Joseph Blackburn
Hannah Babcock (Mrs. John Bours)
, 1759

Hannah Babcock
is a three-quarter-length portrait of a young woman standing. Her body is placed nearly at the center of the composition and faces front. The subject’s head is slightly turned and tilted toward the viewer’s left. Her hair is pulled back from her face, with loose curls visible above the proper left ear and at the back of her head. She wears a hair ornament consisting of a blue ribbon, a blue rectangular stone, and a yellow flower or feather. The young woman has an oval face, almond-shaped blue eyes, and softly modeled features. Her arms cross in front of her body, with her proper left hand resting on her right wrist. In her right hand, she holds a fluffy fan consisting of two multicolored (red, blue, yellow, brown, and white) feathers.

The subject’s off-white dress has a low-cut, nearly square neckline and is embellished with a transparent collar, white lace at the neck and sleeves, and blue ribbons at the bodice and cuffs. The tight bodice is further ornamented with two rows of white floral embroidery framing a narrow V-shaped panel at the center of her torso; a strand of pearls begins at the middle of the ribbon on her bodice and forms a pair of mirrored arches that extend to her sides at the waist. Her skirt billows widely and, like the loosely draped fabric of her sleeves, shimmers in deep and shallow folds.

The figure is set in a garden with a reddish-brown urn on a pedestal behind her at the right and trees and an orange-tinged sky to the left. The sky is blue-green behind the figure and pure blue in the upper-left corner. The largest tree forms a diagonal from the upper-left corner of the canvas to the young woman’s proper right shoulder and arm. The tiered curves and volumes of the urn loosely trace an inverted outline of the young woman’s head, body, and dress. The background objects–urn, trees, and bushes–are painted in broad, loose brushstrokes.

Hannah Babcock was born on January 22, 1743, to Dr. Joshua Babcock (1707–1783) and Hannah Stanton Babcock (1714–1778), in Westerly, Rhode Island, a town about thirty miles west of Newport. She was sixteen when Blackburn painted her portrait. Hannah was the fourth of nine children and the oldest of five girls. Her father, a member of the class of 1724 at Yale, studied medicine in Boston and London and practiced in Westerly for about a quarter-century. Babcock owned a six-thousand-acre plantation operated by Narragansett Indians, ran a thriving retail business, and was Westerly’s first postmaster. He is said to have been appointed to this office by Benjamin Franklin, a mezzotint of whom hung in the Babcock house among the family’s own portraits.1 Babcock was active in politics, serving in the General Assembly for nine years and as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the colony for sixteen. He would later prove to be an ardent patriot, serving as a major general of the Rhode Island militia.2 His newspaper obituary read, in part:

As a Patriot—a Magistrate—a Physician—his Character shone conspicuous.—In the domestic Walks of Life, let the Wise—the Child—the Servant—the Friend and the Neighbour witness, that, few equalled, none surpassed him.3

Hannah married John Bours (1734–1815) at Trinity Church, Newport, on July 7, 1762.4 The families of the young couple were acquainted because Dr. Babcock and John’s father, Peter Bours (about 1705/06–1761), served together in the colonial general assembly. Hannah bore eleven children, the first five of whom died in childhood, four in infancy.5 John Bours was a merchant at the Sign of the Golden Eagle, Thames Street, where he sold English, Continental, and West Indian imports, including fabrics, metals, jewelry, sugar, rice, coffee, tea, wine, rum, raisins, lemons, and spices.6 For many years, he was treasurer of the Redwood Library in Newport, and served on its board of directors.7 He also was active in the Trinity Church as vestryman and church warden; in 1782 Bours acted as lay reader in the absence of a minister, and two years later, he declined a request that he "enter into holy orders and become their minister."8

Hannah Babcock Bours’s gravestone reads simply: "Sacred/ May this stone long remain/ a Tribute of Affection/ to the memory of/ HANNAH BOURS/ wife of JOHN BOURS/ and DAUGHTER of/ JOSHUA BABCOCK/ late of Westerly/ in this state/ who died Decembr 17th 1796/ aged 54 years."9

When Dr. Babcock commissioned Joseph Blackburn in 1759 to paint his daughter’s portrait, the artist had moved from Boston to Portsmouth, New Hampshire. This suggests that the artist continued to travel to accept commissions, since his first portraits on the North American mainland were painted in Newport in 1754.10

Blackburn’s skill at painting costume is evident in this portrait, where he has convincingly represented the lustrous surface of satin and the delicate character of lace. Hannah’s generalized features, consisting of soft, nearly geometric volumes, suggest that the portrait is as much an idealization of female beauty as it is a carefully delineated likeness. Her smooth features and light skin convey her youth and comeliness, and her erect posture demonstrates her feminine grace.

