Saturday Art: John Singleton Copley

Watson and the Shark, by Copley

(Picture courtesy of Eric Wilcox at

Colonial America produced more industry than art, but even for this time Copley gained stature in English-speaking society for his depiction of the figures of his time, and of historically and physically true representation in artwork.   His careful choice of accurate detail distinguished his portraits, and his rich surface and color renderings brought attention throughout the art appreciators of the time.

Copley began in a household of tradesmen that included a  tobacconist, and appears to have achieved skill by his own intense efforts and personal study of the art of his time.   He spanned the beginnings of revolution in America, and as a royalist sympathizer left Boston before hostilities included his own household.  His letters were collected and still portray the life of colonial times in the present United States and in Great Britain, among those of some stature and wealth.

Copley was about fourteen and his stepfather had recently died, when he made the earliest of his portraits now preserved, a likeness of his half-brother Charles Pelham, good in color and characterization though it has in its background accessories which are somewhat out of drawing. It is a remarkable work to have come from so young a hand. The artist was only fifteen when (it is believed) he painted the portrait of the Rev. William Welsteed, minister of the Brick Church in Long Lane, a work which, following Peter Pelham’s practise, Copley personally engraved to get the benefit from the sale of prints. No other engraving has been attributed to Copley. A self-portrait, undated, depicting a boy of about seventeen in broken straw hat, and a painting of Mars, Venus and Vulcan, signed and dated 1754, disclose crudities of execution which do not obscure the decorative intent and documentary value of the works. Such painting would obviously advertise itself anywhere. Without going after business, for his letters do not indicate that he was ever aggressive or pushy, Copley was started as a professional portrait-painter long before he was of age. In October 1757, Capt. Thomas Ainslie, collector of thePort of Quebec, acknowledged from Halifax the receipt of his portrait, which “gives me great Satisfaction”,[11] and advised the artist to visit Nova Scotia “where there are several people who would be glad to employ You.” This request to paint in Canada was later repeated from Quebec, Copley replying: “I should receive a singular pleasure in excepting, if my Business was anyways slack, but it is so far otherwise that I have a large Room full of Pictures unfinished, which would ingage me these twelve months if I did not begin any others.”[12]

Besides painting portraits in oil, doubtless after a formula learned from Peter Pelham, Copley was a pioneer American pastellist. He wrote, on September 30, 1762, to the Swiss painter Jean-Étienne Liotard, asking him for “a sett of the best Swiss Crayons for drawing of Portraits.” The young American anticipated Liotard’s surprise “that so remote a corner of the Globe as New England should have any demand for the necessary eutensils for practiceing the fine Arts” by assuring him that “America which has been the seat of war and desolation, I would fain hope will one Day become the School of fine Arts.”[13] The requested pastels were duly received and used by Copley in making many portraits in a medium suited to his talent. By this time he had begun to demonstrate his genius for rendering surface textures and capturing emotional immediacy.[10]


The income which Copley earned by painting in the 1760s was extraordinary for his town and time. It had promoted the son of a needy tobacconist into the local aristocracy. The foremost personages of New England came to his painting-room as sitters. He married, on November 16, 1769,[16]Susanna Farnham Clarke, daughter of Richard and Elizabeth (Winslow) Clarke, the former being the very wealthy agent of the Honourable East India Company in Boston; the latter, a New England woman of Mayflower ancestry. The union was a happy one, and socially notable. Mrs. Copley was a beautiful woman of poise and serenity whose features are familiar through several of her husband’s paintings. Copley had already bought land on the west side of Beacon Hill extending down to the Charles River.[17] The newly married Copleys, who would have six children, moved into “a solitary house in Boston, on Beacon Hill, chosen with his keen perception of picturesque beauty”.[18] It was approximately on the site of the present Boston Women’s City Club. Here were painted the portraits of dignitaries of state and church, graceful women and charming children, in the mode of faithful and painstaking verisimilitude which Copley had made his own. The family’s style of living at this period was that of people of wealth. John Trumbull told Dunlap that in 1771, being then a student at Harvard College, he called on Copley, who “was dressed on the occasion in a suit of crimson velvet with gold buttons, and the elegance displayed by Copley in his style of living, added to his high repute as an artist, made a permanent impression on Trumbull in favor of the life of a painter.”[19]


According to art historian Paul Staiti, Copley was the greatest and most influential painter in colonial America, producing about 350 works of art. With his startling likenesses of persons and things, he came to define a realist art tradition in America. His visual legacy extended throughout the nineteenth century in the American taste for the work of artists as diverse as Fitz Henry Lane and William Harnett. In Britain, while he continued to paint portraits for the élite, his great achievement was the development of contemporary history painting, which was a combination of reportage, idealism, and theatre. He was also one of the pioneers of the private exhibition, orchestrating shows and marketing prints of his own work to mass audiences that might otherwise attend exhibitions only at the Royal Academy, or who previously had not gone to exhibitions at all.[45]

Boston’s Copley Square, Copley Square Hotel and Copley Plaza bear his name, as do Copley Township, Summit County, Ohio and Copley crater on Mercury.

Copley was able to maintain a household well through his work, but the extravagance eventually grew to be beyond his abilities as a household head, and his later years show increasing stress and failure of his earlier fame which decreased his income from sales of paintings.

(Picture courtesy of JR P at

(Picture courtesy of Cle0patra at

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Ruth Calvo

Ruth Calvo

I've blogged at The Seminal for about two years, was at cabdrollery for around three. I live in N.TX., worked for Sen.Yarborough of TX after graduation from Wellesley, went on to receive award in playwriting, served on MD Arts Council after award, then managed a few campaigns in MD and served as assistant to a member of the MD House for several years, have worked in legal offices and written for magazines, now am retired but addicted to politics, and join gladly in promoting liberals and liberal policies.


  1. Ruth
    May 16, 2015 at 7:04 am

    good morning, pups, I put in a bit of it but the language of Copley’s letters is worth a visit. His painting was done with more dedication than is most – putting in full days at his studio. His life in revolutionary times is a sidelight, but compelling details about society at the time.

  2. Canyon2
    May 16, 2015 at 10:33 am

    Good morning Ruth and again thank you for the lesson in art history.
    To be so young and talented is remarkable.

  3. May 16, 2015 at 11:14 am

    Good morning Ruth, Canyon2 and future commenters. Never heard of Copley. I was a latecomer to paining as art, or at least, a serious pursuer of the study, so there are many painters left in this world for me to discover.


  4. Ruth
    May 16, 2015 at 12:59 pm

    very welcome, always a strange event to me, that a painter is part of local history – and when I was in Boston I was taken with Copley Square in Back Bay.

  5. Ruth
    May 16, 2015 at 1:00 pm

    He’s pretty amazing, especially as a whole with his talent in painting and place in history. Very welcome, and this is a lesson once again that taught me something too,