John Singleton CopleyBorn: 1738, Boston, Massachusetts, United States of America
Died: 1815, London, England
BiographyJohn Singleton Copley was America’s first great native-born artist and the finest portraitist of the colonial period. Copley was raised in Boston and acquired from his stepfather, a London-trained engraver, painter, and sometime schoolmaster, the rudiments both of art and of genteel deportment. By the time Copley launched himself as a portrait painter, in his mid-teens, he was equipped to move with ease in the world of his sitters, Boston’s social and commercial elite. His marriage to Susannah Farnham Clarke in 1769 connected him to one of the city’s most prominent merchant families.
Copley learned the conventions of portrait painting by copying engraved versions of fashionable English portraits and by studying the work of Boston’s leading portrait painters. By 1760 he had emerged as the city’s preeminent artist, a position unchallenged when, on the eve of the American Revolution, the artist’s Tory sympathies precipitated his departure for Europe. By that point, he had executed more than three hundred portraits in oils and pastels, remarkable likenesses of colonial America’s leading political figures, merchants and entrepreneurs, and society women that combine brilliantly clear tactile realism with a powerful evocation of social position and individual character.
Impatient with the limited artistic opportunities of his native country, Copley had long contemplated a trip abroad when he sailed for London in 1774. After a tour of Italy, he settled permanently in the British capital, where another native-born American, Benjamin West (1738–1820), had become a leader in history painting, the grand portrayal of historical events as lessons on great moral themes. In such revolutionary works as Watson and the Shark (1778; National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.), Copley pioneered the grand-manner treatment of contemporary history with his combination of references to artistic tradition, the excitement of contemporary reportage, and a heroic drama that reflects the burgeoning spirit of Romanticism. Similarly, in England Copley’s portraiture assumed an atmospheric and coloristic richness that departs from the relatively sober palette and crystalline purity of much of his colonial painting. Copley’s success in England was capped by his election in 1779 to the Royal Academy of Arts, the Anglo-American art world’s most prestigious organization, but his last years were marred by his rivalry with West and his failure to obtain the royal patronage he had avidly sought.