Figure 1. John Faber, Jr., after Thomas Hudson, Miss Hudson, 1740s, mezzotint, 13 3/4 x 9 3/4 in. (34.9 x 24.8 cm), Trustees of the British Museum, London.

Figure 2. Peter Paul Rubens, Helena Fourment, about 1620, oil on canvas, 73 1/4 x 33 1/2 in. (186.1 x 85.1 cm), Museu Calouste Gulbenkian, Lisbon, Portugal.

This painting also is typical of Blackburn in that it casts the sitter in a fantasy drawn from an English rococo mezzotint. Hannah Babcock is represented in a pose, costume, and setting all borrowed from Thomas Hudson’s portrait of his daughter, Miss Hudson, which Blackburn probably had available in a print (fig. 1) by John Faber, Jr. (d. 1756) after the original.11 Blackburn’s three-quarter-length composition, in place of the whole length in Faber’s print after Hudson, tightened the focus on the figure and eliminated the dog at bottom right. Whereas the dress follows Hudson closely in its overall contours and especially in its folds, Blackburn substituted a few flowers for the large plumed hat, opened the neckline substantially, and adjusted the position of the pearls that decorate the bodice. In Hudson’s portrait, the pearls support a portrait in miniature, and in Blackburn’s they are simply ornamental. Blackburn also crossed the right hand over instead of under the left one and lowered the plume to follow the billow of the skirt more closely. Blackburn’s reflection of Hudson’s style and poses has led some scholars to speculate that Hudson may have been the younger painter’s master.12

Hudson’s portrait, in turn, owes its composition largely to that of Peter Paul Rubens’s Helena Fourment (fig. 2), which had entered the famous English collection of Sir Robert Walpole about 1730.13 Rubens’s portrait remained influential in London well beyond Blackburn’s departure for the colonies, inspiring additional portraits by Hudson as well as by Thomas Gainsborough, Joseph Highmore, John Hoppner, Joseph van Aken, Allan Ramsay, Sir Joshua Reynolds, and George Romney.14 Wearing Van Dyck costume was popular in London in the 1730s and 1740s, and being portrayed in this manner would have been a statement of the sitter’s sophistication. For an American sitter, aspirations to fashionability were well served by this model. Copley borrowed from the same source in his portrait Mrs. Samuel Quincy (Hannah Hill) (about 1764, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston), perhaps following the lead of Blackburn, who had a decided impact on the native-born painter in the late 1750s. Copley might have had the opportunity to see Blackburn’s Hannah Babcock when he painted his likeness of the young woman’s husband, John Bours, though the place and time of that commission have not been firmly established.15

Costume portraits were popular in eighteenth-century London, where sitters might actually dress as they appeared in such portraits for masquerade balls. As Horace Walpole noted in a 1742 letter, at one a masquerade he saw "quantities of Vandykes, and all kinds of old pictures walked out of their frames."16 In a more obvious pictorial reference to costume than that found in Hannah Babcock, the portrait Sarah Riddell Harvey (about 1752–53, private collection, Bermuda), Blackburn depicted a young woman holding a black mask. Despite this continuity of interest between London and the colonies, the costume historian Aileen Ribeiro argues that American women did not have the opportunity to wear such clothes to costume balls.17 Their identification with the London vogue for Van Dyck costume was limited to the imagination, and its realization in portraiture.

Figure 3. Joseph Blackburn, Dr. Joshua Babcock, about 1761, oil on canvas, 45 1/8 x 36 3/4 in. (114.6 x 93.3 cm), Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Gift of Augustus H. Eustis, 64.1010. Courtesy, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Reproduced with permission. © 2000 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. All Rights Reserved.

