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 of the thirteen children born to John and Frances Pinckney Gore (c. 1755), display a dark-eyed vitality and passages of fine detail. The heads of Ann Tyng (1756) and Theodore Atkinson, Jr. (1757–1758), have the linear, not-quite-three-dimensional look of heads by a gifted folk artist like Erastus Salisbury Field; but Atkinson’s vest of white silk embroidered with silver is rendered with a meticulous, dazzling vividness, and in the portrait of the two young Royall sisters (c. 1758), the superb treatment of the girls’ radiant silks is matched by a confident psychological differentiation of their faces and bearings. Copley at the age of twenty has a mature style that leaves the portraits by Smibert—to judge by the examples reproduced in the exhibition catalog—far behind.

If one attends sufficiently to the surfaces, the interior takes care of itself: this could be the moral of Copley’s American portraits. They rarely strive for expressiveness and hold to the restraining contemporary standards of polite behavior, which proposed to the genteel classes a “moderately cheerful” demeanor discreetly enlivened by a “gentle and silent smile.” Exceptions, perhaps, are the celebrated images of Paul Revere (1768) and Sam Adams (1770–1772), in which, respectively, a workman’s garb and tools and an orator’s pugnacious forefinger seem to proclaim democratic vigor and the coming Revolution; Revere’s gaze, however, though direct, is more meditative than combative, and even Adams wears a kind of smile above his table of combustive documents. Both these brownish portraits of blunt men have a certain Puritan woodenness, and neither is typical of Copley, who was and is celebrated for the splendor of raiment in which he posed his provincial gentry. The gray silk vest of Moses Gill (1764)! The blue satin sacque dress of Mercy Otis Warren (c. 1763)!


The catalog, itself sumptuous, carries a heavy burden of individual essays—eight, plus the sometimes lengthy individual texts for the eighty-one paintings, pastels, and miniatures. One essay, by Aileen Ribeiro, eruditely inventories the clothes in Copley, as he strove to keep up with Old World fashions, with all their proprieties of wig and décolletage, goffered frills and broderie anglaise. Another essay, by Paul Staiti, deals with “Character and Class” and the pictorial reassurances sought by Boston’s rich but embattled merchant class. Some of Copley’s subjects, such as Nathaniel Sparhawk (1764), look merely incongruous, regally posed in a many-buttoned velvet suit amid pillars and arches of a Roman grandeur, while some, like Mrs. Jeremiah Lee (1769), are downright ridiculous, as she gingerly balances a lapful of fruit while trailing an ermine-trimmed pelisse over a pumpkin-colored caftan. “This is not the kind of outfit,” the catalog mildly comments, “that an American woman would have worn in public; rather, it is like a masquerade costume, intended as part of a Turkish fantasy.” “Turquerie” was evidently as fashionable for Copley’s generation as japanoiserie was for Whistler’s.

It is right and proper to study the material and sociological accoutrements of Copley’s portraits, but surely their essential feature is the sitters’ alert human presence. If the honest merchants and their plump, long-suffering wives look uncomfortable in high-class masquerade, it is because Copley has put enough of their real selves there to register their discomfort. Other of his subjects, such as the flamboyant textile importer Nicholas Boylston (painted in 1767 and repainted c. 1769) and the beautiful English wife of General Thomas Gage, the commander-in-chief of the British forces in North America, do live up to their dress-up and appear quite dashing. The portrait of Mrs. Gage (1771), née Margaret Kemble, is one of Copley’s most splendid canvases, and one of the few where his honest eye has found a woman he can render as other than plain. Another is Sarah Langdon, the young wife of a wealthy Portsmouth, New Hampshire, merchant, who looks very handsome in his own posh clothes and the generalized setting of Arcadian artifice.

