Skip to Content

John Singleton Copley

Showing 1 of 1

Print this page

John Singleton Copley
(Boston, Massachusetts, 1738 – 1815, London, England)

By the eighteenth century the colonial economy was robust and for the first time wealth was readily available, especially in the merchant class. Despite lingering Puritanical ideals and thanks to the rise of Protestantism, the upper class was able to expend to expend this new wealth through the purchase of material goods.(1) Portraiture, which was the dominant form of painting in England, offered the most obvious status support to the nouveau riche. Furthermore, portraiture also demonstrated that the colonists were just as sophisticated as their English brethren. Cities like Boston became a cultural outpost and served as a center for artisans and craftsmen who could provide its elite class with material goods. It was within this environment that artists like John Singleton Copley (1738-1815) were able to flourish.

Born in July of 1738 (2) , Copley rose from humble beginnings. His father died when he was very young and his mother married Peter Pelham (1695-1751), an engraver, portrait painter, and school master. While Copley’s mother ran her deceased husband’s tobacco shop, Pelham engraved mezzotints, and taught gentlemen and ladies “Dancing, Writing, Reading, Painting on Glass, and all sorts of Needlework.”(3) Not only was Copley exposed to the arts through his step-father’s business, but also through relationships with other artists working in the Boston area. The Pelhams were friendly with John Smibert (1688-1751), an English portrait painter who came to the colonies to thrive as an artist and art supply store owner. Smibert had a fine print collection that contained reproductions of the works of Michelangelo, Raphael, Poussin, and Rubens, along with his own copies of European masterpieces. Smibert’s collection, coupled with Pelham’s own print collection, provided the young Copley with a wealth of material from which he began to teach himself to draw and paint. Copley also spent time with Robert Feke (1705/10-after 1750), another successful colonial portraitist. One of his better known paintings, "Isaac Royall and Family" (1741, Harvard Law Art Collection) is believed to have been modeled after Smibert’s "The Bermuda Group: Dean George Barkley and his entourage" (1729, Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven) and the Feke may have served as another study source for Copley. The figures, while rigid in form, impart to the viewer a sense of nobility, a characteristic that can be found in Copley’s later portraits.

When Copley began his career around fifteen years of age, he initially relied on source materials, copying mezzotints, paintings, books and prints. As time passed, he became more aggressive, allowed his natural talents to shine through, and he expanded his artistic vocabulary. The young artist also studied the human form and anatomical drawings as seen in early sketches, most recently exhibited in the 1995 exhibition "John Singleton Copley in America," organized by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. At this time Copley also created his first history paintings, which were copies of Old Master mythological subjects: "Galatea" (c. 1754, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston), "The Return of Neptune" (c. 1754, Metropolitan Museum of Art), and "Mars, Venus, and Vulcan" (1754, Private collection). While not impressive, they do show a young artist working out his newly developed skill, and also hint towards the history paintings he created in the latter half of his career.

Within the next ten to fifteen years, Copley developed a steady clientele that included a large number of Boston’s merchant and professional class. Copley painted portraits of his clients that captured the personas they wanted to project, often including material goods and instruments of leisure that further reflected their personal wealth. For example, his 1767 portrait of "Nicholas Boylston" (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston) depicts a wealthy and stylish man, dressed in luxuriant clothing. He wears a blue-green morning gown of heavy silk damask over a beige silk waistcoat, and a red velvet turban which reveals his shaved head. His arm rests on a stack of ledgers and the background opens up to a window and a ship in the harbor. The ledgers and ship connote Boylston’s importing business while the absence of a powdered wig indicates informality. Thus, the portrait gives the impression that the sitter is a very wealthy man, who does not need to be concerned with formalities, and has time for leisurely activities, such as sitting for portraits.

