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
1947.15.1
Not on View
From the Tour: British and American History Paintings of the 1700s
Object 1 of 8

The Boston portraitist John Singleton Copley, urged by Benjamin West to further his artistic studies abroad, sailed for Europe in 1774. Within a few years, Copley had the necessary skills to undertake huge pictures of events from recent history.

On 7 April 1778, William Pitt, the 1st Earl of Chatham, rose to speak in London’s House of Lords. In the midst of a debate about the colonial revolutionaries, Pitt suffered a stroke and died one month later. His 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 his large canvas now in the Tate Gallery, London. Sunbeams pour through a roundel window over the throne canopy, spotlighting the stricken Pitt. Following 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. 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, the final ten-foot-wide canvas was displayed to popular acclaim in a private pavilion. How Copley had managed to persuade fifty-five noblemen to sit for their portraits became the talk of British society.

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