Like an old-time studio photographer, Copley posed his clients in their best clothes and among props suggesting social aspiration; but like the camera he could not lie. The tricks of English glamorization were not in his American nature. His old people, like Epes Sargent (c. 1760) and Mrs. Humphrey Devereux (1771), have bloated, wrinkled hands and bags under their eyes. His fat people, such as Moses Gill and Reverend Myles Cooper (1768–1769), look fat, and those with pox scars and hair moles—Mr. Staiti assembles a quartet of details to demonstrate—are rendered moles and all. What Copley’s many women subjects lack in conventional beauty they make up in nervous energy, expressed as a certain alert tension when young (Mrs. Richard Skinner, 1772; Mrs. Samuel Quincy, c. 1761) and as a collusive wryness when older (Mrs. John Winthrop, 1773; Mrs. Isaac Smith, 1769). While the clouds of rebellion and war were lowering, Copley’s backgrounds darkened and simplified, emphasizing the inner lives of these descendants of the Puritans. As Theodore E. Stebbins, Jr., points out in his essay “An American Despite Himself,” Copley adopted, in such a portrait as that of John Bours (c. 1770), the dreaming, introspective attitude reserved, in European portraiture, for distinguished philosophers and poets, and extended this thoughtful pose to women—a considerable innovation in a prefeminist era.

His mercantile clients must have liked his honesty as well as his skillful social catering. Copley observed, in one of his complaining letters to artists abroad, that likeness was the “main part of the excellency of a portrait in the oppinion of our New England Conoseurs.” (Copley’s spelling, like his sometimes awkward drawing, betrays the gaps in his self-education: commenting on the war, he wrote of “tassit disapprobation” and “Ocians of blood.”) Paul Staiti speaks of his portraits in terms of accurate audits: “Since it claimed identity through an assemblage of discrete elements, Copley’s representation of a person’s character could be disassembled by a viewer into an inventory of an individual’s appearances and possessions.” Other art critics have posed a connection between realism and puritanism, those dominant American modes; Barbara Novak, in her American Painting of the Nineteenth Century, links Copley’s painting with the theology of Jonathan Edwards, both devoted to the “clarity of ‘things,’ ” The immense shroud of classical and medieval ideas was not sufficiently present in the New World to obscure the clarity of things; for both puritanism and realism, the altar is swept clean and intermediaries are removed.

Copley, writing to Benjamin West, a fellow American who had already made the escape back to England, yearned “to acquire that bold free and graceful stile of Painting that will, if ever, come much slower from the mere dictates of Nature, which has hither too been my only instructor.” Brush-strokes are almost invisible in his early work, submerged in the sought-for texture of skin, silk, fur: the idea of painting that confessed itself as painting, that invited the connoisseur to enjoy the bravura flourishes of Velázquez or Gainsborough, was at this point un-American, as was the concept of a person subsumed in his or her rank and social station. Copley’s subjects by and large remain individuals, and their spark of homely, nervous, embarrassed, stubborn, perky individuality strikes the viewer as forcefully as the paintings’ gorgeous material literalism.


The American Copley worked hard. Though his self-portraits show him in the fine clothes and impeccable wig of a gentleman, an observer of him, newly arrived in Rome, said, “he was very thin, pale, a little pock-marked, prominent eye-brows, small eyes, which, after fatigue, seemed a day’s march in his head.” He pursued his business—and in his milieu art had to be a business before it could be an art—with the driven zeal and ingenuity of an older Bostonborn entrepreneur, Benjamin Franklin. Nature being his only instructor, he knew no shortcuts: a client complained of having to sit for him “fifteen or sixteen times! six hours at a time!!” Another said that he made her sit twenty times for the hands alone. He himself wrote that his portraits were “almost allways good in proportion to the time I give them provided I have a subject that is picturesk.”

Realizing that pastels, at the height of their fashion in Europe, were much faster than oils, he taught himself the skills—in many ways the opposite of those of oil painting—in a city that lacked other pastelists or even an adequately full set of crayons. Having mastered the art of painting miniature portraits on copper in oils, he shifted to the notoriously tricky, but more luminous and fashionable, method of painting in watercolors on thin pieces of ivory. In all these side arts, he did beautiful work, work that excelled the standards being pursued about him. As Stuart P. Feld remarked apropos of a 1983 exhibit, Copley “painted far better than his society had any right to expect.” A member of that society, John Adams, traveling in 1776 to Philadelphia and viewing the work of Charles Willson Peale, pronounced him inferior to Copley, “the greatest Master that ever was in America.” High American art began with Copley, and—a bit disconcertingly—he knew it: “It is a pleasing reflection,” he wrote his half brother in 1775, “that I shall stand amongst the first of the artists that shall have led that Country to the Knowledge and cultivation of the fine Arts.”

