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John Singleton Copley (American, 1738-1815)


John Singleton Copley, the foremost artist in colonial America, was virtually self-taught as a portraitist. By meticulously recording details, he created powerful characterizations of his Boston sitters. After he emigrated to London in 1774, Copley began to specialize in narrative scenes from history and joined the influential artistic institution, the Royal Academy of Art. Copley demonstrated a genius, in both his American and British periods, for rendering surface textures and capturing emotional immediacy.

Sketch for The Copley Family, 1776, oil on canvas, Gift of Richard T. York, in Honor of the 50th Anniversary of the National Gallery of Art, 1991.141.1

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The eighteen-year-old Copley proudly signed and dated this picture “1756.” His sitter, Jane Browne (1734-1802), daughter of an Anglican minister from Portsmouth, New Hampshire, later married a judge, Samuel Livermore. The painted oval border and the subject’s elegant pose derive from engravings of English portraits. The awkward anatomy, however, indicates that Copley lacked formal training. Still, the young artist did carefully distinguish the textures of taffeta, lace, and beads.

Jane Browne, 1756, oil on canvas, Andrew W. Mellon Collection, 1942.8.2

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Copley's art matured quickly, as evidenced in this forthright portrayal of Epes Sargent (1690-1762). As proprietor of almost half the land in Gloucester, Massachusetts, the sitter confidently sticks one hand in a pocket and leans on a sturdy column base that forms a traditional emblem of Fortitude. Copley candidly noted such factual details as the mole under Sargent’s left eye and the powder fallen onto his shoulder from his wig.

Epes Sargent, c. 1760, oil on canvas, Gift of the Avalon Foundation, 1959.4.1

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The deep blue of the sitter’s silk dress befited the restrained tastes of colonial America; British women preferred brighter colors. Anne Fairchild (1730-1803) wed the owner of a country estate in Portsmouth, Rhode Island. The floral garland in Mrs. Bowler’s hands, besides being a standard symbol of beauty, may refer to her husband’s wealth; he possessed one of the very few greenhouses in the colonies.

Anne Fairchild Bowler (Mrs. Metcalf Bowler), c. 1763, oil on canvas, Gift of Louise Alida Livingston, 1968.1.1

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In a fanciful guise taken from European prototypes, the sitter appears as a shepherdess holding a herder’s staff. Elizabeth Gray (1746-1779) married a Boston merchant in 1764. With its promising sunrise, this pastoral scene was almost certainly commissioned to mark her wedding.

Elizabeth Gray Otis (Mrs. Samuel Alleyne Otis), c. 1764, oil on canvas, Gift of the Honorable and Mrs. Robert H. Thayer, 1980.11.1

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Copley excelled at portraying elderly men, as with this penetrating likeness of an eighty-two-year-old legislator and former frontier soldier from Tyngsborough, Massachusetts. Eleazer Tyng (1690-1782), sitting comfortably in a Windsor armchair, turns to greet the viewer. His appraising face and rugged hands are highlighted by a golden glow.

Eleazer Tyng, 1772, oil on canvas, Gift of the Avalon Foundation, 1965.6.1

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The subject, Abigail Smith (1744-1777), was the wife of a wealthy New Haven, Connecticut, shipowner. Mrs. Babcock appears regal in her ermine-lined cape and pearl-studded girdle. Her portrait is possibly Copley’s last American work, finished just before he left for Europe, never to return.

Abigail Smith Babcock (Mrs. Adam Babcock), c. 1774, oil on canvas, Gift of Mrs. Robert Low Bacon, 1985.20.1

