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Copley, John Singleton (1738-1815)

John Singleton Copley (1738-1815)



Early Years. Copley was born in 1738 to poor and uncultured parents who had emigrated from Ireland. Growing up in a house on Long Wharf in Boston, Copley was at one of the wealthiest centers of commercial trade in the colonies. After his fathers death Copleys mother married Peter Pelham, a noted engraver who introduced Copley to the artistic culture of England and America. Copleys first paintings were mythological works such as The Return of Neptune, based on European prints that were consistent with Pelhams baroque tastes and English training. Pelhams more lasting influence was to teach Copley that the successful artist had to be an entrepreneur and, like the traders and artisans of Long Wharf, had to create a desire for his commodities amongst an expanding group of affluent, upwardly mobile merchant and professional class, for whom Copley painted more than 60 percent of his pictures. This small group dominated the social, political, and economic world of provincial Boston. In contrast to their forbears, who might have been content to save their money, this group avidly bought luxury goods that had no practical function but which expressed their cosmopolitan tastes and their aspiration to English gentility. Along with silversmiths such as Paul Revere, furniture makers and portrait painters sought to gratify this fad for English style in consumer goods. Portraits in particular offered a vehicle through which the provincial, newly rich bourgeois class could acquire an illusion of aristocratic character.

Success. Copley was so successful in appreciating the desires of his patrons and in fueling demand for his services that his portraits became major status symbols, the possession of which signaled ones membership in a cultural elite. Despite his own humble origins, Copley turned himself into a gentlemen, sharing the expensive tastes and the self-conscious Englishness of his patrons. In 1769 he married Susanna Farnham Clark, and with the largest annual income of any artist or artisan he was able to build a mansion on exclusive Beacon Hill. Perhaps because Copley was so savvy as an entrepreneur, seeking to give his customers exactly what they wanted, or because he shared their aristocratic ambitions, his portraits offer precise depictions of the materialistic values of his patrons. The lace on a dress, the glint of a button, the polish of a tabletop, the softness of the subjects hands, the shine of the sitters hair: no detail is more important than another, or as his fellow American painter Benjamin West phrased it, the different parts were not subordinated to the face and hands of the sitter but instead competed with them for the viewers interest. Objects and persons become interchangeable, fields of contrasting texture, color and light that draw the viewers attention not to one central point of interest but all over the canvas.

England. Given the overwhelming importance of English taste as an aesthetic and cultural ideal for ambitious and genteel Americans in the late colonial era, it is not surprising that Copley, like Benjamin West, should have gone to Britain. Copleys ambition to master an English style of painting led him in 1765 to send a painting of his stepbrother Henry Pelham, Boy with Squirrel, to London for an exhibition at the Society of Artists. While this and later submissions were highly praised by critics and painters, the advice that they offered inevitably concluded that Copley needed to study in England to properly conform to English mannerin his case, to soften and polish the hard lines that now make his

American portraits so oddly striking in their sharp contrasts, minute details, and indivisible brush strokes. Another consideration influenced Copleys eventual move to England: even though he had cornered the portait market in America, he would always remain merely an artisan there, someone who worked with his hands. In Europe, however, as West demonstrated to his peers, an artist might attain the status of a gentleman. The hostilities that followed the Boston Tea Party made the city an unfriendly place for Copleys Loyalist patrons. A radical activist even defaced Copleys portrait of Gov. Francis Bernard during the Townshend duties crisis, cutting out the heart area of the governor; Copley repaired the damage, which did not endear him to the Patriots. Although Copley struggled to remain neutral in the political crisis, his art was rightly linked with Tory values of luxury, idleness, and self-gratification that seemed treasonous to the Republican campaign for frugality, industry, and sacrifice.

Exile. Copley went to London in November 1775, where he spent the rest of his life living in and working for polite society. Since no artist could attain true greatness by confining himself to portraits, Copley began painting large history scenes. In 1778 Copley exhibited Watson and the Shark, which won him membership in the prestigious Royal Academy and secured his reputation as an English painter. It shares a familiar, sharp realism of visual details and, like Copleys portrait of Paul Revere, shows a democratic interest in plebeian characters: it includes the first sympathetic depiction of a black man by an American artist. Without resorting to caricature Copley paints a heroic sailor standing heroically at the center of the canvas, staring in mute horror at the primal conflict between man and nature, a theme that would be taken up by later American writers such as Herman Melville, William Faulkner, Winslow Homer, and Ernest Hemingway. In its style and composition, however, it marked a major departure from Copleys American works. The triangular arrangement of figures and collision of horizontal and vertical movement, combined with subtler brushwork throughout, keeps the viewers attention firmly on the dramatic event at hand. His next history painting, Death of the Earl of Chatham (17791781), was huge in both size and appeal: more than seven by ten feet, the canvas attacted twenty thousand people to a private exhibition.

