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 John Singleton Copley  (1738 - 1815)

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About: John Singleton Copley
 

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Lived/Active: Massachusetts / United Kingdom      Known for: portrait, historical, genre and religious painting

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J. S. Copley is primarily known as John Singleton Copley

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John Singleton Copley
from Auction House Records.
Mrs. Theodore Atkinson, Jr. (Francis Deering Wentworth)
Artwork images are copyright of the artist or assignee
This biography from the Archives of AskART:
The crowds who visited the Copley exhibition in Washington and Houston in 1996 were a testimony to the enduring regard in which this artist is still held in his native land.  The utterly convincing realism of his portraits of wealthy Bostonian merchants and landed gentry in the years before the American revolution has secured him a lasting fame, a fact which would no doubt have surprised the artist, who had complained that 'fame cannot be durable where pictures are confined to sitting rooms, and regarded only for the resemblance they bear to their originals'.

His attention to the minutiae of patterned lace, his polished wood and metal surfaces, brilliant fabrics and lustrous pearls, all rendered with a jeweler's precision, made him hugely successful at the time and still remains a tangible symbol of the young colony's materialism and self respect.  But Copley left America for ever in 1774, and in fact spent more years in London than he had in his native country.  With a productive and prosperous career well established at home, what drove Copley to pull up his roots and start over again in London?

The answer is that he was motivated by ambition.  He was intent on 'gaining a reputation rather than a fortune'.  (He went on to note that it was of course possible to acquire a fortune while in pursuit of reputation!)  He complained that 'people generally regard [portrait painting] no more than any other useful trade, as they sometimes term it, like that of a Carpenter, tailor or shoe maker, not as one of the most noble Arts in the world'.  Copley wanted to achieve something greater than a local reputation as a skilled workman, and to compete with the best artists in a wider arena, not just to be a big fish in a small, provincial pond.

Copley had no formal artistic training but was largely self-taught, and he knew that in order to achieve true fame he would have to study the Old Masters at first hand.  He was also aware of the example of Benjamin West, his exact contemporary, who had left Philadelphia in 1760 to study in Rome.  Three years later West was in London, embarked on a successful career which included being a founding members of the Royal Academy in 1768 and in 1792 its second President, after the death of Sir Joshua Reynolds.

Copley began sending portraits from Boston to London for exhibition at the Society of Artists in 1766, but he still hesitated about relocating in England, noting that his income of 300 guineas a year at home was equal to nine hundred in London.  He was no longer a young man, and had a family in Boston as well as a prosperous portrait practice.  Eventually the art market was threatened by the deteriorating political situation, and in June 1774 just a few weeks away from his 36th birthday, he finally sailed for England, leaving behind in America his wife and four children.  On August 26 he was on his way to Rome, intent on improving himself as an artist through study of the best examples of classical sculpture and Renaissance and Baroque painting.

It was not until October 1775 that he was reunited with his family in London, and this painting The Copley Family begun shortly afterwards was surely intended as a personal celebration of the event as well as an advertisement of his remarkable abilities as a portrait painter.

In Boston Copley's work had been exclusively in the field of portraiture.  However, in Rome he had painted his first independent 'history' compositions, and it was now as a History Painter that he intended to succeed in London, hoping to support himself by the more reliable means of portrait painting while awaiting and undertaking commissions for history subjects. In the hierarchy of genres or types of painting at that time, 'History' was the highest an artist could aspire to.  Its high-minded subject matter was drawn from the Bible, classical history and mythology and epic poetry. Modern life - modern events, manners, clothes, appearances - was considered incompatible with the grand style, and only the idealized past could provide suitable ennobling and uplifting subject matter. Instead of real, imperfect people, such pictures were populated with perfected, idealized bodies for which the source was Classical sculpture coupled with a close study of human anatomy.

But the British public was largely indifferent to History painting, and this lack of support was one of the reasons that a group of artists including Sir Joshua Reynolds and Copley's compatriot Benjamin West founded the Royal Academy in 1768. Although West was the same age as Copley he had been successfully established in London for more than ten years by the time of Copley's arrival. With his painting The Death of Wolfe in 1771 he was the first to defy the dogma that modern life could not provide subjects for the grand style, and with it introduced the genre of the Modern History painting. The painting depicts the tragic death of a great military hero at the moment he had secured North America for the British Empire - thus was in itself a noble, elevated subject. Although the protagonists are clad in modern military dress rather than classical garb - a fact some found shocking - West gave the scene a monumental and tragic treatment through poses recalling traditional representations of the lamentation over Christ, while the necessary distancing from the everyday was provided not by the passage of time but through the introduction of the exotic elements of a native American and a wild frontiersman.

