John Singleton Copley

The painter John Singleton Copley (1738-1815) was born in Boston, the son of Irish immigrants. Copley’s stepfather had been a successful London engraver. Copley published his first portrait in his early teens. Copley focused his talents on painting “likenesses,” engraving complex groups of figures.

Copley’s colonial portraits demonstrate his preference for bold color and dramatic use of light and shade in a picture. Copley's portraits had an elegance to them, showing individual, animated characters. Copley’s style became popular among the colonial elite.

Copley also worked in a variety of media and sizes, producing portrait miniatures in oil on copper as early as 1755, and in watercolor on ivory beginning around 1762. Copley continued to show his preference for bold color applied directly to a primed canvas, dramatic contrasts of light and dark, and attention to minute detail,. He painted increasingly flamboyant settings and props. Copley could portray a convincing likeness of his subjects.

Copley remained in Boston. His sense of duty to his family and his uncertainty about the possibilities for success in London prevented him from risking study abroad until a later date. He spent seven months in New York, where he painted 37 portraits. He began to portray figures emerging from dark backgrounds with greater value contrasts and more sober tones.

After his return to Boston, Copley planned to travel abroad. Given the political turmoil of Boston before the American Revolution, Copley found it increasingly difficult to retain the neutral stance that would allow his portrait trade to continue. In June 1774 Copley left his family behind and sailed for England.

In London, Copley learned how to compose pictures by making numerous preparatory drawings, to square his drawings to transfer to a much larger scale than he had ever worked before, and to absorb the English and Continental method of applying multiple layers of transparent glazes.

Copley painted portraits of the youngest daughters of King George III.

Copley was the unrivaled portraitist of the American colonies for almost twenty-five years. His artistic vision, technical mastery, and high ambitions encouraged the development of the arts of North America.

Source: John Singleton Copley
Copyright © 2000 American Council of Learned Societies.

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