NCMA Recommends: Sir William Pepperrell (1746—1816) and His Family

John Singleton Copley, Sir William Pepperrell (1746—1816) and His Family, 1778, oil on canvas, 90 — 108 in., Purchased with funds from the State of North Carolina

When visitors enter the Portrait Gallery, they are often drawn to this lush and beautifully painted portrait of a seemingly perfect family by the important American artist John Singleton Copley (1738—1815). The superficial elements of beauty are evident in the smiles of the rosy children, the gorgeous fabrics, and the well-behaved pets. We might see perfection–family portraits have always been designed to tell the stories of happy families–but there is actually more than meets the eye here. Read about the painting on NCMALearn and rest assured that it is the messy and beautiful complications of families that will remain fodder for artists for all time.

Listen in as John Coffey, Jim and Betty Becher Curator of American and Modern Art, emeritus, discusses the provenance, or history of ownership, of this important family portrait since the time of its creation in 1778 to its acquisition for the People’s Collection in 1952.

Bisa Butler’s Quilted Portraits

Artist Bisa Butler reimagines the family portrait through her gorgeous quilt-like pieces that often use imagery from old family albums. She studies these and archival photographs of Black Americans and revises them into vibrantly colorful new works that tell the story of those depicted.

Family Fun: Fabric Portraits

Imagine your family in early American finery, inspired by John Singleton Copley’s portrait of the Pepperrell family. Create a fabric family portrait at home using these instructions and ideas.

Reading and Film Recommendations

The Family Fang by Kevin Wilson (2011). A family portrait of a different kind, this novel follows the artistic exploits of two parents who build their careers around involving their children in their elaborate acts of performance art.

Inspired by Copley’s portrait of the Pepperrell family, we recommend three films that depict seemingly dysfunctional families who, despite it all, have plenty of love for one another.

  • Little Miss Sunshine (2006). Directors: Valerie Faris, Jonathan Dayton. The Hoover family embarks on a cross-country journey in their VW bus to get their youngest member into a beauty pageant. Watch on Tubi
  • The Incredibles (2004). Director: Brad Bird. A family of superheroes is forced to assume mundane lives in this Pixar film. Watch on Disney+ or rent on Amazon or YouTube.
  • The Royal Tenenbaums (2001). Director: Wes Anderson. Three grown prodigies are reunited with their father, who comes back to make things right with the family he abandoned. Rent on Amazon or YouTube.

Love Makes a Family

Sir William Pepperrell (1746—1816) and His Family is a wonderfully painted depiction of what a wealthy English family might have looked like in 1778. Today we know that families look any way love puts a group of people together–be it a chosen family or the one you are born into. The traveling exhibition and book Love Makes a Family depicts and interviews LGBTQ+ people and their families. Visit the website to view a selection of Gigi Kaeser’s photographs.

Have you had family photos taken in the Museum Park? We’d love to feature them in our Instagram Stories! Please share with us using #NCMAFamilyPortraits.

Awkward Family Photos

We know that portraits such as Copley’s depiction of the Pepperrell family do not happen by accident. The photographs on this website might not have been accidental either, but we’ll leave it to you to decide if the outcome matched the intention.

Museum Store Offerings

The Museum Store features original artwork from registered expressive arts therapist and artist Natalia Torres del Valle. Her works on paper, focused on form and texture, are built on memories of natural landscapes and are influenced by her expressive arts therapy practice. Learn more about the International Expressive Arts Therapy Association here. For more information about the Museum Store, please email help@ncartmuseum.org.


Aug 20, 2021


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