Importance. While Benjamin West was more successful in his day, Copley has, with the judgment of hindsight, proved to be the most original painter of Revolutionary America. And although Copley moved to Great Britain at the age of thirty-three to complete his rise to stardom and finish his training as an artist, it is mostly the startling, brilliant portraits he did before leaving the colonies for which he is now remembered. Postwar national pride in all things American fueled the reputations of Copley and other expatriates and secured steady commissions from diplomats and other Americans travelling abroad. Copleys success, like that of West, in guiding his art and career towards the ideal of English taste and ambition had the ironic result of making the paintings of his last decades more conventional. It is in the practical, focused gaze of Copleys colonial faces, in the seductive textures of the material world itself in which individuals reinvent themselves, where the viewer confronts a peculiarly American personality staring back.


Robert Hughes, American Visions: The Epic History of Art in America (New York: Knopf, 1997);

Jules D. Prown, John Singleton Copley (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1966);

Carrie Rebora, Pault Staiti, Erica Hirschler, Theodore E. Stebbins Jr., and Carol Troyen, John Singleton Copley in America (New York: Harry Abrams, 1995);

Kenneth Silverman, A Cultural History of the American Revolution (New York: Columbia University Press, 1987).

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John Singleton Copley

John Singleton Copley

The portraits of the American painter John Singleton Copley (1738-1815), outstanding for their realism and psychological penetration, are the finest of the colonial period. In England from 1775, he executed historical paintings as well as portraits.

John Singleton Copley was born on July 3, 1738, in Boston. His father died shortly afterward. When Copley was 10, his mother married the engraver, painter, and schoolmaster Peter Pelham. Copley's earliest art instruction came from Pelham and from the leading Boston painter, John Smibert, both of whom died in 1751. Copley then studied with Joseph Blackburn, an English painter working in Boston.

Boston Period

From about 1760 until 1774 Copley painted the finest portraits the Colonies had ever known. In these works Copley's sitters are invariably shown as no more and no less than what they are. His approach is quite different from the flattering, contemporary English society portrait. Yet, for all his directness of observation, Copley never demeaned his sitters. Instead, an innate nobility, a steadfast, almost heroic quality seems to reside within them.

Copley's Boston portraits include those of Henry Pelham, his half brother (1765), Mrs. Thomas Boylston (1766), Paul Revere (1768-1770), Mrs. Ezekiel Goldthwaith (1770-1771), and Samuel Adams (1770-1772). The painting of Henry Pelham (also known as The Boy with the Squirrel), one of Copley's few uncommissioned portraits, shows Henry holding a pet squirrel that sits beside a half-filled glass of water on a polished table top. For its time and place the picture is strikingly novel.

Boylston's portrait shows a plain but rather handsome woman who looks out of the picture, it seems, with deeply felt, steadfast convictions. In the portrait of Paul Revere the famous silversmith sits calmly in shirt sleeves at a table displaying the tools of his trade. Goldthwaith is fittingly placed beside a bowl of ripe fruit, whose warm colors are made to cleverly complement the brown tones of her rich satin dress. Copley showed Samuel Adams, the most uncompromising of the American revolutionary patriots, standing rigidly, his face grim and almost masklike.

Departure for England

In the spring of 1774, as America's revolutionary spirit began to mount, Copley's house was surrounded by a mob who believed he was sheltering a loyalist. Fearing for his safety, Copley sailed from America that June. In 1775 he toured Italy. In Naples he painted Mr. and Mrs. Ralph Izard; this double portrait was Copley's most elaborate to date. He surrounded the sitters with various classical artifacts, and in the background he painted the Colosseum. After a quick tour of Germany and the Low Countries, Copley settled with his family in London in October 1775.

Haunted by his sense of America's cultural mediocrity, Copley felt that in Europe he would have a chance to make his way where it "counted." When, in 1765, he had sent his portrait of Henry Pelham to London to be exhibited, Joshua Reynolds, the president of the British Royal Academy, had replied: "Considering the disadvantages you labored under, it is a very wonderful performance. … You would be a valuable acquisition to the art … provided you could receive these aids … before your manner and taste were corrupted or fixed by working in your little way in Boston."

Copley's first English painting was a family portrait that included his prosperous father-in-law, Richard Clarke (1776-1777). The figures are placed easily in comfortable poses, and the tone is one of happy nonchalance.

Historical Paintings

Besides portraits, Copley began painting significant events of contemporary life as imposing history pieces. Watson and the Shark (1778) was the first of these. Copley dramatically painted Brooke Watson, helpless in the water, perhaps about to be devoured by an enormous shark, as his friends frantically try to pull him into the boat. The figures in the boat, grouped in a tight triangular format, make this one of Copley's greatest compositions. The brushstrokes, especially in the depiction of the water in the foreground (as would be true of most of his English work), are handled more loosely than before.

