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Seattle Art Museum (SAM)

Dr. Silvester Gardiner (1708-1786)

Photo: Susan Cole

Dr. Silvester Gardiner (1708-1786)

probably 1772

John Singleton Copley

Born Boston, Massachusetts, 1738; died London, England, 1815

John Singleton Copley painted in historic times and gave us the faces of some of the most famous names in American history. Because of Copley's lifelike depictions, we can envision Paul Revere, John Hancock, Samuel Adams, and so many others of the men and women who populated revolutionary Boston as living human beings full of character, personality, and thought. In a period when portrait painting was largely formulaic, how did Copley, a self-taught artist, meet the challenge of creating not just fashionable or heroic types but studies of individuals who still seem so completely natural to us, despite their eighteenth-century dress and odd-looking, elaborate wigs? The portrait of Silvester Gardiner, painted by Copley around 1772, has much to tell us about the life and times of the painter who documented so thoroughly the men and women shaped by America's revolution and who preserved their individual spirits so vividly on canvas.

Oil on canvas
50 x 40 in. (127 x 101.6 cm)
Gift of Ann and Tom Barwick, Barney A. Ebsworth, Maggie and Douglas Walker, Virginia and Bagley Wright, and Ann P. Wyckoff; and gift, by exchange, of Mr. and Mrs. Sidney Gerber; Mr. and Mrs. Louis Brechemin; Mrs. Reginald H. Parsons Memorial; Anne Parsons Frame, in memory of Lieutenant Colonel Jasper Ewing Brady, Jr., and Maud B. Parsons; Estate of Louise Raymond Owens; Anonymous donors; and Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection; with additional funds from the American Art Support Fund and the American Art Acquisition Fund, in honor of the 75th Anniversary of the Seattle Art Museum
Provenance: Commissioned by sitter, probably in 1772; during the American Revolution, reappropriated by the Committee of Sequestration to his daughter, Abigail Whipple, 1778; by descent through the Gardiner family, Gardiner, Maine; [Coe Kerr Gallery, New York], prior to May 1994
Photo: Susan Cole
Now on view at the Seattle Art Museum

A portrait painter must understand Mankind, and enter into their characters, and express their minds as well as their faces.

Jonathan Richardson, An Essay on the Theory of Painting (London, 1715)

Related Portraits of Gardiner Family Members

Anne Gardiner (later Anne Gardiner Browne), ca. 1756, John Singleton Copley
Anne was Silvester Gardiner's eldest daughter. This is the first of the Gardiner family portraits painted by Copley.
Mrs. Sylvester Gardiner, née Abigail Pickman, formerly Mrs. William Eppes, ca. 1772, John Singleton Copley
Abigail Pickman Eppes became Silvester Gardiner's second wife in 1772. His first wife, Anne Gibbins Gardiner (1712-1771), was painted by the British portraitist in America, Joseph Blackburn.

What Was Silvester Gardiner Like?

Impressions from Friends, Family, and One (Famous) Detractor

Obituary, Newport Mercury, August 14, 1786:

On Tuesday last, departed this life, in this City, Dr. Sylvetser [sic] Gardiner, in the eightieth [sic] year of his age. He was a native of this State but, for many years prior to the Revolution, an inhabitant of Boston in the State of Massachusetts, where, in the line of his chirurgical [surgical] and medical profession, he long stood foremost. He was possessed of an uncommon vigor and activity of mind, and by unremitted diligence and attention acquired a large property, which, though much injured by the late civil [Revolutionary] war, was not wholly annihilated. His Christian piety and fortitude were exemplary as his honesty was inflexible and his friendship sincere. He has left behind him to deplore his loss a truly excellent wife and a numerous prosperity.

His remains, attended by many of his relatives and by the most respectable citizens, were removed to Trinity Church the Friday following, where the funeral service was read, and a sermon suitable to the solemnity, at his particular desire, preached to a very crowded audience, after which the body was interred under the Church. The colors of the shipping in the harbor were displayed half-mast high, and every other mark of respect shown by the citizens on this mournful occasion.

