John Singleton Copley was one of the most prominent painters in colonial America and England. He was famous for his portrait paintings of important figures in colonial England. He had an innovative and different style of depicting his subjects and had an uncanny ability to create impressive illusions of people with distinct textures of skin, hair and textiles using dramatic contrasts of light and dark. Not much is known about Copley’s boyhood and youth, but it is an accepted fact that he received training in painting, printmaking and portraiture from the famous engraver Peter Pelham who later became Copley’s step-father. Besides Pelham, the young Copley also came under the influence of English artists, John Smibert and Joseph Blackburn, both of whom had impacted the painting styles of the 17th and 18th centuries. Copley had the chance to see and examine the paintings of these great artists. Joseph Blackburn was the most significant influence upon the development of his artistic abilities. He got the opportunity to learn about compositions, rocco poses and themes from Blackburn’s work. A lifelong observer and learner, Copley developed such a high degree of artistic excellence that he went on to become the first American painter to achieve a high level of social status as well as financial recognition.
Childhood & Early Life
John Copley was born in Massachusetts, in 1738. His father Richard Copley, a tobacconist was in poor health and went to the West Indies to recover his strength and died there.
His mother managed a small tobacco shop to earn a living, and she later married the engraver Peter Pelham in 1748.
Not much is known about Copley’s childhood or education, but it is presumed that he must have received quality education in various subjects as he grew up to be a well educated gentleman.
Copley’s stepfather was an engraver, as well as a painter and an educationist. Growing up in such a household, young Copley learnt to paint, and engrave in mezzotint.
As a youngster, he came in contact with the noted artists John Smibert and Joseph Blackburn, and their paintings. Even though it has often been emphasized that Copley never received any formal training in painting, he did have access to paintings and prints made by great artists and he learnt a lot by studying them.
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He made his earliest known drawing, a portrait of his half-brother Charles Pelham when he was just 14. He was only 15 when he made the portrait of the Rev. William Welsteed. He also made an undated self-portrait, depicting a boy of about 17.
His paintings were so beautiful and realistic that there was a high demand for them. He started out as a professional painter while he was still in his teens.
Some of his patrons loved his paintings so much that they advised him to go to Canada where more people would be happy to hire his services, but he refused since he already had so much work in America.
He painted portraits in oil and was also a pioneer in using pastels. He once requested a set of the best quality crayons from a fellow painter in Switzerland. As he matured as a painter, his talent for rendering distinct textures became apparent.
He exhibited his painting of ‘A Boy with a Squirrel’, which depicted a boy seated at a table playing with a pet squirrel in England in 1766. This picture was so much appreciated that he was made a Fellow of the Society of Artists of Great Britain. He was invited to stay in Europe for three or four years to improvise his art, but he declined the invitation at that time.
The most prominent personalities came to him to get their portraits drawn and he earned a very high income which was considered an extraordinary amount for an artist during those times. He and his family lived a life comparable to his wealthy, aristocratic patrons.
Copley went to London in 1774 and was soon joined by his family.
He confidently began his English career in 1775 hoping to make himself a place among the celebrated British artists. He began to paint historical pieces along with portraits.
He drew ‘Watson and the Shark’ in 1778 which depicted the rescue of a boy named Brook Watson from a shark attack. The painting became immensely popular.
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In 1781, he made an oil painting titled, ‘The Death of the Earl of Chatham’, which cemented his reputation as a historical painter. The painting depicted the death of Major Francis Peirson in the Battle of Jersey.
Copley was very much dedicated to his profession but it cast its toll on his physical as well as mental health. During his later years, he became increasingly depressed and disappointed with life. He also suffered from financial losses and was deep in debt by the end of his life.
His painting ‘A Boy with a Squirrel’ (1765), which depicted his half-brother, Henry playing with a pet squirrel, was the painting that got him initial attention in England at an exhibition. Anglo-American painter Benjamin West was so impressed with Copley’s work that he wrote him many letters inviting him to spend time in England.
His 1778 oil painting ‘Watson and the Shark’ which represents the rescue of a cabin boy from a shark attack is one of his bets known paintings. It was the first major painting he made after migrating to England.
He painted ‘The Death of the Earl of Chatham’ in 1781 which depicts the collapse of the 1st Earl of Chatham during a debate in the House of Lords in 1778. The painting became very famous, but also generated some controversy.
He made the large oil painting, ‘The Death of Major Peirson, 6 January 1781’ in 1783. The painting shows Major Peirson being shot down in the Battle of Jersey on 6 January 1781. The painting drew huge crowds when it was exhibited and made Peirson a national hero.
Personal Life & Legacy
Copley married Susanna Clarke, the beautiful daughter of Richard Clarke, a wealthy merchant, in 1769. They had a happy marriage that produced six children and lasted till Copley’s death.
He suffered from depression, anxiety, and several other physical and mental problems during his later years. He suffered a paralytic stroke and died soon after in 1815, at the age of 77.
The American Associates of the Royal Academy Trust has an award named in his honour, “The John Singleton Copley Award” that is bestowed upon individuals who have exhibited innovation and excellence in the world of art.
Several places in Boston bear his name, notably, Copley Square, Copley Square Hotel and Copley Plaza.
His father-in-law was the merchant to whom the tea that provoked the Boston Tea Party was originally consigned to.