John Singleton Copley was born on July 3, 1738, and died in London, on September 9, 1815. Although the son of Irish tobacconists was born in Boston, he was greatly influenced by his stepfather's knowlege of & association with English & European emmigrant artists. Copley's stepfather, Peter Pelham, (1695-1751) was a London painter & engraver who taught art, manners, & merchandizing to the talented youngster growing up amid his stepfather's collections of English portrait prints.
Pelham immigrated to Boston in the 1720s, and placed "Proposals" for printing his engravings in the Boston News-Letter on February 27, 1728. He supplemented his painting & engraving income by teaching "...Dancing, Writing, Reading, Arthemetick, Painting upon Glass and all sorts of Needlework."
1755 John Singleton Copley (1738-1815). Portrait of a Woman.
Pelham did not focus on educating only the young. The year that Copley's mother married the engraver, the Boston Gazette of September 20, 1748, noted, "Mr. Pelham's Writing and Arithmetick School near the Town House, (during the winter) will be open from candle light till nine in the evening, as usual, for the benefit of those employed in Business all the Day." Copley's stepfather Peter Pelham set about educating & refining Boston's up-and-coming merchants & artisans in part to create a client base for his artistic ventures.
1756 John Singleton Copley (1738-1815). Lucretia Hubbard Towsend.
In 1732, Pelham had initiated a a series of dance assemblies triggering the ire of one traditional Bostonian, who predicted that the assemblies would result in "immorality, pride, envy, and Biblical prodigality."
1761 John Singleton Copley (1738-1815). Hannah Hill (Mrs. Samuel Quincy).
The conflict raged in the Boston Gazette from November 13 - December 4, 1732. Pelham & his supporters defended the assemblies as a school teaching not just dance but also proper behavior to Boston's citizens. Surely proper behavior would appeal to Puritan sensibilites.
The young Copley's stepfather sought comfort in associating with fellow artists recently arrived in the colonies from England & the continent. He befriended fellow artist John Smibert (1688-1748) who painted portraits & copies of old master paintings as well as selling art prints & supplies in their Boston neighborhood.
After Copley's stepfather died when he was 13, Copley was eager for influences beyond traditional, Puritan Boston. He soon met another artist Joseph Blackburn (active 1752–1777) newly arrived in Boston, whose portraits reflected the late 17th century Lely-Kneller baroque style & the 18th century rococo style.
1764 John Singleton Copley (1738-1815). Catherine Osborne (Mrs. Epes Sargent).
Copley immediately recognized that Blackburn's style reflected just the influences, which Copley had begun to absorb from pouring over his stepfather's prints. Copley had inherited his stepfather's art tools in 1751, and he set about imitating rococo poses, compositions, & themes from Blackburn’s work & from those English prints.
1765 John Singleton Copley (1738-1815). Elizabeth Deering Wentworth Gould (Mrs. Nathaniel Rogers)
At the beginning of his career, Copley was also influenced by artists working nearby in Boston: Joseph Badger (1707/8–1765), Robert Feke (about 1708–1751), & John Greenwood (1729–1792).
Copley learned to paint intricate layers of hair, flesh, textiles, & other props with dramatic contrasts of light & dark. He combined that realistic portrayal of his sitters with elegance & fantasy by borrowing settings, costumes, & compostions from 17th & 18th century English mezzotints and from neighboring painters.
1765 John Singleton Copley (1738-1815). Katherine Russell (Mrs. Samuel Henley).
Young Copley was growing into perhaps the best artist in the 18th century colonies. His cleverness was exceeded only by his growing ego & by his longing to become part of that rarified English art community he had heard so much about since childhood. In the colonies, Copley felt he was only an artisan working in a cultural wasteland.
1765 John Singleton Copley (1738-1815). Mary Storer (Mrs Edward Green).
In Copley's colonial sphere, affluent Boston & New York merchant elite paid to have their likeness painted, so that's what Copley did. His literal depictions of the faces of his subjects, regardless of the fancy costumes & backgrounds Copley might invent for them, were exactly what the gentry colonists wanted.
1765 John Singleton Copley (1738-1815). Mrs. Joseph Scott.
These British Americans were becoming increasingly proud of America's exceptionalism & their personal individualism. Colonials realized that their Anglo American society, built on trade & accomplishment rather than tradition & aristocracy, was a world where familiar powers and institutions were shifting.
But Copley believed that a mere portrait painter was not a true artist who sould possess a noble & lofty mind and paint historical allegories of grand purpose. He longed to be ranked among the enlightened artists abroad who sought to extoll public virtue & broaden civilization through their work.
1767-69 John Singleton Copley (1715-1738). Elizabeth Green (Mrs. Ebenezer Storer II).
He lamented in a letter, "A taste of painting is too much wanting...and was it not for preserving the resemblance of particular persons, painting would not be known in the place. The people generally regard it as no more than any other useful trade...like that of a carpenter, tailor, or shoemaker, not as one of the most Noble arts in the world. Which is more than a little Mortifying to me."
Colonial women & their fashion were a little too commonplace for him. Copley complained to Pennsylvania expatriate Benjamin West, that in order to dress his female subjects in the latest styles, he would have to import the gowns himself from England.
1767 John Singleton Copley (1738-1815). Mrs. George Turner.
This wasn't exactly true, because Copley seemed to have no guilt about copying fashionable costumes from the latest English prints. And he wasn't shy about painting the same dress again & again on his too plain American sitters.
In 1765, hungry to hear some "informed" criticism of his work, he sent a portrait to London. Joshua Reynolds wrote him, "Considering the disadvantages you labored under, it is a very wonderful performance. … You would be a valuable acquisition to the art … provided you could receive these aids … before your manner and taste were corrupted or fixed by working in your little way in Boston."
1770 John Singleton Copley (1738-1815). Ann Holmes (Mrs. William Coffin).
Copley wrote to his step-brother Peter Pelham that he longed to travel across the Atlantic ''to be heated with the sight of the enchanting Works of a Raphael, a Rubens, Corregio and a Veronese.''
1770 John Singleton Copley (1738-1815). Elizabeth Goldthwait (Mrs. Alexander Cumming).
Refering to Reynold's opinion of his work, already expatriated Benjamin West advised Copley to follow his example by making "a viset to Europe for this porpase (of self-improvement) for three or four years."
1770 John Singleton Copley (1738-1815). Susanna Clarke (Mrs. John Singleton Copley).
In a letter to West in the fall of 1766, Copley referred to himself as "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." Copley finally sailed from Boston in the summer of 1774, to find noble glory in Europe & England, never to return.
1772 John Singleton Copley (1738-1815). Dorothy Quincy (Mrs. John Hancock).
John Singleton Copley wrote to his half brother from England in 1775, “It is a pleasing reflection that I shall stand amongst the first of the artist’s that shall have led that Country to the Knowledge and cultivation of the fine Arts.”
1772 John Singleton Copley (1738-1815). Dorothy Wendell (Mrs. Richard Skinner).
Writing to his wife Abigail a year later in 1776, John Adams, second president of the United States, described Copley as ''the greatest master that ever was in America.'' Copley would have agreed..