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A group of three adults and four children are gathered on and around a couch in an interior space that opens out to a distant hilly landscape in this horizontal portrait painting. All seven people have pale skin and are clustered across the middle of the composition. To our left, an older man wearing a white wig, white cravat, and black jacket sits facing us as he holds a squirming baby on his lap. The man’s slightly tanned face is turned to gaze to our right with pale blue eyes under thick brown eyebrows. Jowls line his jaw around pursed lips. The child in his lap twists to look up at him. She holds up her pudgy arms, grasping a gold-colored rattle with bells in her left hand. She has blond hair, smooth skin, and rose-red lips, and she wears a long white gown with a petal-pink sash around the waist. Behind this pair a younger man stands with his body angled to our right in profile as he turns his face to look at us from the corners of his eyes, with a faint smile on his closed pink lips. He also wears a white cravat and black jacket, but his hair is dove gray. His forearms rest on a low, olive-green stone column in front of him, his hands crossed at the wrist as he holds papers in his right hand. To our right and at the center of the group, a young girl stands facing us with her arms crossed at her waist. A lacy, ivory cap frames tawny brown bangs that sweep across her forehead. Her petite nose, brown eyes, and rose-red lips are set within her round face. She wears an ivory-white gown belted with a sash that shimmers from pink to copper as it cascades down her right side, to our left. On her other side, the final trio includes a woman sitting with her arms entwined around two more small children. They sit on a cranberry-red, brocaded sofa. Her sapphire-blue gown has a voluminous skirt and is trimmed with gold stitching along its square neckline. The fabric gleams softly, suggesting silk. Her dark brown hair is piled high on her head, topped by a sheer white veil. Her body is angled toward us, but her head is turned in profile to our left, bowing to almost brush noses with the young child standing alongside her. Shoulder-length brown hair falls to the child’s shoulders as the head is tipped back to gaze at the woman with a wide smile. One arm reaches up and embraces the woman’s neck and the other rests on her knee. The child wears a butter-yellow gown with a white sash around the waist. The fourth and final child lies belly down across the red and copper bolster cushion of the couch so her elbows are propped on her mother’s lap. The child turns her head back to look at us with dark eyes and slight smile on her pale pink lips. Her blond hair falls down the back of her white gown, which is belted with a gold sash. A child’s doll and hat with a rounded crown, a narrow brim, and an indigo-blue feather rests in folds of the curtain on the floral-patterned carpet near the lower left corner of the painting. The scene is framed by rust-red drapery edged in gold hanging from the upper left. In the landscape seen through an opening behind the family, hills fade from sage green to slate blue, and they become more faint as they recede to the horizon, which comes about three-quarters of the way up this composition. The opening is framed with a flowering vine climbing the wall behind the woman.

Having moved to England, the Copleys posed for this huge group likeness, which was the artist’s first portrait to include more than two sitters. The thirty-seven-year-old painter holds sketches and looks out as though to introduce his family. While three daughters look on, Copley’s wife, Susanna, hugs their son. (In eighteenth-century custom, toddlers wore long dresses regardless of their gender.) The aged Richard Clarke, Copley’s father-in-law, was a Tory merchant whose investments had been thrown overboard at the Boston Tea Party.

The imaginary setting acts as a dual allegory of the Copleys’ civilized sophistication, represented by the elegant furnishings, and their natural simplicity, recalled by the Arcadian landscape. Exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1777, the ambitious picture demonstrated Copley’s recent studies on the Continent, where he had learned to integrate a large number of figures into a coherent design. For example, he placed the babies high up on a sofa and in a lap so that their tiny heads would be on a level with their standing siblings.

The Copley Family, 1776/1777, oil on canvas, Andrew W. Mellon Fund, 1961.7.1

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We look onto the side of a rowboat crowded with nine men trying to save a pale, nude young man who flails in the water in front of us as a shark approaches, mouth agape, from our right in this horizontal painting. In the water, the man floats with his chest facing the sky, his right arm overhead and the other stretched out by his side. Extending to our left, his left leg is bent and the right leg is straight, disappearing below the knee. His long blond hair swirls in the water and he arches his back, his wide-open eyes looking toward the shark behind him. To our right, the shark rolls up out of the water with its gaping jaws showing rows of pointed teeth. In the boat, eight of the men have light or swarthy complexions, and one man has dark brown skin. The man with brown skin stands at the back center of the boat, and he holds one end of a rope, which falls across the boat and around the upper arm of the man in the water. Another man stands at the stern of the boat, to our right, poised with a long, hooked harpoon over the side of the boat, ready to strike the shark. His long dark hair blows back and he wears a navy-blue jacket with brass buttons, white breeches, blue stockings, and his shoes have silver buckles. Two other men wearing white shirts with blousy sleeves lean over the side of the boat, bracing each other as they reach toward the man in the water. An older, balding man holds the shirt and body of one of this pair and looks on, his mouth open. The other men hold long oars and look into the water with furrowed brows. The tip of a shark’s tail slices through the water to our right of the boat, near the right edge of the canvas. Along the horizon line, which comes three-quarters of the way up the composition, buildings and tall spires line the harbor. The masts of boats at port creates a row of crosses against the light blue sky. Steely gray clouds sweep across the upper left corner of the canvas and the sky lightens to pale, butter yellow at the horizon.

This gripping pictorial drama resulted from a collaboration between Copley and Brook Watson, a former English sailor. When Watson was fourteen in 1749, he had been attacked by a shark while swimming in the harbor at Havana, Cuba. The blood in the water proves that Watson already has lost his right foot. Rushing to his aid, his shipmates register many different reactions, ranging from heroism to horror. Watson fails to catch a rope hurled by a West Indian. Meanwhile, boathook poised, a harpooner takes aim at the man-eating monster. Copley grouped the rescuers into a dynamic composition that forms the silhouette of a sharply thrusting triangle.

