ELMS: MAM’s expensive new masterpiece

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Last week, the Milwaukee Art Museum announced its acquisition of a masterpiece by famed American painter John Singleton Copley. According to the press release, the portrait will become one of the museum’s icons of American art as a part of a larger reinstallation of American Collections Galleries slated for 2013.

That sounded like a pretty big deal to me, so I decided to look more into it.

The portrait, “Alice Hooper,” was painted by Copley around 1763 when he was only 24 years old. It depicts the 17-year-old daughter of the then-richest man in Marblehead, Mass., Robert “King” Hooper. He commissioned the portrait to mark Alice’s engagement to Jacob Fowle Jr., someone who I’m sure was very important at the time – he was marrying “King” Hooper’s daughter, after all – but who doesn’t even have his own Wikipedia page.

After gaining the head Hooper’s approval, Copley completed nine additional commissions for members of Alice’s immediate and extended families. This connection with such an influential family significantly boosted Copley’s reputation, and he became the go-to artist for the fashionable of New England.

Copley is recognized as one of the first American painters to achieve success not only on the home front but also abroad. According to the press release, Copley, like many of his contemporaries, borrowed costumes and compositions from imported engravings of high style British portraits in order to emulate the high status individuals from the mother country. His clients approved, because they too wanted to depict their place in the American aristocracy.

According to a statement from William Rudolph, curator of American art and decorative arts at MAM, the composition of “Alice Hooper” is one of a series of women depicted in fantasy garden settings that all mimic John Faber’s 1691 engraving of Sir Godfrey Kneller’s “Duchess of Grafton.” Faber was a Dutch portrait engraver best known for his work in London in the late 1660s and early 1700s.

With a better understanding of the history behind the piece, I ventured to take a close look at the portrait itself. Alice stands in a forest at dusk, it seems, beside a fountain with a light stream of water flowing from its spout onto her hand. She dons an elegant, navy blue gown with lace detailing on the sleeves and corset. She also wears a ruby choker and matching earrings, a definite sign of her wealth. Even so, Alice doesn’t seem like a snobby aristocrat, but rather appears reserved and pleased about having her portrait painted.

From the background of the piece I can tell it’s a painting, but when I look at all the detail in her dress and jewelry, I have to remind myself I’m not looking at a photograph. The folds in her gown are well-defined. Copley conveys their texture with expert shading. The lace pattern is extremely intricate, and even my limited knowledge of oil paintings tells me that to make something look that authentic takes more than just a little skill.

"Alice Hooper" is the Milwaukee Art Museum's most expensive acquisition since 1993. Photo courtesy of MAM.

It looks so real, I can almost feel the silkiness of her dress, the ruffles on her lace and the weight of her jewelry. No wonder this Copley guy is such a big deal.

And the “Alice Hooper” acquisition is clearly a momentous occasion for MAM. According to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the museum forked out $3.5 million for the portrait, the most expensive acquisition since a $1 million purchase back in 1993. It is now on display in the museum’s permanent collection galleries as a piece of coveted history. I suggest you check it out.

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