COPLEY, John Singleton
(b. 1738, Boston, d. 1815, London)
American painter of portraits and historical subjects, generally acclaimed as the finest artist of colonial America.
Little is known of Copley's boyhood. He developed within a flourishing school of colonial portraiture, and it was as a portraitist that he reached the high point of his art, and - as his Boston portraits later revealed - he gained an intimate knowledge of his New England subjects and milieu and was able to convey a powerful sense of physical entity and directness - real people seen as they are. From his stepfather, the limner and engraver Peter Pelham, Copley gained familiarity with graphic art as well as an early sense of vocation. Before he was 20 he was an accomplished draughtsman. To the Rococo portrait style derived from the English painter Joseph Blackburn he brought his own powers of imagination and a technical ability surpassing anyone painting in America at the time. Copley, in his portraits, made eloquent use of a Rococo device, the portrait d'apparat - portraying the subject with the objects associated with him in his daily life - that gave his work a liveliness and acuity not usually associated with 18th-century American painting.
Although he was steadily employed with commissions from the Boston bourgeoisie, Copley wanted to test himself against the more exacting standards of Europe. In 1766, therefore, he exhibited Boy with a Squirrel at the Society of Artists in London. It was highly praised both by Sir Joshua Reynolds and by Copley's countryman Benjamin West. Copley married in 1769. Although he did not venture out of Boston except for a seven-month stay in New York City (June 1771-January 1772), he was urged by fellow artists who were familiar with his work to study in Europe. When political and economic conditions in Boston began to deteriorate (Copley's father-in-law was the merchant to whom the tea that provoked the Boston Tea Party was consigned), Copley left the country - never to return - in June 1774. In 1775 his wife, children, and several other family members arrived in London, and Copley established a home there in 1776.
His ambitions in Europe went beyond portraiture; he was eager to make a success in the more highly regarded sphere of historical painting. In his first important work, Watson and the Shark (1778), Copley used what was to become one of the great themes of 19th-century Romantic art, the struggle of man against nature. He was elected to the Royal Academy in 1779. Although his English paintings grew more academically sophisticated and self-conscious, in general they lacked the extraordinary vitality and penetrating realism of his Boston portraits. Toward the end of his life, his physical and mental health grew worse. Though he continued to paint with considerable success until the last few months of his life, he was obsessed by the sale (at a loss) of his Boston property and by his increasing debts.