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Mrs. Samuel Watts (Sarah (Osborne) Oxnard Watts)

Mrs. Samuel Watts (Sarah (Osborne) Oxnard Watts)
oil on canvas laid down on masonite
30 x 25 in. (76.2 x 63.5 cm.)
Painted in 1770-71.
Mrs. Samuel Watts, Boston, Massachusetts, the sitter.
Mary Watts, Falmouth, Maine, daughter of the above, by bequest.
Francis Watts, Wells and Portland, Maine and Boston, Massachusetts, son of the above.
Francis Watts, Kennebunk, Maine, Boston and Roxbury, Massachusetts, son of the above.
Mrs. Thomas Joseph Lee, Roxbury, Massachusetts, Boston and Longwood, Brookline, Massachusetts, daughter of the above.
Frederick Strong Moseley, Boston and Newburyport, Massachusetts, 1928, third cousin of the above, great-great grandson of the sitter.
Frederick Strong Moseley, Jr., New York, son of the above.
Frederick Strong Moseley III, son of the above.
Sotheby's, New York, 24-27 January 1990, lot 1300B, sold by the above.
Private collection, acquired from the above.
Sotheby’s, New York, 22 May 2008, lot 62, sold by the above.
Acquired by the late owner from the above.
A.T. Perkins, Sketch of the Life and a List of Some of the Works of John Singleton Copley, Boston, Massachusetts, 1873, pp. 120-121.
F.W. Bayley, Sketch of the Life and a List of Some of the Works of John Singleton Copley, Boston, Massachusetts, 1910, p. 126.
F.W. Bayley, The Life and Works of John Singleton Copley, Founded on the Work of Augustus Thorndike Perkins, Boston, Massachusetts, 1915, p. 257.
J.B. Potter, “Loans to the Museum,” Annual Report for the Year, Boston, Massachusetts, Museum of Fine Arts, 1917, p. 113.
F. W. Bayley, Five Colonial Artists of New England, Boston, Massachusetts, 1929, p. 287.
B.N. Parker and A.B. Wheeler, John Singleton Copley: American Portraits in Oil, Pastel, and Miniature with Biographical Sketches, Boston, Massachusetts, 1938, p. 207, pl. 100.
Historical Works Survey, The Works Progress Administration, American Portraits 1620-1825 Found in Massachusetts, vol. II, Boston, Massachusetts, 1939, p. 447, no. 2371.
J.D. Prown, John Singleton Copley in America, 1738-1774, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1966, pp. 74, 115, 118, 233, fig. 270.
The Frick Art Reference Library, no. 122-12f.
Boston, Massachusetts, Museum of Fine Arts, 1917.
Boston, Massachusetts, Museum of Fine Arts, John Singleton Copley, 1738-1815: Loan Exhibition of Paintings, Pastels, Miniatures and Drawings: in Commemoration of the Two Hundredth Anniversary of the Artist's Birth, February 1-March 15, 1938, p. 29, no. 82.
Washington, D.C., National Gallery of Art; New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art; Boston, Massachusetts, Museum of Fine Arts, John Singleton Copley, 1738-1815, September 18, 1965-March 6, 1966, pp. 61-62, 138, no. 44.

Brought to you by

Tylee Abbott
Tylee Abbott Vice President, Head of American Art

Lot Essay

A riveting likeness, this portrait of Mrs. Samuel Watts is one of John Singleton Copley’s masterpieces. Here, the artist demonstrates his sophisticated handling of dramatic contrasts between dark and light tones, a predilection seen in his American works from the late 1760s and early 1770s. Eschewing background detail and props, Copley drives all the focus to the sitter’s face, which is illuminated and framed by the white lace of the cap. His rendition of her steadfast gaze powerfully conveys the formidable character of the subject. Documented in a 1771 letter and the sitter’s 1772 will, the work is also of historical importance and offers rare contemporary evidence of a commission from America’s premier portrait painter of the period. The painting is further distinguished by its provenance in the family until 1990.

Born Sarah Osborn(e) (1715-1773), the sitter was a daughter of John and Sarah (Woodbury) and came from one of the leading merchant families of early eighteenth-century Boston. She married twice. In 1737, she wed Thomas Oxnard (1703-1754) and subsequently Hon. Samuel Watts (c.1698-1770) in 1756. Displaying the sitter in her widow’s garb, this portrait was executed after the death of Sarah’s second husband on March 5, 1770 and before Copley travelled to New York in June 1771. The commission is documented a few months later in a September 24, 1771 letter from Henry Pelham (1749-1806), the artist’s half-brother. Writing from Boston, Pelham updates Copley on various administrative tasks, such as procuring artists’ supplies and collecting payment from patrons, and among those he “received Money from” was “Mrs. Watts,” undoubtedly the sitter in this portrait ([Massachusetts Historical Society], Letters & Papers of John Singleton Copley and Henry Pelham 1739-1776, Boston, Massachusetts, 1914, p. 162). Less than two years later, Sarah Watts died and revealing the value she placed on this portrait, she specifically mentions it in her will. Along with a gold watch, clothing, a pair of silver butter cups and a ruby ring with diamonds, Sarah bequeaths to her daughter Mary (Oxnard) Watts (1742-1812) “my Picture by Copely [sic]” (, Massachusetts, U.S., Wills and Probate Records, 1635-1991, vols. 72-73, 1772-1774 ( Operations, Inc., 2015), accessed November 30, 2022).

