Object Story: Portrait of Elizabeth Stone Coffin

Object Story: Portrait of Elizabeth Stone Coffin - Body

John Brewster Jr. painted this portrait in 1801. He was D/deaf from birth and learned to paint from a minister who was also a painter, but never studied formally. His family was well connected. His father was a physician and served in the Connecticut General Assembly, and John Brewster Jr. used those networks to secure commissions in Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Maine, where he later moved. Prior to the development of American Sign Language (ASL), other D/deaf language systems existed, including “home signs” that were specific to each family. Given the number of portraits by him that survive, he was clearly a successful painter who was much sought after by the upper middle class in New England.

As a travelling painter, Brewster would stay with different families for many weeks at a time and sometimes put an ad in the local paper to advertise his services. He probably also used writing to communicate with the people he painted about what they wanted in their portrait. Brewster, like other itinerant painters of the time, very regularly used the same poses and props to help him save time. Around 1805 he started signing his paintings.

Below is an example of an ad that Brewster placed in the Newburyport, Massachusetts Herald and Country Gazette on December 25, 1801.

An ad placed by artist John Brewster in the Newburyport, Massachusetts Herald and Country Gazette.

An ad placed by John Brewster in the Newburyport, Massachusetts Herald and Country Gazette on December 25, 1801.

"John Brewster, Portrait and Miniature Painter,

Respectfully informs the Ladies and Gentlemen of Newburyport, that if they wish to employ him in the life of his profession, he is at Mr. James Prince's, where a specimen of his paintings may be seen. He flatters himself, if any will please to call, they will be pleased with the striking likenesses of his, and with the reasonableness of his prices.

Note. If there is no application made to him within ten days he will leave town."

The Subject

Though the identity of the subject is uncertain, she may be Elizabeth Stone Coffin, wife of Major David Coffin, who was a relative by marriage of the painter John Brewster, Jr. Mrs. Coffin would have been thirty-nine years old in 1801 when this portrait was painted. She was the mother of seven with an eighth on the way (eventually she would have twelve children, though two died in infancy). Her husband was a highly educated minister as well as a ship’s captain, cargo ship owner, and investor who owned a distillery and a store.

Painting of white man in a jacket standing in front of shelves containing spools of thread, placing his right hand in his vest and holding a note in his left.

John Brewster, Jr. (American, 1766-1854), Portrait of Major David Coffin, Newburyport, Massachusetts, 1801, oil on canvas. Jonathan and Karin Fielding Collection, L2015.41.165

Historically, portraits like this were commissioned (ordered and paid for) by either the subject or a member of the subject’s family. Having your portrait done was a luxury, even if you found an inexpensive artist, because it cost both money to pay the artist and time to sit still while the artist worked. Early Americans were eager to find ways to show off their wealth and success, and having a portrait made was one way to do so. 

A portrait could convey the wealth and social status of the sitter in terms of dress or surroundings and portray something important about their role in society through the objects they held or used in the image.

Portrait of Elizabeth Stone Coffin

target icon eye icon info icon Painting of white woman in voluminous grey dress with white sash and large locket around her neck seated before a window holding a prayer book and looking at the viewer.

John Brewster, Jr. (American, 1766-1854), Portrait of Elizabeth Stone Coffin, Newburyport, Massachusetts, 1801, oil on canvas. Jonathan and Karin Fielding Collection, L2015.41.164

Personal Possessions

When viewing this portrait, one thing you might notice right away is that Elizabeth Stone Coffin is holding a book. What book might she be holding? What might be important about her locket?

Where in the World?

In this painting the open window reveals an intriguing background. Looking closely, we can see a group of buildings, including an elaborate one in the foreground with a weather vane. This might give us a clue about where the portrait was made, but it might also be a suggestion of an ideal or imagined world.

Date and Signature

Brewster worked quickly. This painting is dated June 10, 1801 and the painting of Major David Coffin is dated on June 13!

Questions for Discussion

  • How might portraits tell us more than we see in front of us? How are portraits reflections of the time they were created?
  • What do we think the objects in this portrait mean? What makes you think that? What more are you wondering about this image? What puzzles you about the portrait?
  • What might these observations tell us about the sitter's life and times as well as their contributions to their community?
  • What might be the story in this image? What is the experience of the person in the image? What is missing or absent from this image? What might be happening just out of view?

Suggested Activities

  • Try the Activity: Portrait Investigations to explore more background and historical connections.
  • Our understanding of art is shaped by who we are, as people, and our own experiences in the world. Imagine that you could look through someone else's eyes to experience this portrait of Elizabeth Stone Coffin. What words would you use to describe this painting and how would it make you feel if you were:
    • The artist who painted this portrait
    • A person who worked for the Coffin family
    • A person who is related to the Coffin family
    • A person who grew up around portraits of their own family
    • A person who has sat for a portrait
    • An expert on early American history
      • Does who you imagine yourself to be change your perception of the portraits?
  • Ask students to think about what items they might want to include in a portrait of themselves. Make a list or generate a drawing of those items. Have students consider what these objects say about who they are and how people one hundred years from now might make sense of those things.
  • Take time to study the image and then jump into the portrait. You can be any size you want. Choose a certain spot you'd like to land. Why did you pick that spot?
  • Take some time to draw what you see and talk about your experience:
    • I smell...
    • I hear...
    • I feel...
    • I see...
    • I taste...
    • I imagine...
  • Select a character from a book that the class has read recently or a historical or famous figure that you might be studying at the time. Brainstorm words that identify this person. Briefly highlight stereotypes and caution against making assumptions or judging people based on a single characteristic. Discuss how an artist might paint a portrait of that character. If a portrait has been made of this person, compare your list of ideas with an existing image.