant that Adams would have to sit again for Brown and, after some cajoling, he agreed to do so. The process was completed late in March 1788. For this new portrait, Brown personalized and individualized the image by showing his subject holding Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia, a copy of which Jefferson had sent to Adams in May 1785.[7] Jefferson took possession of the portrait in the summer of 1788, and when he returned to the United States at the end of the following year, it went with him. The painting remained at Monticello until Jefferson’s death in 1826.[8]

Two years after Jefferson’s (and Adams’s) death, Joseph Coolidge, Jr. (1798-1879), husband of Jefferson’s granddaughter Ellen Wayles Randolph (1796-1876), brought a group of objects that included at least thirty-eight paintings from the former president’s estate to Boston for exhibition and sale.[9] On May 20, 1828, these paintings were added to the Boston Athenæum’s second annual exhibition, which had opened about three weeks earlier.[10] The works were identified in the exhibition’s catalogue as being “for sale, the prices of which may be known on application to Mr. Wm. Harris Jones.”[11] This expansion of the exhibition by the addition of the Jefferson collection evidently increased daily attendance and the sale of season tickets, the number of which reached over five thousand. It also gave a boost to contemporary artists whose works were in the exhibition: according to the local press, an impressive number of their works sold during the run of the show.[12]

For the next five years, the history of this group of objects from Jefferson’s collection is unclear; but on July 19, 1833, the collection, still including Brown’s portrait of John Adams, was sold at an auction held at the painter Chester Harding’s studio in Boston.[13] An ancestor of George Francis Parkman—probably Parkman’s father or grandfather—apparently purchased the portrait of Adams, and it descended in the Parkman family. In 1908 George Parkman bequeathed it to the Athenæum. The bequest included $50,000 in cash, as well as books, small decorative statuary, engravings, photographs, undistinguished family portraits, and even old dresses. Many of these objects were deemed redundant or inappropriate by the Athenæum and were sold or otherwise distributed by the institution.[14]

Luckily, the Athenæum recognized the significance of Brown’s portrait, although by that time the identities of its creator and its sitter had been lost. Shortly after acquiring the portrait, the Athenæum made a systematic appeal to a number of American and European scholars for their assistance with the problem of attribution. When that attempt failed, the possibility of selling the portrait for four hundred dollars was raised in 1913.[15] Fortunately, no action was taken; in 1917, however, historian and antiquarian Lawrence Park convincingly argued that the painting was Mather Brown’s long-lost portrait of John Adams. Park also tracked the painting’s early history, as given above, and thereby restored it to its proper place in the story of an important and touchingly personal exchange between two of this country’s greatest patriots.[16]


David B. Dearinger, from, Stanley Ellis Cushing and David B. Dearinger, eds., Acquired Tastes: 200 Years of Collecting for the Boston Athenæum (2006): 197-200. Copyright © The Boston Athenæum.

[1]For a comprehensive study of portraits of John Adams, see Andrew Oliver, Portraits of John and Abigail Adams (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press, Harvard University Press, 1967).
[2]Algernon Graves, The Royal Academy of Arts: A Complete Dictionary of Contributors and Their Work from Its Foundation in 1769 to 1904 (8 vols.; London: Henry Graves & Co., Ltd., 1905), 1: 309-311.
[3]For an account of Brown’s life and career and a catalogue of his works, see Dorinda Evans, Mather Brown, Early American Artist in England (Middletown, Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press, 1982).
[4]Abigail Adams to John Quincy Adams, July 4-August 11, 1785, quoted in Oliver, 46-47. Of the three portraits, only that of the elder Abigail is extant; it is in the collection of the Adams Historic Site, Quincy, Massachusetts.
[5]Only one of Brown’s portraits of Jefferson still exists: it descended in the Adams family and is now in the National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C. There is some confusion as to whether this is the original life portrait by Brown or the replica. See David Meschutt, “The Adams-Jefferson Portrait Exchange,” American Art Journal 14 (Spring 1982): 47-54.
[6]Jefferson to Smith, February 19, 1787, quoted in Meschutt, 49.
[7]Meschutt, 53.
[8]Evans, 62-63.
[9]Among the works that Coolidge brought to Boston in 1828 were busts of Benjamin Franklin, General Lafayette, John Paul Jones, and George Washington, all by Jean-Antoine Houdon. The Athenæum bought the bust of Lafayette from Coolidge that same year, and in 1912 Coolidge’s descendants gave the bust of Washington to the Athenæum. For Jefferson’s art collection and the manner in which it was originally displayed at Monticello, see Susan R. Stein, “Jefferson’s Museum at Monticello,” The Magazine Antiques 144 (July 1993): 80-85.
[10]“Athenæum Exhibition,” Columbian Centinel (Boston), May 17, 1828. Also see Swan, 85-88.
[11]Boston Athenæum: A Catalogue of the Second Exhibition of Paintings, in the Athenæum Gallery; Consisting of Specimens by American Artists, and a Selection from the Works of the Old Masters, 2nd ed. (Boston, 1828), 8. Brown’s portrait of Adams was no. 311 in this catalogue.
[12]Columbian Centinel, May 21, May 24, June 21, and July 4, 1828.
[13]Catalogue of Valuable Oil Paintings . . . Being the Collection of the late President Jefferson. To be Sold at Auction, on Friday, July 19, at Mr. Harding’s Gallery, School St. (Boston, 1833), 4, no. 12.
[14]Charles Knowles Bolton, Diary, December 20, 1908, Boston Athenæum. Bolton inspected the collection after it arrived at the Athenæum in 1908 and gave a brief description of it in his diary.
[15]Trustees Records, December 20, 1913; November 23 and December  8, 1915.
[16]Lawrence Park, “Mather Brown’s Portrait of John Adams,” Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society, LI (November 1917): 105-107.