Inscription on the marble cenotaph installed in the sanctuary of Christ Church, Gardiner, Maine, composed in Latin by Gardiner's grandson:

Sacred to the memory of Silvester Gardiner, who born in Rhode Island of family not obscure, studied in Paris, and practiced medicine successfully a long time in Boston. Having obtained a competency, he directed his attention to the civilization and improvement of the eastern country, then uncultivated. Here he leveled extensive tracts of forest, built various kinds of mills, ornamented the county with numerous cottages, erected a church, and by the inhabitants of these parts has richly deserved to be called the father of the land. Distinguished for his abilities, a learned physician, a faithful husband, a good father, of an incorruptible integrity, in transacting business indefatigable, sagacious, and vigilant, of upright life, deeply read in the Sacred Scriptures, a firm believer in the Christian Faith, and wholly devoted to the doctrine and discipline of the Church of England, he died in Rhode Island, in the year of our Lord 1786, aged 79.

John Adams, in a diary entry for August 9, 1760:

Drank Tea at Coll. [Colonel] Quincys, with Coll. Gooch and Dr. Gardiner . . . Gardiner has a thin Grashopper [sic] Voice, and an affected Squeak; a meager Visage, and an awkward, unnatural Complaisance: He is fribble.

Who Was Silvester Gardiner?

Who was Silvester Gardiner and how did he come to be painted by John Singleton Copley?

The two men, Copley and Gardiner, were well acquainted, which may account for the personality that the painter was able to impart in this extraordinarily charming portrait. Copley had known Gardiner for more than a decade when he painted this work, their friendship going back as far as around 1756, when Copley painted Gardiner's daughter, Ann. It is possible that this portrait resulted from a business agreement between Gardiner and Copley. Gardiner had sold Copley the property on Beacon Hill that was to be the artist's home, and perhaps Copley painted Gardiner's portrait as partial payment for those lots. Copley, in fact, was in debt to Gardiner for some while, perhaps even to Gardiner's death. Around 1779, Gardiner assigned to a business associate a long-standing bond he held against Copley, on which Gardiner had been trying in vain to collect.
Detail, 2006.125
Photo: Susan Cole

The Frame

Photo: Susan Cole
Dr. Silvester Gardiner (1708-1786) (framed), probably 1772, John Singleton Copley, 2006.125
Detail of frame attributed to John Welch, 2006.125
John Winthrop (1714/15-1779) (framed), ca. 1773, John Singleton Copley
Detail of frame by John Welch, John Winthrop (1714/15-1779), ca. 1773, John Singleton Copley

Costume and Pose

The striking likeness that Copley consistently achieved in his art extended even to his painting of clothing and his capturing of attitude. Dr. Gardiner wears a typical three-piece suit that was more or less formal or informal depending on its fabric and decoration. The most costly fabric was velvet, and luxurious embroidered or rich brocade waistcoats are sometimes seen on Copley's sitters. Gardiner was painted in a less pretentious and more modern woolen suit, this one of a rich reddish-brown color.

Copley often showed younger men with their hair powdered or natural, but older and less fashionable men tended to continue to wear large and heavy wigs, called the physical wig, in the frizzed style that Dr. Gardiner wears.

Gardiner places his hands in the proper pose to show off the ruffles on his sleeves. Etiquette books instructed a gentleman, when at ease, to place a hand mid-chest through his partially unbuttoned waistcoat. This posture allowed him to rest his hand elegantly while it had the advantage of showing off the graceful edge of his shirt frills. 
Dr. Silvester Gardiner, ca. 1772, John Singleton Copley, 2006.125
Photo: Susan Cole

Gardiner Biography

Early life and education
From Dictionary of American Medical Biography (London and New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1928), p. 450:

If you open your Virgil at the "Bucolics" you will see that the word "silvester" in the second line is spelled with an "i," and Silvester Gardiner in imitation of the Latin always spelled his given name in this way.
Dr. Gardiner was born June 29, 1707, on what was then called 'Boston Neck' in South Kingston, Rhode Island. His parents were William and Abagail Remington Gardiner, of high standing in their little community. The father was a farmer, cordwainer and wheelwright, glad to be busy at any trade. The boy, however, was delicate, and took early to his books . . . [T]he boy was educated classically, and as he finally showed a bent for medicine, he was sent abroad, and studied eight years in all in London and Paris . . .Of the studies of Gardiner in Paris we know nothing except that in later years he spoke with fervor of escaping by hard work at his book, the licentiousness of the city of Paris . . . It would seem that Dr. Gardiner must have settled in Boston as early as 1734 . . . .