A consummate and versatile professional, who even took a hand and a profit in the framing of his pictures, he held an exalted idea of art, of Art—“that Mighty Mountain,” he wrote a fellow artist, John Greenwood, in 1771, “where the Everlasting Lauriels grow to adoarn the brows of those Elustrious Artists that are so favoured of Heaven as to be able to unravel the intricate mazes of its rough and perilous Asent.” With a push from political developments, he went, three years later, to the Old World in pursuit of those everlasting laurels. After arriving in England, he promptly toured the Continent to see the paintings he had idolized in colonial isolation. He settled and painted for a year in Italy, and then returned to London to secure a place in the English art establishment, wherein “history painting”—large tableaux on elevating subjects drawn from the Bible, the Greek legends, and European history—was considered the most exalted genre, and the measure of a painter’s greatness. The trouble was, there was little market for history paintings, save in the immaterial realms of prestige.

In Copley’s forty years in England—he died in 1815, poor—he sold only two history paintings that had not been commissioned, though he reaped some reward from exhibition admission fees and the sale of prints based on the paintings. He did portraits, but with nothing like the steady success of his colonial heyday. He was a member of the Royal Academy, but had several quarrels with it, and in British acceptance always lagged behind his fellow émigré and exact contemporary, the Pennsylvanian Benjamin West, who had come to England a dozen years earlier, helped found the Royal Academy, became its second president, and had been appointed historical painter to the King. A third American artist in England, the very facile and popular Gilbert Stuart, spoke patronizingly of Copley as an industrious worker in paint, whose finicking at skin tones produced “labored flesh” that resembled “tanned leather.” Another younger painter, Samuel F.B. Morse, visited Copley in 1811 and observed, “It is really a lamentable thing that a man should outlive his faculties.” The ascent to the everlasting laurels indeed proved rough and perilous.

In two stately walnut-paneled rooms of our National Gallery, a choice selection of Copley’s English works invites reconsideration of the frequently expressed view that he painted better in America: Marsden Hartley wrote that “a kind of compromising softness” crept into his work, and Lloyd Goodrich claimed that Copley “exchanged the integrity of his American style for the graces of a decadant tradition.” When Copley had written from the uncouth colonies for advice, West criticized the specimen work “as being to liney, which was judged to have arose from there being so much neetness in the lines,” and Sir Joshua Reynolds pointed to “a little Hardness in the Drawing, Coldness in the Shades, An over minuteness.” Copley was advised to feather his brush strokes and avoid what Thomas Sully called his “hard terminations.”

These critics had seen Boy with a Squirrel (1765), which Copley had submitted to the London Society of Artists show in 1766. The painting is a bit schizoid: the mahogany table top, the water glass, the pet flying squirrel with his gold chain, and the subject’s cuffs and collars are all done with a literalist “neetness” and glistening minuteness, whereas the profiled head of young Henry Pelham, the painter’s half brother, has an English softness, with an ideal complexion, plump pink lips, and a raptly staring eye. The Copley Family (1776–1777), the large self-celebrative canvas with which Copley announced his arrival on the London art scene, shows an American literalism in the Oriental rug, the embroidered silk footstool, and the creased, brown, sour face of Copely’s father-in-law, and an English mistiness in the heads of the children and their mother. The rather touchingly crowded figures—a heap of reunited Copleys—do not seem to be all breathing the same atmosphere.

