(b. 1726, London, d. 1770, London)
English painter and pastellist. He was the son of an apothecary and the elder brother of Samuel Cotes (1734-1818), a painter in miniature. Around 1741 he was apprenticed to George Knapton, who taught him to paint in oil and to draw in crayon, at which he became very accomplished. Rosalba Carriera had popularised crayon portraiture among Grand Tourists in Venice, and her example no doubt helped Cotes in his early work. Nevertheless, he did not imitate her soft modelling and delicate colour in such portraits as Elizabeth, Lady Carysfoot (1751; University of Michigan, Museum of Art, Ann Arbor), in which he used bold tones, strong lines and an almost universal portrait format, established in the 1740s and 1750s. He was fortunate in making crayon portraits of Maria Gunning and Elizabeth Gunning (1751; versions in National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh, National Portrait Gallery, London; and elsewhere), as his work reached a wide public through engravings made after them.
Between 1753 and 1756 the Swiss pastelist Jean Etienne Liotard was in England, and his realistic approach to portraiture persuaded Cotes to abandon the Rococo portrait type. In Taylor White (1758; London, Foundling Hospital) he adopted a very naturalistic pose. His first oil paintings dates from as late as 1753, and he did not seriously take up the medium until four years later.
By the 1760s, he had achieved wide-reaching success as the pre-eminent pastel painter in England. Cotes helped found the Society of Artists and became its director in 1765. Three years later he became a founding member of the Royal Academy. In his last decade, Cotes began to paint more in oil, a medium less labour intensive and more profitable than pastel. However, he remained renowned as a pastelist: John Russell wrote his famous 1772 treatise, The Elements of Painting with Crayon, as an explanation of Cotes's pastel technique, and Cotes was referred to as "the Rosalba Carriera of England." His inventive compositions, dramatic use of saturated colour, bold handling of line, and informal naturalism contributed to Cotes's fame. Tragically, his premature death at age forty-four cut short his career.