Copley, John Singleton (1738–1815)

John Singleton Copley used realism and deft characterization to become one of the best portrait painters of the eighteenth century and the foremost American artist of the colonial era. Born in Boston on July 3, 1738, Copley learned to paint and engrave from his stepfather, Peter Pelham. A successful mezzotint engraver from London, Pelham died in 1751. Forced to earn a living, Copley copied one of Pelham’s engravings to the point of plagiarism to produce his first work, Reverend William Welsteed (1753). Copley’s first known painting is a portrait of tavern keeper Mrs. Joseph Mann (1753). Boston had no schools that offered art instruction, and much of the population still clung to old Puritan ideas that held most forms of painting to be either blasphemous or frivolous. As a result, Copley was largely self-taught. He studied anatomy and theories of art, while making numerous copies of engravings of history paintings on mythological themes, including Galatea (1754), The Return of Neptune (1754), and The Forge of Vulcan (1754). The colonists valued art chiefly as a means of recording likenesses and had little interest in this type of art. Intensely concerned with economic security and desirous of social advancement, Copley turned his focus to portraiture. In the next few years, he copied heavily from popular English portraits to produce saleable items for the American market. By the age of 21, he had become the foremost portraitist in the colonies. Combining bold colors with the dramatic use of light and shadow, Copley avoided the stiff, flatly colored, crudely drawn likenesses that most colonial artists churned out. He developed a style that gave painted human figures the look of three dimensions. He also had a rare gift for observing unconscious personal mannerisms. His paintings featured precise contours, occasional sharp dissonances of color, and a smooth finish that neatly concealed all signs of brushwork. Another characteristic of Copley’s distinct style is his attention to textiles and the vast variety of shiny, filmy, coarse, and fine effects that fabrics can provide. John Singleton Copley is regarded as the first great American portrait painter, but his romanticized historical works, including Watson and the Shark (1778), are among his best-known paintings. (The Detroit Institute of Arts, Michigan/Founders Society purchase, Dexter M. Ferry, Jr., fund/Bridgeman Art Library) Much of Copley’s popularity derived from the veneer of elegance that he gave to his subjects, as well as his talent for capturing individual character. The warmth and hospitality of Mrs. Ezekiel Goldthwait is clearly revealed in her portrait (1771), as is the bloom in the face of benign Mrs. Thomas Boylston (1766). Copley’s sitters probably chose the pose and costume they liked best from a variety of English aristocratic prints the artist showed them, since his works employ the props, clothing, and settings typical of eighteenth-century English mezzotints. As the years passed, Copley added profitable sidelines. He painted miniatures on copper and ivory, which were intended more as keepsakes than likenesses. About 1763, he began a ten-year infatuation with pastels. Pastels were an attractive alternative to oils, because portraits were created using cheaper materials and took less time to complete but still satisfied buyers. Copley would use pastels for his 1769 self-portrait. As tensions rose in the years before the Revolution, Copley kept aloof from any appearance of sympathy with a political faction in the belief that politics brought neither pleasure nor advantage to an artist. He painted both Tories and revolutionaries, including Paul Revere and John Hancock. While he never publicly declared his sympathies, his 1769 marriage to Susanna Farnham Clarke did link Copley to a prominent loyalist family. Copley’s friendly relations with both sides made him the choice as mediator between revolutionary leaders in Boston and the agents of the East India Company during the tea tax protests. His efforts proved futile, however, and the worsening situation soon made neutrality impossible for him to maintain. In 1774, a mob gathered outside Copley’s Beacon Hill mansion to demand that he turn over a loyalist friend. Fearing he would be forced to surrender his friend or have his house pulled down and his family murdered, Copley managed to escape and fled to England. While political turmoil had triggered his flight, his exile also gave Copley the opportunity to better his skills to match England’s sophisticated standards. He became the first American painter on record to take up residence abroad at the instigation of European colleagues, who had been impressed by his 1766 exhibition of Boy with a Squirrel. Copley also is believed to be the first American painter to exhibit abroad. In England, Copley continued to refine his work, and the Royal Academy of Arts rewarded his efforts by electing him to full membership in 1779. Bitter and frustrated in his later years by financial difficulties and a waning reputation, Copley died in London on September 9, 1815. Caryn E. Neumann See also: Art, Fine; Arts, Culture, and Intellectual Life (Chronology); Arts, Culture, and Intellectual Life (Essay). Bibliography Flexner, James Thomas. John Singleton Copley. New York: Fordham University Press, 1993. Frankenstein, Alfred. The World of Copley, 1738 1815. New York: Time-Life, 1970. John Singleton Copley (1738 1815) Essay Heilbrunn Timeline of … 18C American Women: Squirrels in paintings of 18C American women + … Ebenezer Storer John Singleton Copley (American, Boston …

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