An Innovator and Entrepreneur in Pharmaceuticals
From Dictionary of American Medical Biography (London and New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1928), p. 451:

It was then the fashion for physicians to compound drugs in their own dispensary, and Dr. Gardiner, following the custom, became convinced of the waste of his time, and opened an apothecary shop in which the work could be done both for himself and for other physicians. He went from this beginning, importing drugs and chemicals, until his profits ran into the thousands, year after year.

Land Speculator in Maine
From Dictionary of American Medical Biography (London and New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1928), p. 451:

It is now time to say something concerning Dr. Gardiner's adventures in Maine.In 1752 the Kennebec Company was founded with his money, chiefly. . . . The charter gave title to seven and a half miles on each side of the Kennebec [River] up as far as fifty miles from its mouth, and in this region Dr. Gardiner built towns, sawmills, and churches, and induced people to settle by offers of land at low interest. The town of Dresden [Maine] of today was so named in order to induce Germans to settle within its borders . . . .

A Loyalist in a Revolutionary Town
From Dictionary of American Medical Biography (London and New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1928), p. 451:

In his mansion on Winter Street, with a garden extending to Tremont, Dr. Gardiner entertained lavishly the grandees of the day: . . . Governor Hutchinson, Sir William Pepperell, Admiral Graves, General Gage, and many others. In this way he showed his devotion to the Crown of England, and as a physician he built an excellent hospital, surrounded with a stockade fence, for the officers and sailors if His British Majesty's New England Fleet . . . . Dr. Gardiner prospered tremendously until the Revolution, when he avowed himself a loyalist and quarreled with John Hancock, long a very close friend. Embittered at last by the confiscation of his drugs by . . . the orders of Washington, then commanding the continental Army in Dorchester, —for the rest of his life Dr. Gardiner entitled him: "That Thief Washington,"—he collected some $2000 in gold, and with a party of eight people fled to Halifax. . . His drugs were confiscated, his books and furniture sold at auction for $8000, while his real estate in Boston was taken.

Wedding Portraits?

We do not know precisely the circumstances of the commissioning of Dr. Gardiner's portrait from Copley. The two men were acquaintances, and some authorities have speculated that the portrait may have been offered to Gardiner as partial payment on a Boston land purchase that Copley was making from the doctor. It is also possible that it was painted at the time that Gardiner commissioned the portrait of his new bride, the widow Abigail Pickman, whom Gardiner married in 1772 after the death of his first wife, Anne Gibbins Gardiner. It was to Abigail Pickman's family that the loyalist Gardiners looked to for safe haven in England in 1778. They joined Mrs. Gardiner's daughter and her husband at their home in Poole, Dorsetshire. Before long, however, Mrs. Gardiner was troubled by a severe numbness in her limbs, and though she sought treatment with the finest doctors in London and Bath, she succumbed to her illness and died on November 4, 1778.

Escape to England and Return to America
From Dictionary of American Medical Biography (London and New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1928), p. 451:

Meanwhile Dr. Gardiner reached England, where he received a pension from the Crown, lived and practiced at Poole, in County Dorset, and went now and then to London . . . He returned to America in 1785, with the hope of putting his landed estates into shape. They were finally returned to his heirs, chiefly in the form of enormous acreages of timber land in eastern Maine. He settled in Newport, Rhode Island, practiced steadily despite his advancing years, but died suddenly of a malignant fever, August 8, 1786, at the age of seventy-nine. He was buried from Trinity Church in that city and the flags were halfmasted during the funeral.
Mrs. Sylvester Gardiner, née Abigail Pickman, formerly Mrs. William Eppes, ca. 1772, John Singleton Copley
Brooklyn Museum, Dick S. Ramsay Fund, 65.60


Exhibition HistoryChicago, Illinois, Art Institute of Chicago, From Colony to Nation: An Exhibition of American Painting, Silver and Architecture from 1650 to the War of 1812, Apr. 21 - June 19, 1949. Cat. no. 37, p. 31 (lent by Mr. Robrt Hallowell Gardiner, Gardiner, Maine).

Boston, Massachusetts, Museum of Fine Arts, in collaboration with the Metropolitan Museum of Art, John Singleton Copley in America, June 7 - Aug. 27, 1995 (New York, New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Sept. 26, 1995 - June 7, 1996; Houston, Texas, Museum of Fine Arts, Feb. 4 - Apr. 28, 1996; Millwaukee, Wisconsin, Milwaukee Art Museum, May 22 - Aug. 25, 1996). Text by Carrie Rebora et al. Cat. no. 75, pp. 309-12, reproduced p. 311.

