Portrait of Mrs. Ezekiel Goldthwait

Portrait of Mrs. Ezekiel Goldthwait

Elizabeth Lewis, or Mrs. Ezekiel Goldthwait, was the wife of Ezekiel Goldthwait, who held various positions of public office in his lifetime. Mrs. Goldthwait, painted here in 1771, had her own responsibilities in life; she was the mistress of a large home on Hanover Street in the North End, and the mother of thirteen children, of whom five lived to adulthood. 

The portrait depicts Goldthwait in a brown silk dress, consisting of a gown that opens at the front to reveal an outer petticoat that acts as a skirt. Although it was common for women to wear a petticoat of a contrasting pattern and color, in order to show off two different sets of fabric, Copley chose to paint Goldthwait in only one color, a rather plain brown, made particularly dull and somber juxtaposed with the blue patterned fabric of her chair. The gown billows over Goldthwait's plump figure, spilling out of the chair she is sitting in. It is adorned with large swaths of lace – edging her large cap, covering the kerchief on her chest, and jumping out of the ends of her sleeves. As is Copley’s style in this period, he paints the lace with incredible detail.

Advertisement of Stolen "wearing Apparel"

A newspaper account describing a theft of articles of clothing from Mrs. Mary Caigbill's house. 

This advertisement of stolen goods puts a price on fine fabric: the total cost of the stolen petticoat, three gowns, some shirts, a suit, a cloak, and assorted accessories was a large "Three Hundred Pounds old Tenor," indicating how expensive and coveted a commodity clothes were. This was particularly true for apparel of high-quality, imported silk-based fabrics - such as damask and taffeta.

Adding to the expense of fabric were women's ballooning dresses - by the mid 18th century, women's dress styles utilized more fabric than ever. These dresses not only increased in size, but cost as well, due to the large amount of fabric - as much as twenty yards! - that was needed to make a dress that floated on raised hoops or trailed down a woman's back. 

Portrait of Mrs. Ezekiel Goldthwait

Detail of the portrait. 

Copley has Mrs. Goldthwait’s gown shimmer and bend in the light, a gesture meant to convey the silk texture of the fabric. This would indicate Goldthwait’s wealthy status. Silk was “throughout the colonial period a fabric associated with the elite” for both men and women. As an imported fabric, it would have been akin to Nicholas Boylston’s damask as an obvious marker of money, even in such a muted color. Her abundance of lace would have been another marker - the delicate textile was not only imported, but difficult to maintain, marking Goldthwait as a woman of leisure. 


1770s Dress

A silk wedding dress from 1776. 

John Fanning from Philadelphia noted that, prior to the American Revolution, wealthy women followed strict rules about which fashions were worn on which occasions, and that “Ladies never wore the same dresses at work and on visits…”and that cotton was acceptable for morning and daytime wear, while more expensive fabrics such as “brocades, satins, and mantuas were reserved for evening or dinner parties”. Meanwhile, the back of Goldthwait’s gown is so loose that it appears to be a sack-back, or saque – a style of dress reserved for, and very fashionable amongst, married women: “few unmarried women appear in…sacques; and as few married ones would be thought genteel in anything else”. Mrs. Goldthwait's gown, then, acts as not only elegant, formal wear, but signifies her married, matronly status. 

Portrait of Rebecca Boylston

Portrait of Rebecca Boylston, 1767. 

Goldthwait, though fashionable, is also dressed in an exceedingly conservative manner, as would befit a proper older woman. Her head is almost fully covered by a cap, and her chest by a large lace kerchief; her billowing gown completely hides her figure, saeve for the impression of a knee jutting out behind her skirts. The extent to which Copley covers Mrs. Goldthwait's body in fabric becomes even more appareny when comparing this portrait to Rebecca Boylston's. Boylston is depicted in a large swath of white silky fabric that shows off her figure underneath it. Colorful hues of bright and red swim around her, while Goldthwait is swathed entirely in "subdued tones" that Copley frequently utilized on older women.

Most jarringly, she does not wear a corset, considered an essential part of a wardrobe for all women, from the wealthy to the working class. One can see the contours of her abdomen and the outline of her breasts against the fabric. The unorthodox nature of her portrait - the flaunting of an older, unmarried woman - a social disgrace in 18th century society - can only be attributed to her personal wealth and lack of dependence on others. Goldthwait, as a married madam with a husband in politics, did not have the same freedom of depiction.

Portrait of Mrs. Ezekiel Goldthwait