Singleton Copley was a Boston-born American artist of the colonial
period, famous for his portraits of important figures in colonial New
England, particularly men and women of the middle class. His portraits
were innovative in that they tended to portray their subjects with
artifacts that were indicative of their lives. John Singleton Copley was
virtually self-taught as a portraitist. By meticulously recording
details, John Singleton Copley created powerful characterizations of his
After he emigrated to London in 1774, Copley began to specialize in narrative scenes from history and joined the influential artistic institution, the Royal Academy of Art. John Singleton Copley demonstrated a genius, in both his American and British periods, for rendering surface textures and capturing emotional immediacy. Copley's mother owned a tobacco shop on Long Wharf. The parents, who according to the artist's granddaughter, Martha Babcock Amory, came to Boston in 1736, were "engaged in trade, like almost all the inhabitants of the North American colonies at that time".
Born in Boston in 1738, John Singleton Copley was influenced by the mezzotints of his stepfather, Peter Pelham, and the portraits of local portrait painter John Smibert. Copley painted both the young and the aged but emphasized setting to convey the desired mood. Ladies posed before fine furniture and textured draperies; men were surrounded by books and tools, hunting dogs and guns. His style was straightforward and realistic, creating portraits of great strength. Among his many 'subjects' were portraits of John Hancock, Samuel Adams, John Adams and countless lords and ladies of his era, both in America and in London.
John Singleton 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.
Artist John Singleton Copley 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 practice, 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.
Besides painting portraits in oil, doubtless after a formula learned from Peter Pelham, John Singleton Copley was an American pioneer using pastels. John Singleton Copley wrote, on September 30, 1762, to the Swiss painter Jean-Étienne Liotard, asking him for "a set 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 supplies for practicing 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". The requested pastels were duly received and used by John Singleton Copley in making many portraits in a medium suited to his talent. By this time Copley had begun to demonstrate his genius for rendering surface textures and capturing emotional immediacy.
Although John Singleton Copley was steadily employed with commissions from the Boston bourgeoisie, he wanted to test himself against the more exacting standards of Europe. In 1766 John Singleton Copley exhibited "Boy with a Squirrel" (shown here) at the Society of Artists in London. It was highly praised both by Sir Joshua Reynolds and by Copley's countryman Benjamin West.
John Singleton Copley married in 1769. Although he did not venture out of Boston except for a seven-month stay in New York City in 1771, John Singleton Copley was urged by fellow artists who were familiar with his work to study in Europe. Copley's father-in-law was the merchant to whom the tea that provoked the Boston Tea Party was consigned.
When political and economic conditions in Boston began to deteriorate, ( Copley left the country in June of 1774, never to return. In 1775 John Singleton's wife, children, and several other family members arrived in London, and Copley established a home there in 1776.
John Singleton Copley's ambitions in Europe went beyond portraiture and he was eager to make a success in the more highly regarded sphere of historical painting. In his first important work, "Watson and the Shark", Copley used what was to become one of the great themes of 19th-century Romantic art, the struggle of man against nature. John Singleton Copley was elected to the Royal Academy in 1779.
Although Copley's English paintings grew more academically sophisticated and self-conscious, in general they lacked the extraordinary vitality and penetrating realism of his Boston portraits. Toward the end of his life, his physical and mental health grew worse. Though John Singleton Copley continued to paint with considerable success until the last few months of his life, he was obsessed by the sale (at a loss) of his Boston property and by his increasing debts.