Why fruit?Why is Elizabeth Murray holding several pieces of fruit in the fold of
her dress? What is the symbolic or practical meaning of the objects
In John Singleton Copley's portraits, the elegance of the subjects' clothing is of the utmost importance, as the artist sought to emphasize the wealth and taste of his sitters. The fabric and trimmings are usually carefully painted and the focus of almost as much attention as the sitter's complexion and features.
In some portraits, Copley includes other details, settings, and objects, sometimes primarily for decorative purposes. At times, these objects reveal significant aspects of the sitters' lives or personalities.
Copley underlined the occupations of numerous male sitters by incorporating the tools or symbols of their trades. Thus, Copley included a teapot in his 1768 portrait of Boston silversmith Paul Revere (link at right) and a ledger in his 1765 portrait of Boston merchant John Hancock (link at right).
In contrast to Copley's occupational statements in some of his portraits of men, his portraits of women seldom show them engaged in labor. A rare exception is a 1773 double portrait of Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Mifflin (Sarah Morris), in which the Quaker woman is depicted weaving with a handloom.
More commonly, his portraits of women included flowers or fruit. Sometimes these items were ornamental, as in his portrait of Dorothy Murrray, Elizabeth Murray's niece, completed sometime between 1759 and 1761.
Flowers and fruit could also, as Copley scholars have argued, symbolize women's multiple roles as nurturers. That is, some women were accomplished gardeners who raised flowers and other plants much as they reared and cultivated their children. In Copley's 1771 portrait of Elizabeth Murray's friend, Elizabeth (Lewis) Goldthwait (link at right), the artist includes a bowl of fruit that may suggest hospitality as well as wealth. Elizabeth Goldthwait appears ready to sample the fruit on the table before her, and her gaze invites the viewer to do the same. The fruit may also represent her fecundity; she gave birth to thirteen children.
Painted the same year, Copley's portrait of Ezekial Goldthwait (link at right) alludes to his public work as a town and country official involved in record keeping. What, then, about Elizabeth Murray's life might have inspired Copley to portray her with fruit? There is little historical evidence that suggests she was an avid gardener. Nor did she raise any children of her own. Elizabeth Murray did, however, extend her hospitality and protection to several young women and men, and she cared deeply about cultivating the skills and talents of her nieces, including Dolly, whom Copley had painted almost a decade before he created this portrait of her.