The portrait most commonly mistaken for that of the Rev. John Cotton who migrated to Boston, Massachusetts in 1633 was painted by Smibert around 1735 and then was purchased by Mr. John E. Thayer of Bostonfrom an art dealer in 1850.
The portrait was then engraved for publication by Smith for Drake’s History and Antiquities of Boston in 1856 and again by Flowers for Thompson’s History of Boston, England also published in 1856. In both cases, the engravings were presented as the Rev. John Cotton and this error continued in Justin Winsor’s monumental work, Memorial History of Boston published in 1881.
Both engravings show the subject wearing a clerical band not shown in the original portrait. Charles K. Bolton, author of Portraits of the Founders(published by the Boston Anthenæum, 1919) suggests that the engravers used a clerical bands to portray the subject as a clergyman. The original portrait shows the subject wearing a neck-cloth commonly worn by laymen of the legal profession.
As a result, recent scholars believe that the portrait is that of Rev. John Cotton’s grandson, Josiah Cotton (born 1679, died 1756), who was Justice of the Peace in Plymouth. (If so, Josiah Cotton would have been age 56 at the time of the portrait and the neck-cloth would have reflected his role of Justice of the Peace and Town Recorder for Plymouth.)
Clifford Shipton, author of Silbey’s Harvard Graduates: Vol. V (1701-1712) used the Flower’s engraving of the Smibert portrait to illustrate a great grandson of Rev. John Cotton, also named John Cotton, who was the third minister of Newton, Massachusetts, born 15 July 1693 to Rev. Roland Cotton of Sandwich. (If Rev. John Cotton of Newton were the sitter in the portrait, he would have been age 32 at the time and the use of a neck-cloth commonly worn by laymen of the legal profession would belie the fact that Roland Cotton was a clergyman.)
The Connecticut Historical Society was given a portrait of what was thought to be Increase Mather in 1844 by General Samuel Pitkin.
In Charles K. Bolton's the Portraits of the Founders, the librarian of the Connecticut Historical Society, Mr. Albert C. Bates, is quoted as saying:“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” 1; yet everywhere on the portrait is evidence that it has 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: 1) That 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.
2) That the sitter wears (or wore originally) a reddish brown cap such as appears in the portraits of Davenport, Endicott, Pynchon, and others;
3) That he had a small, brown moustache and imperial or goatee (now obliterated);
4) That his hair fell over both shoulders;
5) That a large ribbon on either side of the head has been blotted out and a smaller one substituted;
6) That the background was originally green;
7) That the present hand has been substituted for one place just above it;
8) That 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).
In 1649, the Rev. John Cotton was 65 years old. 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, leads most scholars to conclude that the original portrait is that of Rev. John Cotton.
Note 1: Increase Mather was Rev. John Cotton’s son-in-law as he married Maria Cotton, Cotton's youngest surviving daughther. In addition, Rev. Cotton’s widow, Sarah, married Richard Mather, the father of Increase Mather; as a result, mother and daughter married father and son. The most famous offspring of the union of the two families was Cotton Mather.
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 was intended to show what the original underlying portrait looked like.
BOSTON HERALD ILLUSTRATION
Although this reconstructed portrait can no longer found at the Boston Anthenæum, it seems to have been the basis for a cover illustration by Howard E. Smith in a supplemental series introduced in the Boston Herald on May 5, 1930 entitled “Colonial Thinkers”.
COTTON MEMORIAL PLAQUE
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 in front of the old Suffolk County Court House in Pemberton Square.
COTTON MEMORIAL IN PEMBERTON SQUARE, BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS