John Singleton Copley is commonly considered the greatest portrait painter in the history of the American colonies, and yet despite this sterling reputation, his life began at somewhat of a disadvantage. He was born in Boston to Richard and Mary, who presumably had recently emigrated from Ireland. Copley’s father, a tobacco merchant, died around the time of his son’s birth, leaving Mary a widow and suddenly in charge of the tobacco business. She must have been a shrewd businessperson, however, for ten years later, on 12 July 1748, she ran an advertisement in the Boston Gazette promoting her tobacco shop:
Mrs. Mary Pelham, (formerly the Widow Copley, on the Lang Wharf, Tabacconist) is remov’d into Lindel’s Row, against the Quaker’s Meeting House, near the upper End of King Street, Boston, where she continues to sell the best Virginia Tobacco, Cut, Pigtail and spun, of all Sorts, by Wholesale or Retail, at the cheapest Rates.
Interestingly, the man Mary Copley married was Peter Pelham, a London-trained engraver who specialized in mezzotints. Pelham emigrated from England to Boston around 1728, an arrival that roughly coincided with that of the portraitist John Smibert whose own entry into Boston was during the following year. For some years, Pelham engraved the portraits that Smibert had painted. In addition to his own art, Pelham also owned an extensive print collection from his time working in London. This was the environment in which the young John Singleton Copley lived; a home that was as filled with paintings and engravings as one could find in colonial Boston during the first half of the eighteenth century. What is mezzotint?
Like Smibert before him, Copley’s painting output while in Boston (and, more broadly, when he traveled to New York City, too) consisted almost exclusively of portraits, for this was the only kind of painting for which there was a market in the American colonies. Early on, Copley based his compositions on the late-seventeenth and early-eighteenth-century British engravings he likely saw in his stepfather’s print collection. His 1760 portrait of Epes Sargent is but one example (below, right). Sargent leans to his right, his elbow resting on a circular plinth. This same pose and plinth can be seen in an engraving Peter Pelham made in 1726 after an earlier Hans Hysing portrait of the architect James Gibbs. Much like one today might flip through a fashion magazine to search out a new outfit or hairstyle, Copley was utilizing preexisting compositions for his Bostonian clients.
To be certain, Boston was as lively as a colonial city as there was during the middle of the eighteenth century, and as such, it had become the home to several prominent portraitists. John Smibert and Robert Feke had been active there during the first half of the century, and by the time the 1750s had arrived, Joseph Badger and Joseph Blackburn were also actively accepting portrait commissions. Unfortunately for these two artists, the 1750s also announced the arrival of John Singleton Copley, teenage portrait painter. In short order, both Badger and Blackburn found themselves in sincere want for work. Blackburn left Boston in 1758 for Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and Badger’s artist output slowed to a trickle before his death in Boston in May of 1765.
A brief comparison of roughly contemporary portraits by Badger, Blackburn, and Copley easily explains why Copley quickly found himself atop the Boston portraiture world. Badger’s portrait of John Haskins (1759) and Blackburn’s likeness of Colonel Theodore Atkins (1760) are competently painted images, and are as good of a portrait as one was likely to have seen in Boston by any artist other than Smibert, a painter with the prestigious pedigree of European training. The faces are somber, and more stiff than lively. Their bodies appear heavily cloaked by the clothing they wear, and there is no real sense that an actual body exists underneath these garments. In short, they are competent, yet uninspired.
To compare these two portraits with one Copley painted in 1758—that of Mary and Elizabeth Royall (below)—is to understand why Copley so quickly put other portraitists out of business. These young daughters of Isaac Royall (a much younger Mary can be seen in Robert Feke’s 1741 portrait of Isaac Royall and Family—more info about the family here) wear shimmering velvet gowns, Copley has painted their faces to show not only what they looked like, but to display a sense of their personality, too. Mary displays a hummingbird that is perched on her finger, while the younger Elizabeth pets a King Charles spaniel. Their gowns, the curtain and column in the background, and the inclusion of rare (a hummingbird) and royal (the King Charles spaniel) animals makes this a compositionally daring and visually interesting image. And Copley was then only 20 years old.
Boy with a Squirrel
As Copley matured as an artist, however, he became even more compositionally inventive. A great example of this is an early masterpiece, Boy with a Squirrel, a portrait of the artist’s half-brother, Henry Pelham. While it is, of course, a portrait, it would be more accurate to consider this painting as a tangible demonstration of the artist’s skill. Indeed, from the beginning, Copley intended this painting not for a wall in a Boston parlor, but instead for the wall of a London exhibition space. It is, as such, as much about what Copley could do as an artist as it is about the likeness of Henry Pelham.
John Singleton Copley, A Boy with a Flying Squirrel (Henry Pelham), 1765, oil on canvas, 77.15 x 63.82 cm (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)
And yet, what a portrait! Copley has painted Pelham in profile—something exceedingly rare in his pre-London oeuvre. He looks to left side of the composition as if dreamily lost in thought. The first thing a viewer might notice is that Copley has beautifully framed his half-brother’s face in front of a vibrant red curtain. Pelham wears a dark frock coat that is embellished with a pink satin collar. The yellow vest underneath his coat largely obscures his white shirt, although the collar and cuffs brilliantly contrast with the pink and dark blue of his coat. Copley has taken particular care to show the play of light and shadow across these garments. Note the ruffles in his cuffs, the ripples across his pink collar, and the shadows underneath the vest’s buttonholes. Clearly Copley was pulling out all of the artistic stops for this composition.
Hands, chain and squirrel (detail), John Singleton Copley, A Boy with a Flying Squirrel (Henry Pelham), 1765, oil on canvas, 77.15 x 63.82 cm (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)
But it is not only the likeness that shows Copley’s interest in creating a showstopper. If the viewer’s eye begins at Pelham’s face and then moves downward along his right shoulder and arm, they would next notice Pelham’s brightly illuminated (particularly against the dark base of the column) right hand that delicately holds a meticulously painted gold chain. Pelham grasps it between his thumb and index finger, and it runs atop his hand, falling to the underside of his palm, and then is delicately laid atop his pinky. The oval of the end of the chain mirrors the ovals present in the glass of water underneath his hand. And this gold chain leads the eyes rightward towards a pet flying squirrel that nibbles on the meat of a recently cracked nut.
Hand and chain (detail), John Singleton Copley, A Boy with a Flying Squirrel (Henry Pelham), 1765, oil on canvas, 77.15 x 63.82 cm (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)
Copley has taken particular care in the painting of this small mammal: large obsidian eyes, dark whiskers, grey and black topside with a snowy-white belly and a bushy tail. The most impressive element in this painting, however, may be the beautifully rendered and highly polished mahogany table. In some ways, this piece of furniture serves as a vehicle for Copley to demonstrate his ability to paint reflections of material objects. Reflections of the glass of water, the cracked nut, the squirrel’s belly, and Pelham’s white cuffs can all be seen on the polished tabletop. These elements—chain, glass, squirrel, table—make Boy with a Squirrel as much about things in the painting as it is about the person depicted within it.
Sent to London for feedback
The portrait was sent to London for the 1766 exhibition of the Society of Artists. Copley received feedback from his contemporary expatriate Benjamin West and Sir Joshua Reynolds, perhaps the most authoritative voices on British art at the time. Captain R.G. Bruce, Copley’s friend, took Boy with a Squirrel to London and returned with Reynolds’s assessment: “in any Collection of Painting it will pass for an excellent Picture, but considering the Disadvantages…you had labored under, that it was a very wonderfull Performance.” The “disadvantages” to which Reynolds refers to are likely those that involve Copley’s location (Boston, the very fringe of the British empire) and his opportunity for formal artistic instruction there (none).
West agreed when he wrote to Copley on 4 August 1766. In his particular brand of creative spelling, West wrote, “while it was Excibited to View the Criticizems was, that at first Sight the Pictures struck the Eye as being to liney, which was judgd to have arose from there being so much neetness in the lines, which indeed as fare as I was Capable of judgeing was some what the Case.”
Although somewhat critical of Copley’s work, West was clearly impressed, and encouraged his colonial counterpart to send a composition to the Society of Artist’s April 1767 exhibition. “I advise you to Paint a Picture of a half figure or two in one Piec, of a Boy and Girle, or any other subject you may fancy,” West wrote. “And be shure take your subjects from Nature as you did in your last Piec…let it be Painted in oil.” West ended his letter by informing Copley that a three or four year visit to Europe studying the Old Masters would greatly improve his skill. In closing, West, ever the giving teacher, offered his mentorship, something for which his fame still rests today: “if ever you should make a viset to Europe you may depend on my friendship in eny way thats in my Power to Sarve.”
A move to London?
Prior to 1766, Copley must have wondered if he had the talent and skill to move to London and become a successful portraitist. By the close of that year, the positive feedback that he had received from both Sir Joshua Reynolds and Benjamin West—the current and future presidents of the Royal Academy of Arts—must have put the painter at ease. Rather than wondering if he could make it in London, Copley instead was forced to ponder if it would be financially prudent to relocate to the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, as he was becoming increasingly more wealthy painting in Boston. Copley did eventually move to London to seek future fortunes, but it was the brewing political turmoil that brought about this change in location as much as any desire to increase his finances. This was still eight years away in 1766. Until 1774 when he departed, Copley continued to paint the social and economic elite in colonial Boston: lawyers, merchants, politicians, and even an accomplished silversmith.