John Singleton Copley 1738 – 1815 Essay

John Singleton Copley 1738 – 1815

John Singleton Copley was a Boston born portrait painter of Irish parentage. Although an important American artist, the Metropolitan Museum of fine art has 38 of his works, he spent much of his working life in Europe, especially in London. Yet he had poor beginnings as far as training was concerned and it would have looked unlikely in the early 1750’s that he could make his carer as an artist.

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 Largely self –taught, he began to work as an artist while still in his teens, having gained a knowledge of European art from the study of his step father’s collection of prints, his step father being the engraver Peter Pelham. The Maritime art page from Greenwich, England, where several of his naval portraits are on display such as that of Admiral of the Fleet, the First Lord Howe, describes his early work having a freshness rarely seen at the time. He was at one time a student of the American neo-classical artist Benjamin West ho remained a friend. His father had died when he was 10 and his widowed mother married Peter Pelham, a widower with five children. Peter Pelham only lived another 3 years  and the 13 year old Copley decided to try and earn his living , as well as support his family, including a new born brother, by using the tools that Pelham had left. According to Ann Douglas in her article ‘John Singleton Copley’ on Suite, he met up with John Smibert, an émigré.  Smibert had trained as a portraitist in Europe and was an accomplished artist. It is most likely that his example encouraged Singleton to make his career as an artist. He had learned from his study of works owned by his stepfather that mythical and historical works were considered the height of artistic achievement, but in 18th century Boston it was portraiture that sold. He was a hard and consistent worker and soon was refining his techniques and use of color. He also learnt from his study of rococo portraits to include objects associated with the sitter in his pictures, a feature described as ‘portrait d’apparat’ or portrait with apparatus.

Early works would include the Portrait of Colonel Epes Sargent, painted in about 1760 and now in the  National Gallery of Art , Washington, D.C  and the fine and lively 1766 portrait of his step-brother Henry, ‘Boy with a Squirrel’ now in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. This latter picture he had sent to a London friend for criticism. The picture received praise from Sir Joshua Reynolds among others and they urged the young man to come to Europe where he could study, but he decided to stay put, at least for a while. However he felt that his American neighbours did not appreciate his skills. Ann Douglas quotes from a letter:-

The people generally regard it, no more than any other useful trade, as they sometimes term it, like that of a carpenter, tailor, or shoemaker, not as one of the most noble Arts in the world. Which is not a little mortifying to me

Despite such observations his work was acclaimed critically both in America and overseas, but Copley seemed to lack confidence in his own abilities. Portraiture was about the only form of art, apart from sign painting, that sold in the colonies according to the web site Archiving America, but Copley was considered to be one of the foremost portraitists of the time and place Yet, in a letter quoted by Barbara Parker in her 1938 tribute, ‘John Singleton Copley, American portraits in oil, pastel and miniature’ ( page 8) he wrote to West in 1766:-

            I think myself peculiarly unlucky in Liveing in a place into which there has not

been one portrait brought that is worthy to be call’d a Picture within my memory.

 In 1768 Copley painted Paul Revere. The two men, both in their early thirties, could not have been more different. It was a time of extreme political tension, when Boston was divided into two parties, the Whigs, who wanted freedom from British rule and taxation without representation, and the Tories, who were content to stay under the British crown. Paul Revere was deeply political and fully against the continuation of British rule. Copley was completely uninterested in politics wanted to remain neutral. That way he could gain sitters from both sides of the debate. Copley was performing a balancing act according to Artchive, but this was the year when he wrote that he felt it was time to leave America and go to live in England., although he did not actually leave for another 6 years.The incorporating of objects associated with the sitters as well as his skill that set his work apart, something he seems to have learnt when in 1755 he met up with English artist Joseph Blackburn, whose use of color and rococo style were large influences. So much was Blackburn an influence that one at least of Copley’s pictures, ‘The Royall Sisters’ was, until relatively recently, ascribed to him according to Barbara Parker. Gentlemen were shown with their guns and dogs, ladies amongst fine furnishings and perhaps with pets. He was able to show relaxed poses and animation of expression as in the portraits of Mr and Mrs Benjamin Pickman. Parker ( page 9) likens these portrayals as similar to work by Reynolds, but with the directness of artists such as William Hogarth, known for his telling portrayals of London life.. Such settings created the desired mood and set his work apart from the mediocre. In the picture of Revere he is shown coatless, but his shirt is linen. Linen was not supposed to be made in the colonies and so his flowing sleeves, made from American linen are a political statement. There is also a teapot on the table. The Revere family were apparently a little ashamed of the picture, feeling that it did not show him as a gentleman, but the lack of a coat was quite deliberate.

Copley had for himself no strong political feelings, but he had married into the loyalist Clarke family owners of the ill fated tea concession. In December 1773 the Sons of Liberty dumped tea imported by his father-in-law into Boston harbor .Commissions fell away off and he at risk so John Singleton Copley sailed for Europe for his Grand Tour in June of 1774. In 1776 he began to work on devotional pictures in Italy, and in the same year moved, along with his family, to London, as war loomed in America. At last he was able to paint the historical works paintings for which the American colonists had no use. He created works such as ‘The Red Cross Knight’ a scene from Edmund Spenser’s ‘Faerie Queene’ of 1590. Using his children as the models this would be his only work inspired by literature.  He even used contemporary events as the subject matter for large scale paintings. Copley became a member of the prestigious Royal Academy of Art His style changed as brush strokes became more evident and lighter, more striking colors were used. His first important work in London was ’Watson and the shark’ according to Nicholas Pioch on the 2002 Webmuseum Paris web page. It was a depiction of a real life event, when his friend Brook Watson lost his leg to a shark attack in Havana harbor. This was a portrayal of a common theme of the time – man’s struggle with nature. These pictures brought him fame but did not bring great monetary reward. By 1790 his health, his creative productivity and so his reputation began to decline. He continued to work in London as a portrait painter, but it is felt that he lost his sense of originality along the way, merely painting what the fashionable people wanted.

Barbara Neville Parker, writing in 1938, the 200th anniversary of Copley’s birth, stated that ‘American painting, judged according to international artistic standards, can hardly be said to have commanded much attention until recently’, but cites Copley as standing out above the other artists ( page 7). Even today, at a time when styles have changed completely his work has a freshness and relevance that is outstanding.



Biography of John Singleton Copley, Maritime Art, Greenwich, retrieved 20th December 2008 from

Copley,J.S. ‘The Red Cross Knight’, The National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C., retrieved 20th December 2008 from

Copley, John Singleton, Paul Revere, Artchive, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, retrieved 20th December 2008 from

Douglas, A.(March 2001), John Singleton Copley, Suite 101, retrieved 20th December 2008 from

Parker, B.N.,(1938) John Singleton Copley, American Portraits in Oil, Pastel and Miniature, Boston, Museum of Fine Arts, Retrieved from Questia Online Library, 20th December 2008,

Pioch, N.(2002) Copley, John Singleton, Webmuseum, Paris, retrieved 20th December 2008 from