John Singleton Copley (1738-1815), painter, was born in Boston, Massachusetts, the son of Irish immigrants. Copley’s early interest in art received stimulation from his stepfather, a successful London engraver. Copley published his first portrait, Reverend William Welsteed in his early teens. Copley focused his talents on painting “likenesses,” early on engraving complex multiple figural groupings.
Copley’s colonial portraits demonstrate his preference for bold color and dramatic chiaroscuro (the distribution of light and shade in a picture). Copley's portraits had an elegance to them, showing individual, animated characters, making Copley 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. In the early to mid-1760s Copley continued to show his preference for bold color directly applied to a primed canvas, dramatic contrasts of light and dark, and attention to minute detail, but he did so with 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 around 37 portraits. He now preferred 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, which ultimately led to 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 even attracted the attention of King George III, who allowed the artist to paint his youngest daughters. Copley died at his home in George Street, London.
Copley was the unrivaled portraitist of the American colonies for almost twenty-five years; his artistic vision, technical mastery, and high ambitions set a standard for the encouragement and development of the arts of North America.
Source: John Singleton Copley
Copyright © 2000 American Council of Learned Societies.