The Milwaukee Art Museum has acquired the portrait Alice Hooper, a major colonial American painting by John Singleton Copley (1738–1815). Copley is recognized as one of the great American artists of the day—and one of the first native-born painters to achieve success both at home and abroad.
Alice Hooper, painted by Copley around 1763, depicts the seventeen-year-old daughter of the wealthiest man in Marblehead, Massachusetts, Robert “King” Hooper. Alice’s father commissioned this portrait to mark his daughter’s engagement to Jacob Fowle, Jr.
“Alice Hooper displays the traits that made Copley desirable in colonial Boston. Copley’s rendering of her fashionable sacque gown dazzles the eye, with its profusion of glinting blue satin and frothy lace spilling from its underdress,” said William Rudolph, curator of American art and decorative arts at the Milwaukee Art Museum. “The artist lingered on the highlights of Alice’s ruby earrings and choker, revealing the great wealth of her family. Yet her pensive gaze and half-shadowed face allude to her graciousness; she looks modest, rather than proud.”
According to Rudolph, Alice Hooper’s composition is one of a series of women depicted in fantasy garden settings, which all descend from John Faber’s 1691 engraving after Sir Godfrey Kneller’s Duchess of Grafton (ca. 1680).
The painting also provides vivid evidence of Copley’s working methods. Like many of his colleagues, the artist borrowed costumes and compositions from imported engravings of high-style British portraits. These appropriations were done with the full cooperation of his clients, who wanted to emulate the aristocrats of the mother country.
“The dress itself, although breathtakingly rendered, may not in fact be the property of Miss Hooper, given its remarkable similarity to that worn by several other sitters, and to the artist’s documented habit of copying elaborate gowns from mezzotints,” said Rudolph.
Copley’s work pleased the Hoopers and led to nine additional commissions for members of Alice’s immediate and extended families, securing Copley’s success.
“After winning the Hooper clan’s approval, Copley rocketed into the stratosphere as the go-to artist for fashionable New England—and for clients from as far away as Philadelphia and New York,” Rudolph said.
The acquisition of Alice Hooper coincides with the Museum’s commitment to the expansion of its American art program, including a major reinstallation of its collections in honor of the 125th anniversary of the Museum in 2013.
The purchase was made possible in part by a donation from the estate of Milwaukeeans Leonard and Bebe LeVine, along with the Virginia Booth Vogel Acquisition Fund, with funds in memory of Betty Croasdaile and John E. Julien, and gift by exchange of Chapellier Galleries, the Samuel O. Buckner Collection, and the Max E. Friedmann Bequest.
“The portrait of Alice Hooper will become one of the Museum’s icons of American art,” said Brady Roberts, chief curator for the Milwaukee Art Museum. “This is a significant acquisition for the Museum, and without the generosity of Leonard and Bebe LeVine and others, it would not be possible. With Alice Hooper, and with the reinstallation of the American Collections Galleries on the Museum’s lower level, we are reimagining the scope of American art at the Museum.”