Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Copley's Concern About Being "A True Artist"

I have been fretting about John Singleton Copley's worry that as a painter living in the Anglo American colonies, he was just an artisan painting portraits. He longed to become a true artist whose paintings elevated society. His artist stepfather Peter Pelham, a professional purvayor of culture and art who immigrated to Boston from England in the 1720s, would have been well aware of the discussion of the lofty status of an artist in England.

Recently, while reading the earliest copies of the Maryland Gazette on the Maryland State Archives website, I came upon this article, and I understood Copley's tension and disappointment more clearly. The composition is surely a reflection on Horace's Ars poetica, "Ut pictura poesis" -- "as is painting, so is poetry."
This essay first appeared in England called The Free Thinker in 1718. It appeared in Maryland in ten years later in 1728, in the 3rd issue of the first Maryland newspaper ever printed.

The Maryland Gazette From Tuesday, December 17, to Tuesday, December 24, 1728.

Ut Pitura Poesses erit. --
The Verses, in the Close of this Paper, furnish me with a proper Occasion to make a few Reflections, upon Poetry and Painting, which may not be unacceptable to such as delight in Either, or Both, of These Arts.
The surprizing Excellency, which is peculiar to a Great Poet, is the Skill of conveying to Another, by the Help of Words, those just and lively Ideas, which rise in his Imagination, in the same Force and Perspicuity, as He himself conceives them. Words, in His Disposal, are Things : And, the Deception proves so strong, that the Reader forgets he is perusing a Piece of Writing or, at least, takes the Poem for a Book of Magick, which (as he passes from one Period to another) surrounds him with amazing Objects and drives him from Passion to Passion ; transporting him into Joys and Griefs, Pleasures and Pains, with a Violence not to be refilled.
The Perfection of a Master-Painter is, to be able to perform the same Wonders by Colours, which the Poet commands by Language. His Ideas pass from his Mind into his Pencil, and rise upon the Canvas in their full Vigour and Proportion. His every Touch is a Creation : The Canvas is no longer a level, lifeless Surface ; but a Scene, diversify with Buildings, Mountains, Forrests; or, perhaps, a Sea, deformed with Tcmpels ; a Sky, enraged with Storms, flashing out Lightning; and Clouds, bursting with Thunder : Or, a Field of War, stained with Blood, and filled with Uproar and Confusion : Or, perhaps, the silent, solitary Retreat of Sorrow and Despair ; or, if he pleases, the Enchanted Bower of Bliss, the Residence of Love and Beauty.
Such is the Efficacy of Words and Numbers; and such the Energy of Lights and Shades, under the Conduct of a superiour Genius : Both equally wonderful in their Operations; both equally Pleasing: But not alike Infinitive; in which Point, the Poet unquestionably claims Preminence over the Painter.
It would be hard to determine which of these Two Arts require the greater Power of Imagination, the longer Term of Experience and the more unwearied Application. It seems equally difficult to paint in Words, or in Colours; so as to impose the One upon the Reader, and the Other on the Beholder, for Realities. The Great Poet, and the Great Painter, think alike : But, They express their Thoughts by very difierent Powers. The Painter's Language is his Colours : The Poet's Colours are his Diction. The strongest Colouring will fade ; and the most significant Words grow obsolete. Many of the most celebrated Writings of Antiquity are preserved : The Paintings are all perished. The Painter is equally understood in all Nations: And the Poet can distribute every One of his Performances into the Hands of all his Countreymen.

The Poet and the Painter may mutually improve one another, by judiciously perusing each others Works. The Similitudes, the Descriptions, and Metaphors of the One ; the Landskips, Figures, and Postures, of the Other, equally tend to regulate, and enliven, the Imagination. The violent Motions of Nature are so very Transient, that it is diffcult to catch distinct Ideas of them from the Life: Whereas, when a Great Painter has fixed a Passion in a Face, the Poet may there study the Workings of it in the Features, at his Leisure: And the Painter may, in his Turn, receive the like Advantage from the Poet.

It is true, the greatest Skill in these Artists, when they arrive to the Perfection of copying happily One from the Other. There is not the least Resemblance between Words and Colours, as there is between different Languages : And therefore, it requires a strong Faculty of Imaging, and a just Manner of Thinking, to be able to Translate out of One of These into the Other, without loosing the Spirit.
To read the Maryland Gazette online go to

Throughout the 18th century, the Maryland Gazette was published in Annapolis, Maryland. Annapolis, Anne Arundel County: Printed by W. Parks, 1727-1734; Printed by Jonas Green and William Rind, 1758-1765; Printed by Jonas Green, 1765-1767; Printed by Anne C. Green, 1767; Printed by Anne C. and William Green, 1768-1770; Printed by Anne C. Green, 1770-1771; Printed by Anne C. Green and Son, 1772-1775; Printed by Frederick Green, 1776-1777; Printed by Frederick and Samuel Green, 1779-1811. .