Evidence indicates that Sarah Watts was a strong-minded and astute businesswoman. After she married Samuel Watts in 1756, the couple lived in the Boston mansion she inherited from her first husband, a large home on the north corner of Tremont and Winter Streets fronting Boston Common and across from Beacon Hill. Recorded in the settlement of her first husband’s estate, Sarah charged her second husband for four years of rent and later, while her husband was still alive, conducted several land transactions in her own name (Proceedings of the Grand Lodge of the Most Ancient and Honorable Fraternity of Free and Accepted Masons of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, Boston, Massachusetts, 1916, p. 211; M. Chamberlain, A Documentary History of Chelsea, Boston, Massachusetts, 1908, pp. 159, 245-246). Upon the death of her second husband, Sarah Watts was a creditor to his estate. Jonathan Green, one of the administrators of the estate, recorded in his accounts, “To 1 Day, in Reconing with Madam Sarah Watts, & Selling to her, Several Silver Vessels, to pay part of the debt, due to her” (as quoted in Mellen Chamberlain, A Documentary History of Chelsea, Boston, Massachusetts, 1908, p. 344n17).

When this portrait was painted, Sarah was living in her second husband’s mansion in Chelsea. The couple had moved there in about 1760 after spending the first four years of their married life in the Oxnard house on Tremont Street. Judge Samuel Watts was the most prominent citizen of Chelsea during his day, owning the majority of the land and living in a grand mansion situated on a bluff overlooking Charlestown and Noddles Island. Interestingly, it is one of the few structures identified in the celebrated 1775 map, A Plan of Boston in New England with its Environs, executed by Henry Pelham in consultation with Copley. Watts engaged in many pursuits and near his home was the landing for the Winnisimmet ferry and an inn, both of which he operated. A 1798 description of the house notes that “It was of two stories, covered 1520 feet [and] had 31 windows” (as quoted in Chamberlain, A Documentary History of Chelsea, p. 340).

Sarah’s stature in society made Copley an obvious choice to paint her likeness. Furthermore, ties between her family and the artist both before and after the execution of this painting suggest that they were part of the same social circle. Six years earlier, he had painted her sister, Catherine, the wife of Epes Sargent and the two portraits, though vastly different in conception, depict a strong family resemblance. The following year, in 1765, Copley painted her daughter Mary (Oxnard) Watts. Mary was the daughter of Sarah’s first husband and in the year her portrait was painted married Dr. Edward Watts (1737-1799), her step-brother. After Sarah Watts’ death and with the onset of the Revolution, both Copley and her son, Edward Oxnard (1747-1803), moved to London where they were members of the New England Club, a group of Loyalists that met weekly for dinner at the Adelphi on the Strand (for more on Edward Oxnard and his journal of his years in London, see, Edward S. Moseley, “Edward Oxnard,” The New England Historical and Genealogical Register, vol. 26, no. 1, Boston, Massachusetts, January 1872, pp. 3-10).

As specified by Sarah Watts in her will, the portrait descended to her daughter, Mary (Oxnard) Watts. Upon Mary’s marriage to Dr. Edward Watts in 1765, the couple resided in Falmouth, Maine in a large three-story house on Middle Street (T. Smith and S. Deane, Journals of the Rev. Thomas Smith, and the Rev. Samuel Deane, Portland, Maine, 1849, pp. 351-352). The portrait likely remained in the area until 1818, when Mary’s son, Francis Watts (1780-1845) removed to Boston. It was inherited by his son, Francis Osborn Watts (1803-1860), who as a young boy, was painted in Maine by John Brewster, Jr. Brewster’s full-length portrayal with a pet bird perched on the subject’s hand stands as one of the artist’s most acclaimed works (J. Palmer, Necrology of Alumni of Harvard College, 1851-52 to 1862-63, Boston, 1864, pp. 363-365). The portrait of Sarah Watts then passed to Francis’ daughter, Alice Haskell Watts (1831-1920), who in 1865 married Thomas Joseph Lee (1829-1879). After Mrs. Lee’s ownership, the portrait was acquired by her third cousin, Frederick Strong Moseley (1852-1938), a direct descendant of Sarah Watts’ son, Edward Oxnard. A successful financier, Moseley maintained a home in Boston at 144 Beacon Street and a large estate in Newburyport. The portrait passed to his son and grandson of the same name before the latter consigned the portrait to auction in 1990.

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