While portraiture served as his primary source of income, Copley wanted to achieve more as an artist. He dreamed of rivaling the great masters and wanted to paint history paintings, which in terms of subject matter, were considered the highest form of painting. In 1765, Copley sent a portrait of his brother, "Henry Pelham (Boy with a Squirrel)" (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston), to London, where it was shown at the Society of Artists exhibition. The work won Copley acclaim, and as a result, he began a correspondence with Benjamin West, an expatriate and painter who left the colonies for a more successful artistic career in England. West encouraged Copley to come to Europe where he could improve his skills by studying the Great Masters. However, for the time being, the artist remained in America and continued to paint portraits.

By 1769, Copley’s flamboyant portraiture of Boston’s elite was replaced by a more severe style. He painted fewer sitters of social importance and painted more sitters of political, professional, or fiscal importance. The portraits of Boston’s politicians in particular, are more reserved with darker backgrounds, sharper contrasts of light and dark, and overall the artist used a more somber palette.(5) While this not only reflects the change in Copley’s clientele, it also reflects a change in the times and alludes to the upcoming war. For example, his portrait of "Samuel Adams" (c. 1770-72, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston) is one of the artist’s most powerful depictions of an important American historical figure. Adams stands at a table grasping and gesturing toward the documents that lay before him. Believed to have been commissioned by John Hancock, Copley’s portrait captured Adams in the moment of confrontation with Royal Governor Thomas Hutchinson of Massachusetts the day after the Boston massacre of March 5, 1770.(6) (Hutchinson accused Adams of staging the massacre in order to force the confrontation.) In the portrait, Adams sternly looks at the viewer, who is presumably standing in place of Hutchinson. By using the viewer as a stand in for the opposition, Copley brilliantly draws his audience into an electrifying moment that proved to be a turning point in American history.

By the summer of 1773, Copley found himself in a predicament. Not only was his patronage beginning to dry up, but differences of opinion existed between himself and his wife and her family. Copley leaned towards supporting the rebels in their fight for independence while his wife and her family remained strict loyalists. However, most important to Copley was the fact that he wanted to become a great artist and this came before any political siding. As a result, he tried to remain neutral in regards to the pending war, and it was this neutrality that landed him in the middle of the Boston Tea Party.

In 1773, taxed tea from England arrived in Boston Harbor. Richard Clarke, Copley’s father-in-law, was a major consignee of the teas as principal agent for the East India Company in Boston. In November, a mob smashed the windows of Clarke’s house and Copley found himself as a mediator, running between his merchant in-laws and the radical leaders. Clarke and his sons took refuge on Castle William in Boston Harbor and Copley contacted his brothers-in-law in regards to his experience at a Sons of Liberty meeting. The artist was sent from the meeting to bring back the Clarke brothers so that they might state their position. The Clarkes refused to come, and upon his return to the meeting, Copley patiently tried to explain that the Clarkes were merely doing their jobs by importing the taxed tea. The Sons of Liberty wanted the tea to be returned, but the Clarkes could not do this themselves. Copley’s efforts to mediate were clearly unsuccessful as the Sons of Liberty dumped much of the tea into the harbor on December 6th and the Clarkes remained in hiding for many months following. Despite his forced negotiator status and involvement with the Sons of Liberty, Copley kept his career foremost in his mind and made plans for his departure to Europe. On June 10, 1774, leaving his wife and children behind, the artist set sail for London.(7)

Copley arrived in England in early July and immediately got in touch with Benjamin West. West took the artist to see the collection of Old Masters at the Queen’s palace in Kensington and also introduced him to Sir Joshua Reynolds. This marked a turning point in Copley’s career as he was able to see in person the Old Master and modern paintings which he had only seen in reproductions. At first, Copley didn’t accept any commissions; he only traveled, studied and absorbed all that he could from Europe’s artistic heritage, traveling extensively throughout England, France, and Italy.

