Portrait of Reverend George Whitefield (1714-1770)

 Portrait of Reverend George Whitefield (1714-1770), by an unknown artist, 1768-1770. (PT2016006)

Oil on copper, height 8” x width 6 ½”; framed height 18 ¾” x width 14 7/8”,


Reverend Whitefield is caught mid-gesture, his strabismus preventing us from knowing e xactly whether he looks at the painter or into the distance, praying for God “to paint his blessed Imaged upon his … heart.” Popular in life, he was no less legendary in death, achieving the closest thing possible to “sainthood” for a Protestant context. His resting place in Newburyport, Massachusetts became a shrine for true believers, indeed a site of pilgrimage—and later of plunder, for those determined to have holy relics from his corpus.

Reverend George Whitefield, oil on canvas by John Wollaston, 1742. National Portrait Gallery (UK) NPG131

Images of Whitefield were produced from the beginning of his career as an evangelical minister known for his tireless preaching and traveling. In one of the earliest, John Wollaston paints him preaching to a rapt audience, the woman mesmerized, even adoring, reflecting his immense popularity and the devotion of his followers. Of all the Protestant ministers in the early and mid-18th century Anglo-American world, Reverend Whitefield excited the most interest, and drew the largest crowds—serving as a prototype for the televangelists of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. The adoration of the crowds, and Whitefield’s reputation for sweating and weeping as he preached, is reminiscent of the most energetic and charismatic TV ministers.

Whitefield wrote about the phenomenon of representation, and an image now lost, in “A Further Account of God’s Dealing with the Reverend George Whitefield” published in 1747: “I was prevailed on to sit for my Picture, — The Occasion was this.—Some ill-minded person had painted me leaning on a Cushion, with a Bishop looking very enviously over my Shoulder.—At the Bottom were six Lines, in one of which the Bishops were styled Mitred Drones. – The same Person published in the Papers, that I had sat for it. – This I looked upon as a Snare of the Devil to incense the Clergy against me. I consulted Friends what to do. They told me I must sit for my Picture in my own Defence. – At the same time my aged Mother laid her Commands upon me to do so in a Letter, urging, “That is I would not let her have the Substance, “I would leave her at least the Shadow.” She also mentioned the Painter, and meeting with him one Night very accidentally, I at length with great Reluctance complied, and endeavoured, whilst the Painter was drawing my Face, to employ my Time, in beseeching the great God, by his holy Spirit, to paint his blessed Image upon his and my Heart.”

Does this passage describe Whitefield while being painted by Wollaston? Would Reverend Whitefield choose to be painted in his best-known form, preaching? Or is he describing the making of the painting at left, which, with Wollaston’s view of Whitefield in the pulpit (above) comprise the earliest surviving life portraits of the evangelist. Carolyn J. Weekley suggests that Wollaston’s Whitefield commission “must have come to [him] through some personal contact, perhaps another university-connected clergyman who moved in the artist’s (or his father’s) circles.”

Rev. George Whitefield, oil on canvas, 1740-502. Georgia Historical Society, A-1361-335

As for Whitefield, it seems everybody moved in his circle—beyond the rapt crowds on both sides of the Atlantic, he was friendly with Benjamin Franklin, and in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, he knew Samuel Haven and Samuel Langdon; in 1764, he reportedly told them in a private meeting “My heart bleeds for America. O poor New England! There is a deep laid plot against both your civil and religious liberties, and they will be lost….” On that tour, he preached to a crowd of 5,000 at Dr. Langdon’s Meeting House, after meeting with a welcoming committee of the selectmen of Portsmouth.

In Boston, Whitfield was no less admired, or heard, than he was in Portsmouth: he delivered hundreds of sermons in the city, which he visited on his American tours beginning the 1740s until his death in 1770 just north of the city, in Newburyport, Massachusetts. He was well known, and sometimes controversial, in the elite and educated circles of Boston and Cambridge, exciting the criticism of Dr. Wigglesworth of Harvard, but otherwise tolerated. Congregational minister Dr. Mather Byles’ son-in-law—and future father of artist Mather Brown—Gawen Brown heard all twenty-six of the sermons Reverend Whitefield delivered in 1754.

cover of a pamphlet illustrated with a dead minister hovering above a coffin
Phillis Wheatley, An Elegiac Poem: On the Death of that Celebrated Divine and Eminent Servant of Jesus Christ, the Reverend and Learned George Whitefield, &. Beinecke Digital Collections, Yale University.