By the time he painted Mrs. Clark Gayton (1779), Copley had the flowing brush strokes and implied swagger of British high style under thorough control, though the Yankee in him could not quite ignore her double chin or avoid a botanical detailing of the potted geranium on her windowsill. The portraits of her husband, in his opulently embroidered admiral’s uniform, and of a kilted Major Hugh Montgomerie (1780), are magnificent, against their stormy backgrounds of martial activity, yet—dare one say it?—charmless. Only in the background figures of half-naked Indian braves does the obsequious painter seem to be indulging his own interests.

My reactions may be too American. Entering the exhibit’s main salon, I winced to see so many bright redcoats and pompous lords rendered immortal by an Irish son of Boston’s waterfront. Copley’s subjects no longer sit with that disarmingly embarrassed air of his New England merchants. John, 2nd Viscount Dudley and Ward (1781–1804) and Baron Graham (1804),. by a painter now firmly ensconced in the grand manner, fill their large canvases with red robes, ermine trim, and miens of authority. The works are magnificent, but faintly oppressive and slick.

Not slick is the ethereal, noble portrait of the young John Quincy Adams, who looks as though he might have the beginnings of a cold. Adams, a punctilious diarist, noted the seven London sessions in 1796, and conversations with the painter, nearing sixty, whose Loyalist political opinions the future President found “not accurate” and “almost intolerable.” Yet Copley’s views on the Revolution were ambiguous. Another American, the twenty-four-year-old merchant Elkanah Watson, received the full redcoat treatment, heroically leaning against a pillar while his face is bathed in light and his vest stretched by a fashionably big belly. While Watson—abroad during much of the war but no Loyalist—was posing in late 1782, King George III formally recognized the United States of America. In Watson’s telling, Copley, “with a bold hand, a master’s touch, and I believe an American heart,” painted the Stars and Stripes onto the mast of a ship in the background.

Yet the portrait is so full of flair and bravado as to lack the intimacy of the anecdote; the males of Copley’s English portraits tend to present an opaque and intimidating front. The women, whether ancient like the probably misidentified Mrs. Seymour Fort (c. 1778) and the breeze-whipped, grandly behatted Mrs. Daniel Denison Rogers (c. 1784), do have a gaze, though it comes from within a well-fortified sense of their own status. In this latter portrait, and in that of the two Western brothers (1783), English breeziness seems caricatured, by a stranger to the climate. Of the many intensely skilled portraits on display, only the shadowy, jaunty Midshipman Augustus Brine (1782) and Copley’s loosely painted head of himself (1780–1784) escape into an unstudied liveliness; both are painted dashingly, and the facial expressions call for second looks—the brine boy is elfin and challenging, and Copley off in a sad reverie, as if contemplating the sacrifices it takes to make an artist a gentleman. This was a hotly debated issue, in the wake of the Earl of Shaftesbury’s carefully reasoned verdict, early in the eighteenth century, that painters, because they used their hands, could never rise above the status of “mechanick.”

And, in an age when painting performed tasks now assigned to photographs and newspapers, and tried to provide rallying points for the populace, the art did have a mechanical aspect. Copley’s religious paintings left me unmoved. Mary’s clean white garb and antiseptically pillowed infant in The Nativity (1776–1777) seemed incongruous even to the contemporary critics, and the most successful, Samuel Relating to Eli the Judgments of God upon Eli’s House (1780), is also the most textural and least populated; Eli’s white beard and the hand suspended before his bejewelled bib are marvels of “liney” minuteness. Copley perhaps should not be blamed for the resistance that stagey reconstructions of the past set up in a late-twentieth-century breast. History paintings are, like verse epics and Fifties musical comedies, constructions built on conventions based on suppositions to which we have lost the key. The two big jewels, or baubles, of the exhibit, much admired and discussed in their times and a source of pride to the painter, shatter our attention into a restless search for redeeming details.