Copley returned to London in 1775 and planned to concentrate on portraits and only paint history paintings if he was presented with commissions. He became a member of the Royal Academy that same year, and once again began to develop a steady clientele. In 1778, Copley was approached by Brooke Watson, a wealthy London merchant, to record the scene when he was attacked by a shark at the age of fourteen in Havana Harbor. Entitled "Watson and the Shark" (National Gallery of Art, Washington), the painting today is Copley’s best known work. It depicts the young Watson attacked by a shark with rescuers attempting to pull him from the harbor. The painting greatly extended Copley’s reputation and at the same time changed the face of history painting.(8)

Copley’s contribution to the genre of history painting was that he combined it with portraiture. No longer were history paintings distant events in the past with which viewers had no connection, but contemporary events in which the viewer could recognize the figures as actual individuals. For example, in "The Death of Earl Chatham" (Tate Gallery, London) of 1779-81, Copley depicted an event that occurred in the House of Lords in 1778. The House was meeting in a Committee on the State of the Nation, and the Duke of Richmond had offered for consideration an address to the king which urged the withdrawal of British troops from the American colonies. When he had finished, a feeble William Pitt, Earl of Chatham rose to argue against this address. After he argued his point, he stopped, then wishing to speak further, fell backward in a faint.(9) Some members of the House of Lords sat for the artist so he could accurately render their portrait in the painting. By combining the two genres of portraiture and history painting in "The Death of Earl Chatham," Copley secured himself a position next to Benjamin West as one of two leading history painters of the day. The two artists introduced realism through history painting that according to art historian Jules David Prown can be placed among the first direct American contribution to Western art.

For the next twenty years, Copley continued to paint portraits, and produce history paintings. Among his better known are "Charles I Demanding in the House of Commons the Five Impeached Members" (Boston Public Library) of 1782-95 and "The Death of Major Pierson" (Tate Gallery, London) of 1782-84. Copley fell in and out of favor with English art circles as his artistic ability began to decline with age. Despite the gradual demise of his career, Copley’s contribution as a portraitist and history painter forever changed the face of American art.

(1) The first generation of colonists were a Protestant mercantile society. However, by the seventeenth century, a noticeable change was taking place within colonial society. The rising middle class was not willing to give up their new found wealth in order to please God. As a result, the middle class began to adopt Calvinism, a sentiment that prosperity was a reflection of God’s favor. In other words, the material wealth that resulted from hard work that benefited the community was seen as a reward from God.

(2) There is a discrepancy about Copley’s exact birth. In general, Copley scholars believe that he was born in July of 1738 with an exact date yet to be discovered. For a more in depth discussion of his birth date, see Henry Wilder Foote, “When was John Singleton Copley born?” New England Quarterly X (March 1937), 111-20.

(3) Jules David Prown, John Singleton Copley in America 1738-1774 (Washington, D.C.: National Gallery of Art, 1966): 9.

(4) Carrie Rebora and Paul Staiti, John Singleton Copley in America (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1995): 224-25.

(5) Prown, 61.

(6) For more see Rebora and Staiti, pp. 275-78.

(7) For a more detailed account of Copley’s involvement, see Prown, pp. 88-93.

(8) Traditionally, history painting was a subject matter that represented an event in the past, be it religious, historical, or mythological. It was deemed an appropriate and noble form of painting because it venerated classical ideals and emulated artists of the past. However, in 1771, Benjamin West painted The Death of General Wolfe sending shockwaves throughout the artistic community. Not only did the painting depict a recent event, but it also depicted individuals in contemporary dress. Had West painted the exact scene set as a Roman battle, it would not have been quite as shocking to eighteenth-century society. West altered traditional history painting by making it more realistic, representing events from the recent past and depicting individuals in contemporary dress.

(9) Earl Chatham lived another month after the incident before passing away. See Prown, pp. 276-78.

-Letha Clair Robertson 10.1.03

Image credit: John Singleton Copley (American, 1738-1815), Self-Portrait, about 1780–1784, oil on canvas, National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of the Morris and Gwendolyn Cafritz Foundation with matching funds from the Smithsonian Institution; frame conserved with funds from the Smithsonian Women's Committee, NPG.77.22, Photograph courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

Artist Objects

Your current search criteria is: Artist/Maker is "John Singleton Copley".