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Copley, John Singleton

American, 1738 - 1815


John Singleton Copley was born in Boston in 1738, and grew up there, training in the visual arts under his step-father Peter Pelham (c. 1697-1751), an English engraver who had immigrated in 1727 and married Copley's widowed mother in 1748. Copley's earliest paintings, from the mid-1750s, reveal the influence of English mezzotint portraits as well as the work of local and itinerant artists. He experimented with many media: oil on canvas, miniatures on copper or ivory, pastel, and printmaking. By the late 1750s he was established as a portrait painter.

Copley worked in Boston until 1774 with the exception of a six month painting trip to New York City in 1771. By the mid-1760s he wanted to compare his works with those by contemporaries in England, and in 1765 he sent a portrait of his half-brother Henry Pelham, Boy with a Squirrel, to the annual exhibition of the Society of Artists of Great Britain. Encouraged by Benjamin West and Joshua Reynolds, Copley left Boston for study in Europe. He left for London in 1774 and went almost immediately to Italy, where he spent more than a year, studying and painting. He returned to London in 1775, settling there with his wife and three of his children, who had come from Boston.

1776 marked the beginning of the second half of Copley's career. As his first work at the Royal Academy he exhibited The Copley Family, painted in 1777, followed by Watson and the Shark the next year. The success of these paintings brought him the praise of reviewers and earned him full membership in the academy. His ambition was to paint large history paintings of contemporary events, like those of Benjamin West, and he exhibited independently, charging admission, The Death of the Earl of Chatham (Tate Gallery), The Death of Major Pierson (Tate Gallery), and the Siege of Gibraltar (Guildhall Art Gallery, London). He also continued to paint portraits, many on a much larger scale than his American work. Copley died in London in 1815. [This is an edited version of the artist's biography published in the NGA Systematic Catalogue]


Letters and Papers of John Singleton Copley and Henry Pelham, 1739-1776. Boston, 1914.
Prown, Jules David. John Singleton Copley. 2 vols. Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1966.
Fairbrother, Trevor J. "John Singleton Copley's Use of British Mezzotints for his American Portraits: A Reappraisal Prompted by New Discoveries." Arts Magazine 55, no. 7 (March 1981): 122-130.
Shank, J. W. "John Singleton Copley's Portraits: A Technical Study of Three Representative Examples." Journal of the American Institute for Conservation 23 (1984): 130-152.
Miles, Ellen G. American Paintings of the Eighteenth Century. The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue. Washington, D.C., 1995: 20-21.

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