John Singleton Copley was one of the most, if not the most, popular portrait painter in the colonies during the years immediately before the American Revolution. His work appealed to the aristocracy of the colonies and he became very successful during his years there. In fact, some of his paintings are among the most famous of his time, especially in Boston, Massachusetts, where he was born and raised.
John Singleton Copley was born on July 3, 1738. He was the son of two immigrants, who had just moved to Boston from Ireland. They were poor and his father was in bad health. When John was still very young, his father went to the West Indies in an attempt to improve his health. He died there. When John was 10-years-old, his mother remarried and his interest in art began.
Copley’s stepfather was a man named Peter Pelham. Peter was a schoolteacher and an engraver. He had a significant library of books regarding art. These books were at John’s disposal. It was not long before Peter’s example and these books taught John enough to become an artist. Unfortunately, Peter Pelham died before his stepson achieved any success with his work. Peter died when John was thirteen-years-old, around the same time that John took up painting.
After John Singleton Copley had been painting a few years, he made the acquaintance of British painter Joseph Blackburn. He picked up some of Blackburn’s style, and that of other artists, but John was mainly self-taught. He had no formal training and yet his work was of very high quality. He gained a great deal of success and soon began doing portraits for a great deal of important people. He did most of his work in Boston, but he did spend a small amount of time working in New York.
At the time, artists in the colonies were treated like any other tradesperson. At least, that is how John Copley Singleton felt and he resented it. He had acquired the affectations of the aristocracy and achieved success, despite having spent his childhood as a poor Irish immigrant. He felt like he should be treated as more than just any tradesperson. He was right. John Singleton Copley was one of the most talented artists of the time. He is remembered among the famous men that he painted, one of which was Paul Revere, two of which became Presidents of the United States.
In 1769, John Copley Singleton married Susanna Clarke, who came from a wealthy family. The couple went on to have six children. One of their children, John Copley, became the Lord Chancellor Lyndhurst.
Despite all of the turmoil going on around him, John was neither a Whig nor a Tory. The closest he ever came to taking sides in the rebellion was a matter of association. His wife’s father owned some of the tea that was lost during the Boston Tea Party. Nonetheless, he left America in 1774, under the pretense of studying art in Europe. Instead, he went to Rome for some of the summer and then went to England. Within a year from his leaving, he and his family were permanently settled in London.
John Singleton Copley continued to paint in London. He gained popularity there and perhaps some of the respect he felt he deserved. He died there on September 9, 1815. Nevertheless, his work is associated most with Boston history and many of his works reside there in the Museum of Fine Arts.
Copley, John Singleton, retrieved 6/14/10, ibiblio.org/wm/paint/auth/copley
Barratt, Carrie Rebora, John Singleton Copley, retrieved 6/14/10, metmuseum.org/toah/hd/copl/hd_copl.htm
Painter John Singleton Copley Born, retrieved 6/14/10, massmoments.org/moment.cfm?med=19x