Brook Watson bequeathed the painting to a London orphanage, where it conveyed the reassuring moral that anyone can succeed through “activity and exertion”—as stated by the biographical plaque on the original frame. In spite of being orphaned himself and also disabled, Watson had earned ennoblement as a baronet.

The depiction of a noteworthy event in an ordinary person’s life was an American innovation. European painters normally restricted such harrowing scenes to saints' martyrdoms. This unusual canvas caused a sensation that assured Copley’s international reputation after its exhibition at the Royal Academy in 1778. A full-scale replica that the artist painted for himself is in Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts.

Watson and the Shark, 1778, oil on canvas, Ferdinand Lammot Belin Fund, 1963.6.1

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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.

The Death of the Earl of Chatham, 1779, oil on canvas, Gift of Mrs. Gordon Dexter, 1947.15.1

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A knight in armor strides toward two women wearing long gowns in a balustraded terrace in this horizontal painting. The three people all have smooth, pale skin with flushed cheeks. To our left, the man’s entire body is covered in armor except for his face under a raised visor. He has blue eyes, and his rose-red lips are slightly parted. His helmet is topped with a plume of white feathers. There is a red cross on his chest and red fabric wraps over his far shoulder and billows down his back to his shins. He holds a round shield edged in red up over his head with his far arm, and holds a lance down by his side with the hand closer to us. A sword hangs from his far hip, and he strides forward onto his other leg. He gazes to our right. In the right half of the composition, the two women stand facing each other. Both have long, curly gray hair, delicate noses, gray eyes under arched brows, and their coral-pink lips are parted. At the center of the painting, one woman, Fidelia, wears a long-sleeved, floor-length white gown tied at the waist with a butter-yellow sash. White cloth wraps around her head and through her hair, and it flutters behind her. She turns her head to look up and to our left, and her head is surrounded by a vibrant, yellow glow. In her right hand, closer to us, she holds up a gold chalice with a snake curling from the cup, its mouth open and tongue flicking out near her hair. She holds a brown book in her other hand, down in front of her hips. The second woman, Speranza, faces Fidelia but she looks up and to our left. Speranza’s topaz-blue, satin dress has a gauzy white collar and cuffs, and the skirt pools around her feet. A sky-blue ribbon wraps through Speranza’s hair. With her far hand, Speranza touches Fidelia’s wrist near the book. With her other hand, closer to us, Fidelia gathers her dress and braces the curving prongs of a silver anchor across that arm. The trio is framed by tall trees on the left and columns swathed with burgundy-red curtains on the right. A balustrade between the man in armor and woman in white is silhouetted against a salmon-pink sky along the horizon. A screen of white clouds float against the aquamarine-blue sky above.

This idyllic scene illustrates an episode from Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene, published in 1590. The lengthy Elizabethan poem concerns a Christian soldier’s search for Truth. Early in his quest, the knight encounters two lovely personifications of virtue. Faith, gowned in purest white and surrounded by a halo of divine light, holds a chalice with a serpent she need not fear. Hope, garbed in heavenly blue, carries a small anchor that recalls the biblical mention of hope “as an anchor of the soul.” To quote Spenser, the Red Cross Knight himself wears “on his brest a bloudie Crosse.”

The models were the artist’s own handsome children, now seventeen years older than when they posed for The Copley Family. John, the boy hugging his mother in that painting, is the Red Cross Knight. Elizabeth, the daughter standing in the center of the family portrait, is Faith, and Mary, the infant on the sofa, is Hope. The Red Cross Knight, Copley’s only painting inspired by literature, was shown at the Royal Academy in 1793.

The Red Cross Knight, 1793, oil on canvas, Gift of Mrs. Gordon Dexter, 1942.4.2

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The red-coated William Fitch (1756-1795), an American-born officer in the British army, prepares to depart on a magnificent steed. Since Colonel Fitch had been killed in action at Jamaica six years before this gigantic group portrait was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1801, Copley must have painted his late friend’s image from memory or from other likenesses. Fitch’s two sisters, dressed in mourning, reach poignantly toward their lost brother. The antique urn is a funerary emblem, and the fiery sunset is a reminder of time’s passage.

Colonel William Fitch and His Sisters Sarah and Ann Fitch, 1800/1801, oil on canvas, Gift of Eleanor Lothrop, Gordon Abbott, and Katharine A. Batchelder, 1960.4.1

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Robert Graham (1744-1836), knighted in 1800, wears the vermilion robes of the House of Lords. The portrait, shown at the Royal Academy in 1804, achieves grandeur by contrasting the brilliant red cape with white ermine and green drapery. In the candid depiction of the baron’s fleshy face and double chin, however, Copley continued his forthright Colonial style.

Baron Graham, 1804, oil on canvas, Gift of Mrs. Gordon Dexter, 1942.4.1

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