As an American, West's early training and experience was outside the academic hierarchy of genres which placed biblical and classical subjects at the top, and it was his fellow American Copley - like him free from the oppressive weight of academic tradition - who was the first painter to follow up West's innovation. Copley later said that he believed 'that modern subjects are the properest for the exercise of the pencil and far more interesting to the present Age than those taken from Ancient History', and it was in the development of contemporary history painting - a genre which merges portraiture, in which Copley was so able, with the grand style - that was to be his greatest achievement in England.

Copley's first contribution to the development of the genre was this picture Watson and the Shark.  It depicts the dramatic rescue of the 14 year old seaman Brook Watson, attacked by sharks as he swam in Havana Harbour. Although born in England, orphaned as a young child Watson had been brought up by relatives in Boston, and after the attack he was there fitted with a wooden leg.  He went on to become a prosperous merchant with trading connections with Copley's wife's family, and in 1759 he settled in London where his career included playing a part in the development of Lloyds, becoming Alderman in 1784, Master of the Musicians Company, Deputy Governor of the Bank of England and, in 1796 Lord Mayor. Watson himself commissioned this picture, years after the event, and chose its theme, which is one of religious salvation - expressed through the grand manner rhetoric of visual references and religious symbolism.  Watson bequeathed the picture to Christ's Hospital with the injunction that it be hung in the Hall for the instruction of the pupils, but it is now in the National Gallery of Art, Washington.

As this picture was being exhibited at the RA in 1778, an event occurred which furnished the subject for Copley's next contemporary history painting - the Death of the Earl of Chatham - and it is at this juncture that the Corporation of London and Alderman John Boydell enter the story.

The frail William Pitt, Earl of Chatham had collapsed in the House of Lords in April 1778 while making a speech in a debate on the American War of Independence, and had died about a month afterwards. Chatham's political philosophy was based on trade and commercial expansion, and as a consequence he enjoyed the support of the City of London, being described by Alderman Boydell as 'an Encourager of Commerce, a Patron of Liberty and a zealous friend to the Citizens of London'.  The Court of Common Council appointed a Committee to consider what mark of respect was most fit to perpetuate his memory, and in July this Committee asked Benjamin West to submit a design for a painting, and the sculptor John Bacon a model for a sculpture.  There is no indication in either minutes or committee papers as to why these were the only two artists selected, and indeed in December the Court of Common Council refused to accept the Committee's recommendation that Bacon's model be approved and told them to obtain further designs.  However the matter dragged on, and although Alderman Boydell published a pamphlet arguing passionately for a painting rather than a statue, in December 1779 the Court agreed to adopt Bacon's model.  The monument was completed in the Great Hall in 1783. Among the arguments Boydell put forward in his pamphlet in favour of a painting was that the Corporation had recently obtained a most suitable space, begging for paintings to decorate it - the new Common Council Chamber built by the Corporation's Surveyor and Clerk of Works George Dance in 1777.  It was this room that was to accommodate Copley's Gibraltar painting.

There seems to be a long standing belief that Copley was one of the artists considered by the Corporation for this commission, but this is not supported by the records, which show that his friend West was the only painter consulted; the small oil sketch which West produced for the Corporation is now in the Kimbell Art Museum at Fort Worth.  After failing to win the Corporation's commission, West decided not to take the design any further but generously encouraged Copley to develop his own composition, and allowed him to base his picture on West's own sketch.  Copley had no commission for this large painting but undertook it speculatively. It took two years to complete and contained portraits from life of 56 peers.  In 1781 Copley displayed it in a private one-picture exhibition in the Haymarket, opened shortly after the Royal Academy exhibition.

Copley was the originator of this sort of one-person, one-picture exhibition, which enabled him to recoup some of his investment in the time, labour and materials expended on the picture through the sale of admission tickets and advance subscriptions for an engraving of it.  (As it happened, this was the only money he made at the time from Chatham, which remained unsold until disposed of by lottery in 1806.) Copley organized the engraving after the picture himself, but entered into an agreement with Alderman Boydell that he would also sell subscriptions for it at his print shop and Gallery at 90 Cheapside. And Copley's next important painting, The Death of Major Pierson, was commissioned by Boydell for the sum of 800.  Again the rhetoric of traditional history painting is employed to ennoble a contemporary subject, the death in St Helier, Jersey, of a gallant young officer during the counter attack against invading French troops in 1781 - a subject calculated to appeal to British nationalistic sentiment.  (Copley heightened this appeal by playing down the role of the Scottish Highlanders in the event to highlight that of the English Grenadiers.)

