Ostentatious plainness: Copley’s portrait of the Mifflins

Politics and fashion on the eve of the American Revolution

John Singleton Copley, Portrait of Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Mifflin (Sarah Morris), 1773, oil on ticking, 156.5 × 121.9 cm (Philadelphia Museum of Art)

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Key points

  • This portrait was carefully calculated to both quietly display the wealth and authority of this couple and to testify to their political campaign of resistance against British taxation. At the time, Mr. Mifflin was a merchant and a budding politician.
  • In response to British taxes on imported goods, Thomas Mifflin and other colonists staged a boycott and promoted the “homespun” movement. Showing Sarah Mifflin weaving a decorative fringe would have been a political endorsement of the campaign for domestic manufacturing. However, the artist, John Copley, was actually a royalist on the other end of the American political spectrum.
  • As Quakers, the Mifflins refrained from ostentatious luxury, yet subtle elements of clothing and furnishings demonstrate their prosperity. While their attire appears subdued when compared with contemporary fashion (for example, they wear neither jewelry nor silver buttons), the fineness of the cloth reveals its expense.

Go deeper

See and read more about this object at the Philadelphia Museum of Art

Read more about the artist John Singleton Copley

Learn about the conditions that paved the way for the American Revolution

Use primary sources to learn more about the Boston Tea Party

Learn about religion in colonial North America

Learn about how lace was worn in the late 1700s

Learn more about the homespun movement

Read more about the life of Thomas Mifflin


More to think about

In today’s world of Instagram and Snapchat, selfies are the norm. Discuss how these contemporary images function in similar ways to portraits from the past, and how they might differ.

Explore the diverse history of the United States through its art. Seeing America is funded by the Terra Foundation for American Art and the Alice L. Walton Foundation.