National Gallery of Art - THE COLLECTION
image of The Death of the Earl of Chatham John Singleton Copley (painter)
American, 1738 - 1815
The Death of the Earl of Chatham, 1779
oil on canvas
overall: 52.7 x 64.2 cm (20 3/4 x 25 1/4 in.) framed: 79.7 x 91.6 x 6.7 cm (31 3/8 x 36 1/16 x 2 5/8 in.)
Gift of Mrs. Gordon Dexter
Not on View
From the Tour: John Singleton Copley
Object 9 of 12

On 7 April 1778, William Pitt, the first earl of Chatham, rose to speak in the House of Lords. In the midst of debate about the colonial revolutionaries, he suffered a stroke. The earl’s death removed one of Britain’s leading political moderates during the critical years of the American War of Independence. This small oil painting is Copley’s preliminary compositional sketch for a large canvas now in the Tate Gallery, London.

In proper academic procedure, Copley first used browns and grays to work out the overall distribution of the scene before considering the color scheme and details. Sunshine pours in from a roundel window over the throne canopy, spotlighting the stricken Pitt. The pencil lines drawn over this study create a proportional grid called “squaring” that enabled the artist to transfer and enlarge the design. In 1781, after two years’ work, Copley installed his ten-foot-wide picture in a pavilion and charged admission to his popular one-work show. How Copley had persuaded fifty-five noblemen to sit for their portraits became the talk of British society.

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