Seattle, Washington, Seattle Art Museum, American Art: The Stories We Carry, Oct. 20, 2022 - ongoing.
Published ReferencesBartlett, William H. Frontier Missionary. Boston: Ide and Dutton, 1853; reproduced op. p. 290.

Tuckerman, Henry. Book of the Artists: American Artist Life (1867). Reprint, New York: James F. Carr, 1967; p. 72.

Perkins, Augustus Thorndike. A Sketch of the Life and Some of the Works of John Singleton Copley. Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1873; p. 56.

Updike, Wilkins. History of the Episcopal Church in Narragansett, vol. I. Boston, 1907; p. 134, reproduced.

Bayley, Frank W. The Life and Works of John Singleton Copley. Boston: The Taylor Press, 1915; pp. 112-113.

Robinson, Caroline. The Gardiners of Narragansett. Providence, Rhode Island, 1919; p. vii, reproduced frontispiece.

Spading, James A. "Silvester Gardiner." In Dictionary of American Medical Biography, edited by Howard A. Kelly, M.D. and Walter L. Burrage, A.M., M.D., p. 452. New York and London: D. Appleton and Company, 1928.

Jones, E.A. The Loyalists of Massachusetts: Their Memorials, Petitions, and Claims. London: The Saint Catherine Press, 1930; p. 142, reproduced Plate XXI.

cf. Bolton, Theodore, and Harry Lorin Binsse. "John Singleton Copley: Probably the Greatest American Portrait Painter, Here for the First Time Appraised As an Artist in Relation to His Contemporaries." Antiquarian 15 (December 1930): p. 116.

Fulton, John F. "Silvester Gardiner." In Dictionary of American Biography, edited by Allen Johnson and Dumas Malone, vol. IV, p. 160. (1931); reprint edition New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1960.

Parker, Barbara Neville, and Anne Bolling Wheeler. John Singleton Copley: American Portraits in Oil, Pastel, and Miniature, with Biographical Sketches. Boston: Museum of Fine Arts, 1938; pp. 78-79, reproduced pl. 103.

Prown, Jules. John Singleton Copley; vol. I, In America, 1738-1774. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1966; pp. 158-159, 215, reproduced fig. 318.

Coolidge, Olivia E. Colonial Entrepreneur: Dr. Silvester Gardiner and the Settlement of Maine's Kennebec Valley. Gardiner, Maine: Tilbury House Publishers and Gardiner Library Association, 1999; pp. 73-76, 269, reproduced cover [color] and frontispiece.

Milford, T.E. The Gardiners of Massachusetts: Provincial Ambition and the British-American Career. Durham, Massachusetts, University of New Hampshire Press, 2005; pp. 2, 37, reproduced p. 13.

Carbone, Teresa A., et al. American Paintings in the Brooklyn Museum. Vol. I: Artists Born by 1876. London: D. Giles Limited, in association with the Brooklyn Museum, 2006; p. 409.

Farr, Sheila. "SAM acquires Copley painting." Seattle Times, December 5, 2006.

Hackett, Regina. "Copley Comes to SAM." Seattle Post-Intelligencer, December 5, 2006.

Ishikawa, Chiyo et al. Seattle Art Museum Downtown. Seattle, WA: Seattle Art Museum, 2007; p. 32, illus. pp. 39, 56

Seattle Art Museum: Bridging Cultures. London: Scala Publishers Ltd. for the Seattle Art Museum, 2007; pp. 26-27, illus. p. 26

Ishikawa, Chiyo, ed. A Community of Collectors: 75th Anniversary Gifts to the Seattle Art Museum. Seattle: Seattle Art Museum, 2007; illus. opposite title page

Junker, Patricia. "A Sense of Place: American Art at the Seattle Art Museum." The Magazine Antiques (November 2008): p. 113, reproduced fig. 9, p. 114.

Tortora, Daniel J. Fort Halifax: Winslow's Historic Outpost. Charleston, S.C.:The History Press, 2014; pp. 45-46, reproduced p. 46.

Dorner, Zachary. Merchants of Medicines: The Commerce and Coercion of Health in Britain's Long Eighteenth Century. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2020; p. 125, reproduced fig. 4.3.

Tyler, John, ed. The Correspondence of Thomas Hutchinson: Volume 4 November 1770 - June 1772. Boston: The Colonial Society of Massachusetts, 2022; p. 255, reproduced.

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