Because of the acclaim accorded Watson and the Shark, in 1779 Copley was elected to full membership in the Royal Academy and, appropriately, devoted much of his time thereafter to painting elaborate history pieces, as such were considered a higher form of painting than portraiture. The Death of Major Pearson (1782-1784) celebrates the 1781 defeat of the French at the Isle of Jersey. The Death of the Earl of Chatham (1781) depicts William Pitt's death of a stroke in the House of Lords in April 1778, as he rose to debate the war with the Colonies.

The enormous Siege of Gibraltar (1791), finished after at least 5 years' work, commemorates the bombardment of Gibraltar by the Spanish and French. Copley employed something of the meticulous realism of his Boston period but on a vast scale. He made models of the fortress and gunboats and even traveled to Germany to get accurate likenesses of the Hanoverian commanders of the siege. But the artistic control of his Boston period was lost in these increasingly grandiose works. Critical reception was lukewarm, and Copley's portrait commissions began to dwindle.

Late Works

Copley never regained his former status. In his late work, parts of paintings are well done, but often the parts do not hang together. In George IV as Prince of Wales (1804-1810) the chief figure is brilliantly done in a bright red costume, but the troops in the background look like ants between the legs of his horse.

At the end of his life, criticism of Copley's painting became harsh, and he regretted having left America. Perhaps, had he remained in Boston, he would not have found it necessary to involve himself with elaborate allegories and intricate perspectival schemas. But he simply seems to have declined. Samuel F. B. Morse, who visited Copley in 1811, wrote: "His powers of mind have almost entirely left him; his late paintings are miserable; it is really a lamentable thing that a man should outlive his faculties." Copley died in London on Sept. 9, 1815.

Further Reading

A collection of Copley's work is the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, John Singleton Copley, 1738-1815: Loan Exhibition (1938). Jules D. Prown, John Singleton Copley (1966), writes more warmly of Copley's English period than previous American writers. For reproductions and biographical sketches see Barbara Neville Parker and Anne Bolling Wheeler, John Singleton Copley (1938), and James Thomas Flexner, America's Old Masters (1939; 2d ed. 1967).

Additional Sources

Flexner, James Thomas, John Singleton Copley, New York: Fordham University Press, 1993.

Klayman, Richard, America abandoned, John Singleton Copley's American years, 1738-1774: an interpretative history, Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1983. □

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Copley, John Singleton (American portrait painter)

John Singleton Copley (kŏp´lē), 1738–1815, American portrait painter, b. Boston. Copley is considered the greatest of the American old masters. He studied with his stepfather, Peter Pelham, and undoubtedly frequented the studios of Smibert and Feke. At 20 he was already a successful portrait painter with a mature style remarkable for its brilliance, clarity, and forthright characterization. In 1766 his Boy with the Squirrel was exhibited in London and won the admiration of Benjamin West, who urged him to come to England. However, he remained in America for eight years longer and worked in New York City and Philadelphia as well as in Boston.

In 1774 Copley visited Italy and then settled in London, where he spent the remainder of his life, enjoying many honors and the patronage of a distinguished clientele. In England his style gained in subtlety and polish but lost most of the vigor and individuality of his early work. He continued to paint portraits but enlarged his repertoire to include the enormous historical paintings that constituted the chief basis of his fame abroad. His large historical painting The Death of Lord Chatham (Tate Gall., London) gained him admittance to the Royal Academy. His rendering of a contemporary disaster, Brook Watson and the Shark (Mus. of Fine Arts, Boston), stands as a unique forerunner of romantic horror painting.

Today Copley's reputation rests largely upon his early American portraits, which are treasured not only for their splendid pictorial qualities but also as the most powerful graphic record of their time and place. Portraits such as those of Nicholas Boylston and Mrs. Thomas Boylston (Harvard), Daniel Hubbard (Art Inst., Chicago), Governor Mifflin and Mrs. Mifflin (Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia), and Paul Revere (Mus. of Fine Arts, Boston) are priceless documents in which the life of a whole society seems mirrored. Among his finest later portraits are the curiously distorted image of Samuel Adams (Mus. of Fine Arts, Boston) and the group portrait of the Copley family (privately owned). The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, has an excellent collection of his works. Copley's son was Baron Lyndhurst.

See catalog with biography by J. D. Prown (1966); biographies by J. T. Flexner (rev. ed. 1948) and A. V. Frankenstein (1970); John Singleton Copley in America (1995) by C. Rebora, P. Staiti, T. E. Stebbins, Jr., and E. E. Hirshler.

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Copley, John Singleton

Copley, John Singleton (1738–1815) US painter. An extraordinarily gifted draughtsman and colourist, he produced some ground-breaking historical paintings which introduced the notion of portraying subjects just because they were exciting. His notable paintings include Colonel Epes Sargent (c.1760), The Boy with a Squirrel (1765), and the history paintings Brook Watson and the Shark (1778) and The Death of Major Peirson (1783).

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