On Whitefield’s death in 1770, enslaved poet Phillis Wheatley wrote an elegiac poem, and Henry Pelham (John Singleton Copley’s half-brother) sent a copy to his brother Charles, enclosed in a November 12, 1770 letter: “I send you a new Specimen of the Abilitys of our Boston Poetess Phillis, which has undergone no Corrections what ever. Mr. Green, who examen’d her Poem on the death of Mr. Whitfield before it went to the Press alterd but one Word in the Whole.” Advertised in the Massachusetts Spy, the poem was “embellished with a plate representing the posture in which the Rev. Mr. Whitefield lay before and after his interment at Newbury-Port,” and sold by at least two Boston printers.

Rev. George Whitefield, oil on canvas ca.1760.
Harvard University Portrait Collection, Acc #H27

The untutored character of Boston artist Joseph Badger’s style would initially seem to hold little promise for illuming the maker of Reverend Whitefield’s maturing countenance. According to Harvard’s accession file, a Mrs. Warters [sic] “who purportedly knew Whitefield” during the later years of his life, gave the painting to her friend, Mr. H. P. Oliver. He in turn bequeathed the likeness to his wife, Sarah H. Oliver, who presented it to Harvard University in 1852. Mrs. Warters has not been identified, but the Olivers were most likely part of the large, well-connected Oliver family descended from, and related to brothers Andrew Oliver (1706-1774) and Peter Oliver (1713-1791), who occupied strategic positions during the American Revolution. Copley painted Andrew Oliver in 1758, in an oil-on-copper miniature now held by the National Portrait Gallery.

Did Whitefield move in Boston’s elite circles? Without knowing Mrs. Warter’s [sic] identity, it is hard to say, but certainly the pastors of Boston-area congregations commissioned portraits from Copley, and portraits of ministers were popular purchases, in miniature copy or print form. Reverend Thomas Cary of Newburyport, Massachusetts—the very town where the Reverend Whitefield died—was painted by Copley. Other sitters included Edward Holyoke, president of Harvard University, painted in oil on canvas 1759-1761 (Harvard University Portrait Collection, Gift of Mrs. Turner and Mrs. Ward, granddaughters of Edward Holyoke, 1829, Object Number H6) and the Revered Samuel Fayerweather, painted in oil on copper 1760-1761, and now owned by the Yale University Art Gallery (Mabel Brady Garvan Collection, 1948.69).

Although the number of extant portraits of churchmen seems remarkable, they survive because ministers’ portraits enjoyed a healthy market in America, whether original paintings or miniature paintings, or in middling households, prints made from the paintings. Indeed, Peter Pelham’s first choice for a mezzotint subject in America was Cotton Mather, indicating that the trade was lively from the first quarter of the 18th century onward.

two ministers in the 18th century
Left, Rev. Edward Holyoke, oil on canvas by John Singleton Copley, Harvard Art Museum, H 26. Right, Rev. Samuel Fayerweathr, oil on copper by John Singleton Copley, Yale University Art Gallery, 1948.69

Two early portraits of churchmen, though vastly different in size, are relevant in this context: Copley’s portrait of Holyoke, copied by Henry Pelham as a posthumous miniature on copper commissioned by Holyoke’s daughter, and the Revered Fayerweather, in oil on copper by Copley. The Pelham on copper of Holyoke remains in private hands, and though no color image is available, the image of Fayerweather provides a sense of Copley’s hand on copper, and possible clues to Pelham’s version on copper.