Completed in 1784, The Death of Major Peirson was exhibited by Copley together with the unsold Chatham before being exhibited again by Alderman Boydell who also oversaw production of the engraving from it. The King spent three hours viewing the painting, and on being told it had been painted for Boydell 'spoke in high terms of his public spirit and encouragement of the arts'. Alderman John Boydell was England's most energetic and important print publisher.  He was also passionate in his determination to promote a native school of history painting and to provide opportunities for British artists.  He is shown here in a portrait by Beechey commissioned by the Corporation in 1800.

Within only a few years of his debut at the Academy with a modern history subject, Copley had thus entered the top rank of history painters in England, enjoying both critical and popular success. And by the time the King conferred the royal seal of approval on The Death of Peirson, Copley had already received the commission from the Corporation of London to paint The Defeat of the Floating Batteries at Gibraltar.


Source:
Vivian Knight, Guildhall Art Gallery Curator. 
collage.nhil.com/Copley2/history/text/htm#1768:


This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Born in Boston, John Singleton Copley became one of America's most famous portrait painters, spending his early career in Boston and then settling in England where he also took up history painting.  At an early age, he was Boston's most esteemed portraitist, much sought after by prominent persons such as Paul Revere and Samuel Adams.  As a dedicated realist, he gave foundation and form to the American tradition of realism.  He was also exceedingly interested in history painting and was disappointed at the lack of enthusiasm Americans seemed to have for this subject that was so popular in Europe.

His technique was to pay great attention to actual detail, giving facts about the subject's life such as showing Paul Revere with a piece of the silver that signified his profession.  Copley did not like flashy color or dramatic, symbolic effect and used props only to enhance characterization.

His father died shortly after he was born, and his mother, who ran a tobacco shop at Long Wharf on Boston Harbor, married portrait painter and engraver, Peter Pelham, who gave Copley his early training.  As a teenager, he was influenced by American portraitist Robert Feke and Joseph Blackburn, an English immigrant painter, to dispense with the hard-edged, provincial limner style for a more advanced technique of illusionism.

In spite of his early success, he desired more professional training and went to Europe to study the great masters.  He had been urged to come to London by Sir Joshua Reynolds, head of the Royal Academy, and Benjamin West, renowned expatriate American painter at the Royal Court. The fact that his Colonial family was Loyalist to the British crown also played heavily in this decision.

In London, Copley studied with John Smibert and became a popular figure in English society, eventually admitted to the Royal Academy.  In this environment, his painting style also took on more sophistication of composition and a softer, more elegant manner.  Some critics favor the directness and independence of his Colonial work over the English paintings.  In London, he, having been a friend of West, became his competitor and grew to resent him for getting what he felt was inflated attention.  He believed his own history painting superior to West.

In London, he developed an ingenious way of earning money, one that riled his fellow-members of the Royal Academy who primarily used that venue to sell their paintings. But Copley had private showings and charged admission; he sold engravings of the paintings and then sold the painting itself.


Sources include:
American Art Review
Michael David Zellman, 300 Years of American Art

This biography from the Archives of AskART:
In 1749, 14-year-old English sailor Brook Watson was swimming in the harbor in Havana, Cuba when a large shark attacked him.  His nearby crewmates set out in a small boat to rescue the young sailor, but not before the shark bit off Watson's right foot at the ankle.  Several decades later, Watson commissioned American portraitist John Singleton Copley to depict the scene in a vivid action painting that startled 18th-century audiences and established Copley's reputation as an accomplished artist.

Copley, who came to England in 1774, had already drawn praise from prominent English painter Sir Joshua Reynolds, but had yet to create a masterpiece.  Watson and the Shark is considered an important work because its depiction of humans struggling against nature looks forward to a central theme in early 19th-century art.  But it was also remarkable for realistically portraying an exciting, contemporary event. In fact, while Copley's painting was displayed in London's Royal Academy in 1778, a London newspaper published a gory account of Watson's misadventure.

In the painting's foreground, Watson, the shark, and the rescuers are engaged in a whirlwind of frantic movement.  The dramatically positioned figures compete for the viewer's attention, underscoring the sense of urgency.  The light shapes of the rescuers, mostly clad in white, and the pale, corpse-like tones of Watson's body are in sharp contrast to the dark shape of the shark, which lunges out of the shadowy, bottom right side of the painting to attack the vulnerable boy. Watson's lower right leg disappears in a cloud of darkness, suggesting blood, and his foot is cropped out of the painting altogether.

Although Copley painted historical subjects and portraits for England's upper classes until his death in 1815, critics consider the Watson painting among his best work. Watson enjoyed an increasingly successful career in politics. After becoming a baronet in 1803, Watson designed a coat of arms that included Neptune fighting a large shark, and, in the upper part of the shield, a large, amputated right foot.


Source:
Claire Capuzzi from Zooba Art History,
www.zooba.com/servlet/ViewHistory:






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Paris Pre 1900

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