John Singleton Copley: the great portraitist of the eighteenth century

  • January 13, 2012 12:15

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Portrait of a young lady with a bird pastel, dated and signed in right corner 1760
Currently offered by the Gene Oliver Gallery: h...

It is tempting for anyone who creates art to believe that it would be easier somewhere else. 
Where less people pursue art.
Where every artistic creation has not already been done.
Where everything and anything about art is not a click away.
After reading John Singleton Copley by James Thomas Flexner, I could not help but wonder what would have been of the great portraitist of the eighteenth century if he hadn’t been born in the Boston colony and then lived in London?
Would he have been as successful or would it have been easier for him to succeed? 
Although the book published by Houghton Mifflin in 1948 is about a man who has lived three centuries ago, it contains the ingredients of a modern story. Copley’s anxieties, social awkwardness, difficulties to take a stand in the turmoil of pre American Revolution era but also his driven ambition and relentless work to better his art still resonate among us.
Copley complained that he was unlucky to live in Colonial Boston where no portrait was worthy to be called a picture, that there was no example of art to observe, only a few prints from which it was not possible to learn much in America. He envied the European artists who had easier access to art. 
And yet, could it be because he had so little to copy from, to be inspired from, that in the end he created the unique portraits that no other painter ever created?
His story illustrates an incredible journey from poverty to affluence; from obscurity to fame that still defines the American dream. 

Born in 1738, Copley lived on Long Wharf, in Boston, a rowdy and crude neighborhood that terrified him as a young boy and haunted him through his entire life. Copley’s father died when he was very young. His mother remarried to an educated man, a painter who taught young Copley a few of the basics. But he passed away soon and Copley, his mother and his half brother returned to the poor lifestyle they had known before. 
At the age of thirteen, Copley had to work to earn some money. Although he had never seen any original art and only a few pale copies, he started then his career of painter and engraver. 
Basic supplies such as crayons, pastels and colors were unavailable in the city of Boston back then. Copley managed to find some and soon developed his own palette with the limited access he had to materials from abroad. 
At the age of twenty-five, when now days many artists this age are still in art school or at least still developing their own brush stroke and style, the self-taught man was the greatest painter to work in Colonial America. 
Although he was still a rugged artist in many ways, Copley became famous enough to meet the most prosperous citizens of Boston. He had known poverty up close and understood the power that money brings. If he wanted to be respected, he knew it would come through money. However he was realistic enough to see how art was disregarded compared to its place of choice in Europe. 
A shy, we would say socially challenged, man, he had no friends, no one in his life to share his angst about his art and the deep changes that were at work and would soon shake the establishment of Colonial America with the strength of an earthquake. 
Copley, although he had lived on a wharf, perhaps it was because he had lived there, was terrified by the idea of crossing the ocean. However, he craved to connect with the art world and braving his fear of contact, he sent a portrait of his half-brother to the Society of Artists in London. 
He had no idea that the painting that didn’t even bear his signature (research had to be done to find out who the painter was) and would be known as The Boy with Squirrel would put him instantly under the spotlight. 
Is it because Copley had received no formal art education and not been exposed to quality art that his first exhibit convinced the small yet influent London art scene that the young American was dotted with unique talent? 
It was so encouraging for Copley to receive positive feedback that he returned to his work with more vigor and self-confidence. At last, he was in touch with other artists but when they all insisted for him to leave Boston for Europe again his fear of traveling stood in his way and he refused the offered opportunity. 
At about the same time he finally met a woman, fell in love and married her. Her family had made its fortune in the import of tea and Copley met real wealth. It brought a sense of comfort to the petrified timid man who had never forgotten his childhood’s fears when he lived near the thugs and rough people who populated the wharf. 
Yet his allegiance to his wife’s family would also bring new concerns to Copley’s comfortable life. The idea that he could pursue his art and remain oblivious of the social and economical uproar that was steaming was just impossible. 
He would not be the first painter to think that art was the only worthy activity to pursue. It would cost Picasso’s family famous hardship. Art cannot be fully and perpetually disconnected from the artist’s life and from the world around him. 
Copley was inhabited by an uncontrollable fear when it came to poverty that in his opinion could only lead to violent or at least primitive acts. 
But it was too late for trying to stop the wave that was meant to overcome the power of the British. Copley was devastated and for the first time ever threw himself in a role of peacemaker. Aware that both sides had a point, he was convinced that they could find an agreement if they only could meet and talk. Ultimately he failed and shortly before the shot heard around the world was fired, he finally braved his travel panic and embarked for England. 
The man who had refused for years to leave Boston was now on his way to Europe, leaving behind his wife, their four children, her family and his half brother. 
Although worried for all of them, Copley embraced London immediately. He was charmed by the British hospitality. Finally he was among people who appreciated art and recognized his talent. He visited countless museums and galleries, admiring original artwork he had never seen until now. 
Tormented by the events happening in Boston, he begged his wife to join him. She would much later with three of their children. But soon after her arrival, Copley, who had been celebrated and praised by all of London, entered a phase of despair when he realized he was after all only an émigré, a Colonial man from Boston, almost as rough as the ones he had fled.
Ironically it is the weight of the London sophistication that he had sought so much that killed Copley’s art. Too much refinement hides the reality of life and Copley had been at his best when he represented real people. Although he never painted rough, crude or graphic subjects, his brush stroke and palette were representative of the Boston boy and man he had been. 
Now he had not only departed his birthplace but his art. For a man who had believed that art could be compartmented, it was crushing. 
Year before the end of his life, Copley regretted his exile. He missed Boston and his early work. He had been critical of his painting that he never thought good enough in comparison of what he imagined was better in Europe. Now he wished he could create the same imperfect but true work again. 
Melancholy, regret, and the intimate thought that somewhere else would have provided success, fame and ultimately happiness are common human traits. 
But they tend to affect more often the people who have left their native land for a foreign country. While living in America, Copley spent part of his youth envying Europe. While in London, he felt a foreigner and ended up being perceived as one, straddling two continents and two worlds that after the Revolution had less and less in common. 
Copley was seventy-seven years old when he died after a series of strokes that left him incapacitated, broke and ignored by the public. 
With no art education, no money and no proper material, he managed to create exceptional portraits that, with all their imperfections and perhaps because of them, remain the trademark of early American art. 
Centuries later, Copley still exemplifies the American ingenious and creative entrepreneur spirit. His success incarnates the American Dream, the possibility for anyone to get a slice of the promise land, regardless of background but based on character and drive. 
It is tempting to think that Copley would have stayed on top of the summit he reached if he hadn’t been convinced that somewhere else was better suited for him and his art. 

Posted by Evelyne Holingue for Gene Oliver Gallery

Portrait of a young lady with a bird
pastel, dated and signed in right corner
Currently offered by the Gene Oliver Gallery:

  • Email

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Musings about fine arts from the Gene Oliver Gallery In San Juan Bautista, California. We specialize in European and American works from the 19th and 20th centuries, with a particular emphasis on Post-Impressionism, Fauvism, Pop Art and Abstract Expressionism artists. We also provide art valuation services and curatorial consultations.

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