In 1772, Edward Holyoke’s daughter, Margaret Mascarene, wrote to Henry Pelham about her father’s portrait: “My Sister told me some time since that she did not think [you?] would be able to take a good likeness of my late Father, on so small a piece of Copper as I proposed to you. I write now to let you know that I had full as lives [sic] have it on a larger.” The size of the miniature is unrecorded when depicted in Alan Burroughs’ 1957 Antiques Magazine article, but Burroughs described the privately-owned miniature as “freshly and boldly brushed in spite of its tiny scale and blue and pink tones.” He then continued, “the sitter’s expression is less somber than in Copley’s original, and the effect more sympathetic, as though the copyist reinterpreted cold realism in terms of personal feeling.”

three ministers in 18th century clothing
Left, Rev. Edward Holyoke, oil on copper by Henry Pelham, 1772. Private Collection. Center, Rev. Edward Holyoke, oil on canvas by John Singleton Copley. Right, Rev. George Whitefield, oil on copper ca. 1770.

Pelham’s copy of the Holyoke portrait is difficult to assess in halftone, but the subject’s cheeks appear fuller, heavier—indeed, fleshier—than Copley’s life-size original, a quality shared with the miniature of Reverend Whitefield. Copley had taught Pelham the art of miniatures on both copper and ivory, yet dropped the early inclination toward copper for the more fashionable ivory, despite the ready supply of copper plates from his stepfather Peter Pelham’s estate. By 1772, he appears to have turned the miniature business over to his half-brother, Henry, as seen in Mrs. Marscarene’s letter to the younger artist, when commissioning the miniature of her father.

A detail of Rev. Whitefield’s right arm show his worn cuff, and the artist’s pentimento for the moving finger.

The Whitefield portrait differs sufficiently in detail from any known print that depicts him, as to indicate the artist painted it from life. Indeed, the pentimento for the Reverend’s upraised forefinger suggests that as the sitter changed his posture and his character became clearer, the artist altered the pose (left, oval). Another detail—the tattered white cuff of the Reverend’s right sleeve–indicate that one of guiding principals to his work –“I would rather wear out, than rust out”—extended to his clothing as well as his soul.

The worn cuff; the wig powder dappled on the reverend’s shoulders; the clerical collar caught beneath a robe: all combine to indicate that Whitefield was anything but dandified. He wears the “frizzle wig” style worn by men of the cloth in the late 1760s (a contrast to the longer wig depicted by Joseph Badger at the beginning of the decade). Nonetheless, the clothes reflect a man less concerned with material matters but rather focused on intellect and spirit. Over-painting by a less-skilled modern hand (confirmed by spectrum analysis showing zinc white in the proper right “ear” of the wig, and lead white everywhere else) obscures details that one might otherwise expect in the rendering of the hair. Nonetheless, the long, loose brush strokes suggest a hand both confident of his style, and amused by the subject. The handling of the paint, while reminiscent of Copley or Pelham, suggest neither, yet suggests someone in Copley’s circle—perhaps someone close enough to smell the paint.

A comparison of Copley’s 1760-61 miniature of Reverend Fayerweather with his 1759 miniature of Boston merchant and eventual governor of Massachusetts Moses Gill reveals similarities in the rendering of the subjects’ chins, with a green-cast shadow emphasizing the flesh, and a line of highlight below the first chin. Fayerweather and Gill gaze at us confidently, secure in their mass; Reverend Whitefield lacks their presence, and next to the more accomplished portraits, feels almost unfinished. Clearly the work of a lesser hand, the manner of painting suggests nonetheless that the artist who painted the Reverend Whitefield in his final years was, if not close to Copley, still very aware of him, and of his style.

Left to right: Reverend Samuel Fayerweather, oil on copper, 1760-61, Yale University Art Gallery, 1948.69; Moses Gill, oil on copper, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2006.1; Reverend George Whitefield, PT2016006

Next to Moses Gill, the Reverend George Whitefield is paler, sketchier, with the longer brushstrokes sometimes ascribed to Henry Pelham. The fine linen of his clerical collar is painted with less translucency than Reverend Fayerweather’s, but the handling of the light, and the reflected light, on Whitefield’s cheeks and the underside of his chin still demonstrate an artist with acute observation skills. The cast of Gill’s head, in a more front-facing pose (more seven-eighths than three-quarters view), is similar to that of Whitefield’s, whose proper left pupil would be invisible to us if he did not face us so closely.

