COPLEY, John Singleton
(b. 1738, Boston, d. 1815, London)
Brook Watson and the Shark1778
Oil on canvas, 182 x 230 cm
National Gallery of Art, Washington
After the death of his father, a tobacco merchant of Irish descent, Copley first received instruction from his stepfather, the etcher Peter Pelham. As a painter Copley was largely self- taught, studying copies of old masters and also printing techniques and using all available sources of contemporary European painting. In his early twenties he was already a popular portraitist, receiving commissions from New York, Philadelphia and Canada. From 1765 onwards he exhibited in London, where his work was well received by his fellow painters. Following West's invitation, he at last visited England himself in 1774 to perfect his technique. His travels on the Continent were short but intensive. When in London he painted several striking historical pictures, including Brook Watson being attacked by a Shark, whose topicality had a revolutionary effect. He was made an associate (1775) and then a full member of the Royal Academy (1783). Around this time he began to align himself more with European conventions, a tendency which became more pronounced with advancing years.