John Singleton Copley in America 26, 1995–January 7, 1996.
John Singleton Copley in England 1995–January 7, 1996.
An art-lover peripatetic enough to journey from New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art to the National Gallery in Washington can survey, in one day, the two sides of John Singleton Copley: the American and the English. Copley, born in 1738 of humble Irish parents on Boston’s Long Wharf, achieved rapid prosperity as the Bay Colony’s preeminent portraitist, rendering, with a precocious and assiduous skill, the local merchants and landowners and their wives in settings and poses flatteringly suggestive of the English aristocracy. He married, as part of his assimilation into the New England upper classes, Susanna Farnham Clarke, whose father, Richard, was the wealthy, anglophilic Boston agent for the British East India Company. It was, in large part, Clarke’s tea that was famously dumped, in November of 1773, into the harbor, by revolutionaries painted up as Mohawk Indians.
Copley, who had written to Benjamin West of “Political contests being neighther pleasing to an artist or advantageous to Art itself,” had earlier repaired the damage done to his portrait of Governor Francis Bernard during the Townshend Acts crisis, when radical activists had entered Harvard Hall in Cambridge, where the canvas hung, and sliced out the area of the image’s heart. The breach in the colonies, however, became irreparable, and the tactful painter, unable finally to straddle it, emigrated—followed by his family and Tory inlaws—to London in June of 1774. He had long felt the “shackels” of pursuing artistic ideals in a mercenary land that offered him “neither precept, example, nor Models”—just the handsome annual income of three hundred pounds, accumulated at the rate of twenty guineas a portrait.
Copley’s breakthrough into the world of art had come under the tutelage of his émigré English stepfather, Peter Pelham, an engraver and schoolteacher who married Copley’s mother in 1748, when the boy was ten, his own father having died in the mid-1740s. Pelham himself died in 1751, but not before giving his stepson some training in the art of the mezzotint and the fundamentals of the art business. Copley’s earliest surviving work is a mezzotint portrait of the Reverend William Welsteed, which the teenager achieved by substituting Welsteed’s head on an engraving Pelham had executed after the portrait of another divine by John Smibert, an émigré Scotsman and the leading Boston artist during Copley’s childhood. The trades of engraver, silversmith, goldsmith, clockmaker, japanner, joiner, upholsterer, miniaturist, and artsupplies vender mingled shops in the commercial hurly-burly of New England’s foremost port—a mere town, by today’s standards, of less than sixteen thousand.
Young Copley put himself to school as a painter by copying into oils the prints of European mythological paintings that arrived on the New World’s shores. The current exhibit at the Met shows a breathtakingly swift progress from primitive stiffness of drawing and timidity of color to a marvelous mastery of textures, whether of skin, wood, velvet, or satin, along with a delicate vivacity of countenance and pose. Even his earliest portraits, of his stepbrother Charles Pelham (c. 1753–1754) and of four…
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