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.
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.
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.
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 on John Singleton Copley
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 Biography 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.