The Death of Major Peirson (1782–1784), which Emily Ballew Neff describes in her catalog essay as “the climactic work of Copley’s English career, his greatest success both artistically and commercially,” is here displayed, on loan from the Tate Gallery, along with seventeen preparatory drawings and an oil sketch from a total of seven collections. It is hard to see it, despite Ms. Neff’s sympathetic enthusiasm, as other than a spectacular expenditure of skill in a jingoistic cause, a celebration—in the teeth of British defeat in the colonies—of British valor and sacrifice in a skirmish on the Island of Jersey, which the French had invaded in 1781. At least Benjamin West’s Death of General Wolfe (1770), though posed with a melodramatic nicety that now seems unreal, alluded to a pivotal historical moment whose consequences, as it happens, reverberate in today’s headlines. Major Peirson’s distinction was to have rallied British troops after the captured and none too brave Lieutenant-Governor had ignominiously surrendered the island.

In Copley’s painting, the central group clusters an excessive number of men in a campy clot of solicitude around the inverted figure of the major, slain by a French bullet in the moment of victory. His long fair hair flows down; a drop of his blood can be seen suspended in midair by his limp hand. A black soldier is intently shooting the Frenchman who fired the perfidious bullet; a giant Union Jack waves above; a group of distressed women and children on the right register the horror of war. The painting of the rifles and bayonets, and the details of the officers’ uniforms, is amazingly crisp, picked out in linear white highlights, but the emotional highlight is, at the crammed center of the canvas, amid much furious gesturing, the tender embrace and loverly gaze being bestowed by a comrade upon the female beauty of the relaxed, upended major.

A cascade of blonde hair also distinguishes the central figure of Watson and the Shark (1778), but this is far from the only thing queer about it. Watson, fourteen years old at the time of the actual incident—bathing in Havana Harbor, he was attacked by a shark, but was rescued—is naked, with the build of a mature man; he and the shark, who share the watery foreground in exactly equal proportions, both have similarly gaping mouths, and appear equally at a loss as to the next step in their relationship. Above them, a small boat has somehow not yet sunk under its load of nine alarmed passengers, who variously reach, stab, and stare. Above them, the harbor of Havana, which Copley took from prints, presents a towered silhouette under a sweeping Gainsboroughesque sky. Watson’s right leg, which was historically bitten off below the knee, discreetly trails off the painting’s lower edge; whether we are witnessing the shark’s assault or Watson’s rescue is unclear.

This picture made Copley’s reputation in England and is probably his best-known canvas, existing in duplicate—one owned by the National Gallery and the other by Boston’s Museum of Fine Art. It is its naive weirdness, however, which lodges it in the mind: the water is diaphanous and transparent, like a set of veils; the shark is oddly dignified, with the bulging brow and watchful eye of a senior statesman; and Watson’s nudity, though explicable as the contemporary male swimming uniform, is a shocker. American literalism meets European history painting in a gothic, Boschian dream. Romanticism was on the way. Copley’s placement of a black man (brother to an excellent oil sketch, Head of a Negro, from the same period) set a precedent not only for the black soldier in The Death of Major Peirson but for the Negro figure in Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa (1817).

Dreamlike, too, with a firmer grip on nature, is Copley’s flowery, doggy, parotty The Three Youngest Daughters of George III (1785). The profusion of the painting roused criticism at the time, but the lavish outpouring of embowering natural detail forms a homage to the richness of royal blood, and the three princesses with their cavorting pets make a bright and coherent group at the center of it all, a pale swirl of pink-and-white girlhood with very precise hands and feet. It is pleasant to read that when the girls and dogs became “wearied” during the many sittings, Benjamin West went to the monarch with assurances “that Copley must be allowed to proceed in his own way, and that any attempt to hurry him might be injurious to the picture, which would be a very fine one when done.” The King and the weary princesses acceded, and the beautifully completed painting now adorns the collection of Queen Elizabeth II. The Englishing of John Singleton Copley, in many ways a disappointing process, attains a triumph here, as well as in a heartening posthumous development: his son John, Jr., a chubby, smiling pre-schooler in The Copley Family, and the model for the woeful boy in The Death of Major Peirson, became a lawyer, a member of Parliament, and, in 1827, Baron Lyndhurst, thrice appointed Lord High Chancellor of Great Britain.

This Issue

December 21, 1995