Copley, John Singleton

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Copley, John Singleton (1738-1815): American Painter.

John Singleton Copley was born to a modest tobacconist family in Boston, at the time, the largest city in North America. After his father’s death, his mother married engraver and painter, Peter Pelham, who among the other artists in their neighborhood, exposed the young Copley to the modest, fledgling world of art in New England. After his stepfather died in 1753, 13-year-old Copley began his career painting portraits to support the family. By the time he turned 20, Copley had created 40 portraits and was painting for New England’s uppermost society. In 1766 he submitted, Boy with a Squirrel, to an exhibition in London which caught the attention of Benjamin West and Reynolds, Sir Joshua. Soon after he was elected a member of the Incorporated Society of Artists of Great Britain and was urged to move to Europe where he could study the old masters. Copley would not make the move, however, until 1774. He studied in Italy and France before settling in London where he continued to impress the critics with his portraits. He and West developed a friendship that soon evaporated once Copley moved into the territory of historical painting, a realm that West had been considered the master of. A few bad business decisions made Copley at odds with the Royal Academy which cost him their support for the rest of his career. He continued painting into his seventies with waning success and even rebuke.

Copley is praised for his unique perception of character. His historical paintings, particularly Watson and the Shark and the Death of Chatham, rivaled West’s with their drama

Further Reading:

Jules David Prown, John Singleton Copley, 1966

Leah Sumner

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