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Tuesday, 3 June 2014

John Singleton Copley (1738 – 1815) - America's First Old Master


John Singleton Copley was America's foremost painter of the 18th century. He was born in Boston, the son of Richard and Mary Copley, who had recently immigrated from Ireland. The death of young Copley's father and his mother's subsequent marriage to the English-trained engraver Peter Pelham in 1748 introduced the youth to an atmosphere where prints, paintings, and artist's supplies were familiar household accessories. Copley certainly receive dome training from his stepfather. The copies of old masters remaining in the studio at one time occupied by John Smibert gave him some idea of the traditions of European painting. 

Copley's earliest works, some of them copies after allegorical prints, date from 1753 and 1754; by 1755 he had established himself as a professional painter in Boston, turning out stiff but competent likeness in the manner of John Greenwood and Joseph Badger. The appearance of Joseph Blackburn in New England  in 1754 had an immediate effect on his style, and within a few years Copley had surprassed Blackburn's repetitive rococo formulas, probably causing the visiting foreigner to seek his fortune elsewhere. Like virtually all the colonial portraitists, Copley was influenced by the stock compositions readily available in the form of British mezzotints, but gradually he developed a personal and penetrating style, in which he effectively captured the character of the mercantile aristocracy of the pre-Revolutionary Boston.

From the outset of his career, despite his isolation in provincial Boston, Copley had been intensely interested in improving his work to meet international standards. Writing to West and Reynolds in London, he complained bitterly about the lack of interest in painting in America. "Was it not for preserving the resemblance of particular persons," he wrote, "painting would not be known in this place." Repeatedly, he sought advice from his English contemporaries, and, finally, in 1766, he nervously submitted his Boy with the Squirrel, a portrait of his half-brother Henry Pelham (private collection), to the Society of Artists in London, where, a friend of his reported , "it was universally allowed to be the best Picture of its kind that appeared on that occasion." With such evidence of Copley's ability, West and Reynolds urged him to study England before his "Manner and Taste were corrupted or fixed by working in...[his] little way at Boston."

Boy With a Squirrel by John Singleton Copley 1765.

Meanwhile, however, Copley's marriage in 1769 to the daughter of a prominent Boston merchant and his increasing prosperity in the provincial capital discouraged him from giving up the security of his well-planted roots in favor of the uncertain benefits of international study and travel. He temporarily abandoned plans to go to Europe, and with expanding reputation throughout the colonies, made arrangements for a painting trip to New York in 1771. A list of subscribers awaited his arrival and the enthusiasm with which he was greeted detained him in the city for six months.

 After several more years of feverish activity in Boston, Copley finally sailed for Europe in 1774. On the Continent he followed the traditional pilgrimage route of the traveling artist, visiting the great galleries to see the old masters and pausing briefly to execute an original painting or a copy. 

The Death of the Earl of Chatham by John Singleton Copley. c. 1779-1781.

The Siege and Relief of Gibraltar. c.1782-83.

The Tribute Money, 1782.

The Death of Major Peirson, 6 January 1781. c 1783.

Returning to England, where he was reunited with his family, who had fled from the Revolution at home, Copley soon became an important figure in the London art world. In 1776 he was elected an Associate for the Royal Academy, and in 1783 he became interested in history painting. To meet the increasing artistic demands of such projects as The Death of Chatham, The Siege of Gibraltar, The Tribute Money, and The Death of Major Pierson, he began to make a large number of preparatory drawings and oil sketches. His style of painting changed, too, and in place of the "liney" technique of his Boston portraits, he adopted a bolder and more vigorous brushstroke in the manner of his English and continental contemporaries. Although many of his later works have been severely criticized, some of them are of excellent quality and should not be condemned because of their departure from the more familiar and more intimate style of Copley's American portraits. Although always considered an American painter, Copley spent more than half his career in England working as a member of the British School. He died in London. 

The Return of Neptune, ca. 1754
The Return of Neptune

Three of Copley's earliest surviving works have mythological subjects derived from prints that he undoubtedly obtained from the shop of his painter-engraver stepfather, Peter Pelham. The Return of Neptune was based on an engraving of 1749 by Simon Francois Ravenet after a design by the Italian painter Andrea Casali. The subject is a stock cliche of Italian painting. The god of the sea, a bearded old man, moves over the waves of his watery domain in triumphal shallop drawn by a quadriga of sea horses. Neptune is attended by mermaids, tritons, and marine amorini all bearing the proper attributes - kelp, conch, trident globe, and crown - or at the very least, as in the case of the mermaids, wearing suitable expressions of satisfaction and marine prepotency. One triton is winding a blast of foghorn notes upon a conch shell to herald the approach of Neptune. These classic elements are all composed to make a correct and grandiose of trite scheme.

A comparison of this painting with a copy of the engraving shows how closely and correctly Copley followed the print, and where he used his own ideas to modify the picture. The sea horses' heads, for instance, look blocky and strange in the painting, but this is the result of his having copied the forms exactly as the engraver showed them. On the other hand, Copley supplied a horizon line and left our one or two touches that were unclear in the engraving. His main contribution, however, was in the color (presumably not indicated on the engraving), which is, even at this early stage, typical of much of his later work. Its stark primitive style, depending heavenly upon silhouette, suggests that this painting is probably earlier than Copley's Mars, Venus and Vulcan, dated 1754, and his Galatea, also generally dated 1754; it was probably painted in 1753, to which year the earliest portraits attributed to him have also been assigned. 
Brook Watson and the Shark, 1778. 

Brook Watson and the Shark

Copley's well known history painting, Brook Watson and the Shark, created a sensation when it was shown at the Royal Academy in 1778. A critic for the London Morning Post numbered it among "the first performances" of the exhibition. "The softness of the coloring, the animation which is displayed in the countenances of the sailors, the efforts of the drowning boy, and the frightened appearance of the man assaulting the shark," he wrote, "constitute altogether a degree of excellence that reflects the highest honor on the composer." Although some critics thought that the postures of the figures were unconvincing, the shark was unreal, and the boat was not at a proper keel, most agreed with the General Advertiser  that the picture deserved "particularly to be praised."

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