JAIC 1984, Volume 23, Number 2, Article 5 (pp. 130 to 152)
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Journal of the American Institute for Conservation
JAIC 1984, Volume 23, Number 2, Article 5 (pp. 130 to 152)


J. William Shank


THE STORY OF JOHN SINGLETON COPLEY is one of the earliest examples of The American Dream: a tale of rags-to-riches, achieved through one man's strong motivation, personal initiative, single-mindedness of purpose, and a spark of creative genius. The son of Irish working class immigrants in colonial Boston, Copley elevated himself, almost single-handedly, to a level of social prominence, first in a colonial town where artists were treated as merely useful craftsmen, and later in the sophisticated artistic circles of eighteenth-century London, during the formative years of the Royal Academy.

Born in 1738, Copley spent the first ten years of his life with his widowed mother over the Long Wharf tobacco shop of which she was the proprietress. Mary Copley's re-marriage in 1748 was a fortuitous one for the ten-year-old boy, whose stepfather, Peter Pelham, was an engraver of mezzotints. Through Pelham, Copley gained access not only to the tools and materials of the artist, but also to the small circle of artists then active in New England. He surely knew John Smibert personally and was acquainted with the works of Robert Feke, Joseph Blackburn and John Greenwood. Copley's earliest works include re-workings of his stepfather's engraving plates and sketches from books of anatomical studies, as well as early attempts at oil painting, in the form of plagiarized mythological scenes. But the limner tradition of the painted portrait was, early on, to become his principal preoccupation. Portraiture was not only the most abundant source of existing painting for the young Copley, it was also the most practical choice of subject matter for a youngster hoping for a career in art: it paid.

With the early death of Peter Pelham in 1751, the thirteen-year-old Copley determined to add to the family income with his art. His earliest portraits show the strong influence of his predecessors in their flat shapes, shallow modelling, and sometimes pompous gestures. But almost from the start, his cool, metallic coloring was his own. Rapidly, in the 1750's, Copley moved past the limner artists of the generation before, to produce an illusion of reality in his portraits unprecedented on this side of the Atlantic. If his draftsmanship and his grasp of anatomy were somewhat lacking in his early works, his rendering of textures was unsurpassed; while still a teenager, John Singleton Copley was producing paintings better than any he had ever seen.

Copley's gift, and his own self-promotion, made him much sought-after among the merchant classes of Boston in the late 1750's and 1760's. By 1769 his lucrative practice, which by then included commissions as far away as New York and Philadelphia, enabled him to purchase a 21-acre farm on what is now Beacon Hill. Copley was a fastidious painter, and his demands on his sitters were sometimes excessive: one subject recalled making fifteen return visits to the artist's studio for the usual six-hour sitting.1 His hard labor was rewarded by an increasingly sophisticated style and fluid application of paint. Copley's colonial sitters sit or stand immobile, staring resolutely at the viewer from the foreground picture plane. The familiar household objects or furnishings which surround them are portrayed with the same crisp three-dimensionality, with backgrounds generally minimized through the use of very thin scumbles of paint. His subjects are bathed in a single, direct light, and their strong plasticity is created by the use of strong, deep shadows at the edge of the form, with a very limited use of a middle ground to separate the darker areas from the broader expanses of light color.2 Despite the increasing virtuosity with which Copley rendered fabrics and flesh, the portraits of his mature American style are totally lacking in the “aerial envelope”3 which in optical reality would separate them from the viewer.

It was precisely the crisp, clear directness of Copley's approach to painting which brought his work to the attention of the London Society of Artists when he first submitted a picture (the Boy and a Squirrel of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston) for its approval in 1766. Despite the encouragement of such luminaries as Benjamin West and Sir Joshua Reynolds, eight years and the beginning of a Revolution were to pass before the American artist could bring himself to sacrifice his thriving Boston practice in order to pursue a daydream of success in the London art world, as well as to risk meeting the challenge of breaking away from the restrictions of portraiture by trying his hand at history painting.

His move to England was long premeditated. As early as 1767, he complained that in America, painting was regarded as merely “a usefull trade … like that of a Carpenter, tailor or shewmaker, not as one of the most Noble Arts in the world.”4 He had become dissatisfied with “preserv(ing) the resemblance of perticular persons,”5 and understandably so: by the age of 36, at which time he left the colonies, Copley had painted more than two hundred portraits. A man with seemingly no political leanings of his own, Copley painted revolutionaries (e.g. Paul Revere) and loyalists (his father-in-law Richard Clarke, who was consignee for the tea of the Boston Tea Party) alike. “Art and politics do not mix,” he wrote6; indeed, his bipartisanship might have cost him dearly had he stayed in America past 1774. One critic attributes his move to England to an avoidance of having to choose between the Tories and Whigs, thus losing half his clientele.7

The move was certainly a professional, not a political, one. Before settling in England, he toured the Continent, immersing himself especially in the art of the High Renaissance, and discovering a particular affinity for Titian. The differences between his own work and that of Titian impressed him more deeply than the similarities; Copley began to consider the question of atmosphere and how to achieve it, from a technical aspect. His letters home to his artist half-brother, Henry Pelham, are full of hypotheses about the materials of the Venetian masters.8

From the time of his settling in London in 1775, John Singleton Copley was a force to be reckoned with. His eventual success with grand-scale history paintings (e.g. Watson and the Shark, 1778; The Death of Chatham, 1781; The Siege of Gibraltar, 1787) swelled his already considerable ego, along with his reputation. The portraiture still continued, although the sitters were now lower nobility, landed gentry, and members of the military. His sometimes extravagant multi-figural compositions and the bravura brushwork of his English works were clearly influenced by the Grand Manner pictures then in favor among the other members of the Royal Academy (Copley became a Royal Academician in 1779). The sober poses and often subdued palette of his American works gave way to fanciful postures and a vibrant, higher-key range of colors. Remarkably enough, notes Prown,9 despite these changes in style, the manner of application of paint to canvas remained much the same. “He was still laying out his pictures area by area, as in his colonial works. The color areas remain distinct, creating a pattern of their own on the surface, and do not fuse into one another to create a unified, homogenous picture.”

Copley's English career included flirtations with royal commissions, public showings of his large-scale history paintings, and major political conflicts with other members of the Royal Academy, most notably Benjamin West. The painter from the colonies seemed to carry with him the defensive self-righteousness of the outsider, a flaw which brought him into frequent conflict with his peers and may have somewhat stunted his career. Toward the turn of the century, Copley also began to find his works increasingly out of favor for their “rococo flamboyance … in a period of classical restraint and simplicity.”10 But he continued to produce paintings of extraordinary quality, including over 250 group and individual portraits, during his English period. Before his gradual decline in the early years of the nineteenth century, John Singleton Copley proved himself as a viable force in the world of European art, as well as the first artist of international stature to have been wholly trained in the New World.

Copyright 1984 American Institute of Historic and Artistic Works