Joseph Blackburn enjoyed extended patronage from the Babcock family, earning from its members at least three other commissions—to paint Hannah’s brother, father, and mother, all three-quarter length, over a five-year period: Colonel Harry Babcock (1756, private collection); Dr. Joshua Babcock (fig. 3); and Mrs. Joshua Babcock (Hannah Stanton) (1761, private collection). Although Blackburn is not usually commended for capturing the character of his sitters, in the four Babcock portraits he successfully portrayed the distinctive roles of young and old, male and female in eighteenth-century polite society. Whereas Hannah Babcock appears appropriately feminine and demure, Blackburn represented her older brother Harry (1736–1800) with the swaggering self-assurance befitting an aspiring military officer who was already a veteran of the French and Indian War.18 Their parents, by contrast, are depicted in upright, seated poses that evoke a greater reserve and seriousness than those of their children. One historian of Rhode Island noted that Dr. Babcock and several of his contemporaries "owned valuable libraries," a distinction suggested in Blackburn’s portrait.19 Babcock holds a book in his right hand, marking his place with his index finger; two more books rest under his arm. One of Dr. Babcock’s students testified to his erudition, saying that he led family worship from a Bible in Greek.20 When Hannah’s father died, his probate inventory recorded "4 Family Portrait Pictures" valued at twelve pounds; the reference is probably to these four works by Blackburn. The Babcock house was also decorated with thirteen mezzotints, a framed map of Connecticut, and, in a bedroom upstairs, another family portrait and four pictures painted on glass.21 The Babcock and Bours families were devotees of portraits: Hannah’s brother Adam (1740–1817) and his wife Abigail Smith Babcock (1744–1777) later commissioned oil portraits from Copley and Gilbert Stuart and miniatures of Adam by Henry Pelham after Copley, as well as miniatures of two of their children by Edward Malbone; John Bours’s brother, the Reverend Peter Bours (1726–1762), also sat for Blackburn.

John Singleton Copley produced a portrait of Hannah’s husband about 1760–62. John Bours is painted on the same scale and also in a three-quarter-length format; perhaps it was intended to hang as a pendant to his wife’s depiction by Blackburn. Bours is seated and faces right, with a book in his right hand and his left hand lifted to his brow. He is set outdoors in a loosely brushed landscape that resembles the one in Hannah Babcock’s portrait; similarly smoky hues are lightened with peach-colored clouds. That the two paintings are framed nearly identically in solid, shallow-carved frames further suggests that they may have hung in the Bours house as a pair. In one respect, however, these portraits are strikingly different: the mood of whimsy and the emphasis on fashion and display in Hannah’s portrait contrast sharply with the sense of introspection in John’s. Dr. Babcock’s probate inventory further supports the idea that the portrait of Hannah hung in her father’s house until his death in 1783. Probably, both pictures were together after that, as they descended in the family of her youngest son, Luke Bours (1784–1842), who settled in Charleston, South Carolina.22

The pairing of a female portrait by Blackburn and a male companion by Copley is found in other New England families of the day. For instance, Blackburn’s three-quarter-length Mrs. Epes Sargent (Catharine Winthrop) (about 1755) preceded Copley’s Epes Sargent (1760, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.) in the same format; and a pair of half-lengths was painted by Blackburn, Catherine Saltsonstall Richards (1762) and Copley, John Richards (1770–71) (both at Berry-Hill Galleries, Inc., New York, as of 1983). Blackburn’s Mrs. Thomas Flucker (Hannah Waldo) (1755) predates Copley’s Thomas Flucker (1770–72) (both Bowdoin College Museum of Art, Brunswick, Maine), but the two are in different formats. It is tempting to see Blackburn’s rococo style as a feminine counterpart to Copley’s more masculine realism. But the commissions may also reflect a shift in taste, the ascendance of Copley as the more esteemed painter, or simply Blackburn’s absence when the second portraits were desired.

1. Inventory of the estate of Joshua Babcock, April 9, 1783, Westerly Town Clerk’s Office, Westerly, Rhode Island.

2. For Joshua Babcock’s biography, see Dexter 1885, 293–94; Babcock 1903, 30–33; and Brown 1909, 15–17.

3. Newport Mercury, April 5, 1783.

4. Rhode Island Vital Records X, 1898, 437.

5. Rhode Island Vital Records, n.s., v. 11; Newport Burial Ground 1985, 45–46; "Descendants of Peter Bours," Redwood Library and Athenaeum, web site.

6. Newport Mercury, September 18, 1759; April 28, 1761; March 23, 1762; May 27, 1765; August 19, 1765.

7. Mason 1891.

8. Mason 1890, 168.

9. Recorded by Laura K. Mills, Common Burial Ground, Newport, R.I.

10. Stevens 1967, 95–107.

11. Dresser 1961, 36, 37–38.

12. Park 1919a, 75–78.

13. Steegman 1936, 309–15.

14. Ribeiro 1984, 144–57.

15. Paul Staiti dates the Bours portrait to about 1770 in Rebora 1995, 264.

16. Walpole, as quoted in Miles and Simon 1979, cat. no. 15, n.p.

17. Ribeiro 1995, 106.

18. Babcock 1903, 64–65.

19. Dr. Levi Wheaton, as quoted in Updike 1907, II, 49.

20. Updike 1907, I, 223.

21. Joshua Babcock estate inventory.

22. Rhode Island Vital Records X, 1898, 483 and XIX, 1910, 361; "Bours Family," typescript, object file, Worcester Art Museum.