The two images (shown above) are most commonly mistaken for that of the Rev. John Cotton who migrated to Boston, Massachusetts in 1633.

The portrait (on the left) is an oil on canvas painted by John Smibert  circa 1736-1737 and is known to have been purchased by Mr. John E. Thayer of Boston from a dealer about 1850. This portrait now resides in the Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

The engraving (on the right) was later used in 1856 to represent Rev. John Cotton of Boston both in Drake’s History and Antiquities of Boston and in Thompson’s History of Boston, England. It was created by an engraver named Flowers and was based on John Smibert’s portrait. Later, this same engraving was used by Clifford Shipton of the Massachusetts Historical Society in his Silbey’s Harvard Graduates: Vol. V (1701-1712) to illustrate a great grandson of Rev. John Cotton (also named John Cotton), who was a Harvard graduate and the third minister of Newton, Massachusetts.

Originally identified as the eminent Boston divine John Cotton and later associated with the Newton, Massachusetts, clergyman of the same name, the subject of this portrait remains a mystery. Based on the provenance of the painting and the subject’s apparent age and secular garb, the figure may be Josiah Cotton.  Moreover, Cotton began to wear a wig in 1709. His “hair grew so thin that [he] was afraid and ashamed to forbear a wig any longer”

Smibert’s portrait shows his subject wearing the neck-cloth commonly worn by the legal profession. Rev. John Cotton’s grandson, Josiah Cotton (1679 – 1756), was Justice of the Peace in Plymouth, Massachusetts and would have been 56 at the time of the portrait was painted. Additionally, he would have worn a neck-cloth reflecting his role as Justice of the Peace and Town Recorder of Plymouth.

In contrast, Flower’s engraving, shows his subject wearing a clerical neck-cloth. Charles K. Bolton, author of Portraits of the Founders (published by the Boston Anthenæum in 1919) suggests that Flowers used a clerical neck-cloth to portray his subject as a member of the clergy.

As a result, recent scholars believe Smibert’s portrait and Flowers’ engraving are that of Rev. John Cotton’s grandson, Josiah Cotton (1679 – 1756), Justice of the Peace in Plymouth. Additionally, Clifford Shipton’s use of the Flowers’ engraving to represent Rev. John Cotton of Newton, born 15 July 1693 to Rev. Roland Cotton of Sandwich, Massachusetts is mistaken as this John Cotton would only have been 32 years old at the time Smibert painted his portrait.

A painting in the possession of the Connecticut Historical Society labeled “Rev. Increase Mather” has been discovered to have an earlier underlying portrait, which experts believe to be Rev. John Cotton. (shown below left)

In the Portraits of the Founders by Charles K. Bolton, the librarian of the Connecticut Historical Society, Mr. Albert C. Bates, states:

“The portrait was presented to the society in December, 1844, by Gen. Samuel L. Pitkin of East Hartford, with the statement that it was a portrait of Increase Mather.  At the same time, he presented a portrait of the third wife of Rev. Cotton Mather, whom he calls Anna.  I believe the genealogy gives her name as Lydia.”

On the stretcher of the portrait in an early 19th century hand is written, “Rev. Increase Mather” and everywhere on the portrait is evidence that the portrait had been much altered. Around 1926, Charles Knowles Bolton visited the Connecticut Historical Society and with Albert C. Bates, the Librarian of the Society, made a careful examination of the original CHS portrait in both natural and artificial light.  The two concluded:

  •  a square, linen collar, such as those worn by the Rev. Hugh Peter, William Pynchon and Sir Richard Saltonstall, had been imperfectly concealed by paint, and two very white bands of a later type have been superimposed. This form of flat, linen collar -the lower outline chevron shaped places the sitter at about the period of 1630 – 1650.
  •  the sitter wears (or wore originally) a reddish brown cap such as appears in the portraits of Davenport, Endicott, Pynchon, and others;
  •  he had a small, brown moustache and imperial or goatee (now obliterated);
  •  his hair fell over both shoulders;
  •  a large ribbon on either side of the head has been blotted out and a smaller one substituted;
  • the background was originally green;
  • the present hand has been substituted for one place just above it;
  • an inscription in the upper left-hand corner of the canvas beginning Ætat and ending in An: 49 have been blotted out by black paint.

This inscription upon closer examination reads: Ætat (is) Svæ (65) An: 49 (year 49). Rev. John Cotton was 65 years old in 1649. This fact combined with the fact that the Bible shown in the painting is open to one of Rev. John Cotton’s favorite passages in the third chapter of Revelation, lead most scholars to conclude that the original portrait is that of Rev. John Cotton.

In Bolton’s Portraits of the Founders, on page 1011, is a portrait commissioned by the Boston Anthenæum during Bolton’s investigation of the Connecticut Historical Society portrait. This reconstructed portrait (above & below right) intended to show what the original underlying portrait looked like and was a reconstruction of the Connecticut Historical Society portrait illustrating the original underlying portrait. The work was commissioned by the Boston Anthenæum.  Reference:  Bolton’s Portraits of the Founders, page 1011.

Although this reconstructed portrait can no longer found at the Boston Anthenæum, it seems to have been used by Howard E. Smith as the basis for a cover illustration to a supplemental series entitled “Colonial Thinkers” introduced in the Boston Herald on May 5, 1930 (shown above right)

Mr. Smith’s illustration is on file at the Library of Congress and is perhaps the best likeness available for the Reverend John Cotton. The City of Boston used Mr. Smith’s illustration for the memorial placed on the site of Rev. John Cotton’s home just in front of the old Suffolk County Court House at Pemberton Square (shown below).

The City of Boston used Howard Smith’s illustration for the plaque marking the site of Rev. John Cotton’s home located in what was known as Pemberton Square and now is the courtyard of the Massachusetts Appeals Court and the John Adams Courthouse. 

©  by Barry A. Cotton