Frances Tucker Montresor (1744–1826) was born in New York, the only child of Thomas Tucker of Bermuda, a lieutenant in the British Army. She married John Montresor (1736–1799), then also a lieutenant in the British Army, in New York in 1764. In 1766 Montresor was promoted to captain-lieutenant and “Engineer Extraordinary,” and in 1775 he was made chief engineer in America, with the rank of captain. In the interim, he purchased Montresor’s (now Randall’s) Island in New York Harbor, where he and his family lived. Although he served as General William Howe’s aide-de-camp at Brandywine in 1778, he was dismissed by General Henry Clinton, Howe’s successor, and returned with his family to England, where he resigned his commission.1DAB, s.v. “John Montresor.”
The choice of John Singleton Copley to paint Frances Montresor’s portrait was natural since some years earlier, in America, the artist had painted a work showing John Montresor in three-quarter profile facing left and in uniform (ca. 1771; Detroit Institute of Arts).2Reproduced in Prown 1966, fig. 295. Ibid., 233, gives the provenance of John Montresor’s portrait. Since it was owned by the London branch of Howard Young Galleries by about 1934, we may assume that both portraits descended through the Montresor family to Mrs. Joan (Montresor) Read. The artist, who had moved to England, was commissioned to paint a companion portrait; the two canvases have the same dimensions.
For her portrait, Mrs. Montresor affected a costume that was in the latest style, the female riding habit adapted from military uniform. “The fashion,” David Mannings tells us, “must be seen against the background of war preparation in 1778, of ladies attending military reviews and wearing regimental colours.”3In Penny, 289. For a brilliant, full-length example of this fashion, see Reynolds’s Lady Worsley in Penny, 289 and 144. The high hairdo topped off with an elegant black hat trimmed with feathers was also (rather literally) the height of fashion.
The portrait of the Captain-Lieutenant is pensive, whereas Mrs. Montresor is presented with cool neoclassical poise, in the pure profile derived from antique cameos and coins that was then much in vogue. Copley not only employs the profile pose resolutely, first drawing the contour in dark brown paint, but he also subordinates modeling to line. There is little suggestion of volume in the face, although the painting has an history of relining and abrasion, which may account for much of its flatness.4Recent, thorough conservation of the painting was revealing. In addition to the flattened impasto caused by glue lining the original linen canvas, it was observed that Copley might have covered most of his white ground layer with bituminous black paint. The inevitable deterioration of the bituminous paint resulted in the cracking and separation of the paint layer, as well as the wrinkling (or curdling) of the surface, and this led to some drastic early restorations. In particular, the hat was a problem. It was suggested that Copley had originally painted it with dark bituminous colors, merely adding the lighter shades of the ribbons and highlights. When the paint deteriorated, the original design of the hat would have been difficult to perceive. A restorer, in addition to overpainting the damage with black paint, apparently disapproved of the lowering hairstyle, altering it by enlarging the hat so that it covered the forehead and most of the hair. An enormous hat was created. This overpaint was removed (conservator’s report, July 23,1984, Curatorial Files, Diplomatic Reception Rooms). Denying himself the patient exploration of the sitter’s features that marked his colonial portraits, Copley displays a rare single-mindedness. He succeeds through sureness of design and a bold palette. Red, white, and black, with accents of gold, focus the eye on the figure placed against the sketchy, decorative background of sky and tree. Mrs. Montresor’s gray hair and white neckerchief are displays of virtuosity, as is the use of a blue ground—the blue of the sky—which is seen to admirable effect through the white shirt and collar and even through the striking revers folded across the red jacket.
Still establishing his English reputation, Copley may have employed this pose and costume in an effort to be up to date, but the painting remains unusual in combining a neoclassical design, the flowing painterliness of Thomas Gainsborough, and a flat, decorative surface. It is unlike any single-figure portrait in the artist’s oeuvre.5The painting is signed at the lower right, “JS Copley;” and inscribed on the reverse, “Frances Montresor/ nee Tucker/ Born 1744–died 1826/ PINXIT Copley.” Jules D. Prown first discovered Copley’s signature in the much-darkened area to the right of the sitter’s shoulder: He also discerned a date, of which only the second digit was legible—“7”—and which is no longer apparent. Prown further noted that the Frick Art Reference Library records the date as 1778, which “may have been based on an earlier observation of the picture when the varnish was more transparent.” Prown, letter to Clement E. Conger, January 31, 1984, Curatorial Files, Diplomatic Reception Rooms.
Excerpted from Jonathan L. Fairbanks. Becoming a Nation: Americana from the Diplomatic Reception Rooms, U.S. Department of State. New York: Rizzoli, 2003.