Was this painted on Whitefield’s last tour of the American colonies in 1769-1770? In the 1845 Annals of Salem, Joseph B. Felt recounts that in 1769, Benjamin Blyth produced a portrait, probably in crayon [pastels], “which represented the celebrated Whitefield in the attitude of preaching.” This is distinct from another known portrait of Whitefield made in America, the Badger portrait now owned by Harvard University. It is also unlikely to be the oil on copper portrait miniature, given Blyth’s near-excusive use of pastel. That the portrait dates from the last years of Whitefield’s life is almost undoubted, in light of the close resemblance to the 1768 portrait attributed to John Russell (below).

Portrait of Rev. George Whitefield, oil on canvas attr. to John Russell, 1768. National Portrait Gallery (UK) NPG1792

On May 11, 1768, Rev. Whitefield sat for a young new friend, the London artist John Russell (1745-1806). Russell made extensive sketches of the man, and took notes regarding the composition he envisioned for a full-length painting. He would not complete the canvas until the cleric had departed for America in 1769—on a final trip from which he never returned. This sensitive rendering depicts the 55-year-old cleric in an introspective mood. When compared to earlier portraits – and despite the rosy cheeks—he appears vulnerable, suggesting that increasing years, and an unrelenting schedule of sermons, have taken a toll upon his health. The fragment shown here is all that survives from the original full-length likeness in oil—the appearance of which is known solely from the engraving completed posthumously in 1772 (see below, right). This engraving represents the full-length version of John Russell’s painting, from which the sole survival is the remnant of the face and collar above—but the countenance is unmistakably Whitefield’s squinting glower. In print, he appears stern and imposing; Russell renders him in oil as a softer, more sympathetic character, aware perhaps of his declining health and increasingly severe asthma, the condition that would eventually kill him.

The Reverend George Whitefield, MA, mezzotint engraving after a painting by Joh nRussell, British Museum, 1902,1011.6526

Nevertheless, Whitefield continued his evangelical work, departing England in September 1769 for what would be his final tour of the American colonies, landing in Charleston, South Carolina on November 30, after an unpleasant passage. By May 1770, Whitefield was working his way north, bound for New England via Philadelphia, New York City, and Albany.

Reverend Whitefield preached to appreciative crowds in Newport and Providence, Rhode Island in the first weeks of August, arriving in Boston on the 15th, and staying for ten days before departing on a tour of the North Shore towns. From the thirteenth to seventeenth of September, Whitefield “was detained from public service by a severe indisposition.” When he recovered, he preached again in Boston, and, after four days, left for another tour of the North Shore. On September 29th, 1770, using a barrel as a podium, he delivered a sermon to a tremendous crowd assembled in a field, just over the line into New Hampshire. By the time he returned to his quarters that evening, in the parsonage at Old South Meeting House, Newburyport, Massachusetts, he was deathly ill. He died before the end of the following day, and was interred there in a crypt beneath the pulpit of the Old South Meeting House, now the 1st Presbyterian Church.

Reverend Whitefield’s crypt, 1st Presbyterian Church, Newburypoty, MAss. Photo courtesy Alexander Cain, Untapped History, Newburyport.

Published in 1772, the Memoirs of the Life of the Rev. Mr. George Whitefield records the last known portrait Reverend Whitefield sat for as the oil by John Russell, but the author would have no way of knowing of portraits made in the American colonies, and does not record the painting of Whitefield by Badger. Did Whitefield sit for a portrait during the weeks he spent indisposed in Boston? Was he revered enough for a patron to have commissioned a portrait, sensing the Reverend’s increasingly ill health? And could an artist close to Copley—aware of his style, and with ready access to copper plates—have made this portrait?


A 20th-century owner marked the reverse in black magic marker, which is removable with any number of solvents. A faint 19th-century pencil inscription on the reverse


The painting survives in the original size, in a generally fine state of preservation, on a rolled copper plate with a deeply oxidized surface on the reverse. The painting has not been conserved in recent years, but spectrographic analysis of the surface by the Winterthur Conservation Lab reveals scattered inpainting, most prevalent on the proper right ear of the frizzle wig, and in the shadows of the vertical folds of the robe. The “Hogarth” frame is a modern reproduction by Perry Hopf of Kennebunk, Maine.

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