John Singleton Copley Biography
John Singleton Copley (1738–1815)
John Singleton Copley was the son of ‘an Irishman who died in the West Indies in 1737. As far as can be ascertained the artist was born on July 3d of the same year in Boston, whither his par ents had emigrated the year before. Ten years later the Widow Copley married one Pelham, who was a dabster at drawing and engraving, and from whom. his stepson doubtless acquired his first hints at art.
The youth of our first American historical painter, for such Copley really was, though his choice of subjects was anything but American, is involved in a singular obscurity. About all that is known of it is what he used to tell himself, and even he had but a vague idea of his earlier years.
It is a toler ably well-authenticated fact, however, that he was the creator of his own art, and that he never saw a decent picture till -he had long learned to paint very fair ones himself. He began to paint, like Benjamin West, with colors and brushes of his own manu facture, and one of his pet yarns of his boyhood related to his being arrested for violating a Boston blue law by going sketching. on Sunday. He is said to have received a little instruction from a Scotch painter named Smybert, who came to America in I728, and died when Copley was fourteen; but whatever tutelage he obtained from him cannot have amounted to much. At any rate, in 1754 he was making some sort of a living as a painter and help ing to take the place, as provider, of his stepfather, who had died three- years before.
He painted miniatures and acquired some repute, George Wash ington being one of his sitters in 1756. In 1760 he sent a portrait of his half-brother, unsigned and undated, to Benjamin West, in London. This was the picture known as “The Boy.and the Flying Squirrel.” West is reported to have gone into ecstasies over it. Contrary to the rules of the Royal Academy, which give anonymous works the cold shoulder, he had it hung there, and, ferreting out its author, invited him to London. But Copley did not accept the invitation. In 1769 he married the dau’ghter of a Boston merchant, a great beauty, whose heart he had first assailed while painting her portrait, and who figures as the principal of the female group in the ” Death of Major Pierson.” She brought him money and wealthy connections. They lived on Beacon Hill till 1771, when he came to New York.
But the Revolution was im pending, and his father-in-law’was a staunch Tory. It was to him, as agent of the East India Company, that the tea ships which the Bostonians raided were consigned. Between wife and father-in-law the artist was influenced, and in 1774 he sailed for England. West fathered and Reynolds patted him on the back, so the aristocracy took him in hand. He painted himself to Italy by the lords and ladies who found it fashionable to help the American artist along, and studied in Rome and elsewhere on the Peninsula tillhis wife, having sold their Boston property, crossed the At lantic after him, leaving on May 27, 1775, on the last ship that sailed from Massachusetts under the British fiag. Copley joined her in London and settled down there, never to see America again.
He painted his “Youth Resued from a Shark” and his portraits and groups, on the strength of which he joined the Royal Academy, and took to historical painting. His “‘ Death of Chatham” made a hit, and 2,500 impressions of the Bartolozzi plate, after it, were sold in a single run. But;he made far less money out of his historical pictures than he expected. They took up much of his time that he might have profitably employed in portraiture. The plates were costly, too, and Bartolozzi took his own time in executing them, so, altogether, Copley seems to have been hard up pretty much all the time. Still he had some fine business connections.
While in London all the wealthy or dis tinguished Americans sat for him; among them John Adans, whose picture is now in the University Hall at Cambridge. Per haps the best picture outside of his portraits is Copley’s ” Death of Major Pierson.” Heath engraved it, and it had an extensive sale. For ” The Siege of Gibraltar ” Copley went to Hanover to take the portraits of four of the generals of that country. This picture, completed in 1792, was engraved by Sharp “SThe Sur render of Admiral de Windt to Lord Camperdown” came a few years later. Copley’s picture of ” Charles I Demanding the Five Impeached Members ” seems not to have been a popular one, on account of the subject. But whatever he turned out’created a sensation, in spite of which he had to draw chronically on his American relatives to eke out his income. The fact is,’Copley was fond of style, and indulged his weakness.
Down to the time of his death, in September, i8i5, he seems to have been on bad terms with his creditors constantly; but he, by all accounts, found great solace in his work, and whenever care pressed too heavily on him, turned to his easel and shook it off. The works this man is perpetuated by have stood the critical test of our expanding taste far better than many others of his day. I remember his ” Death of Chatham,” in the National Gallery, as a peculiarly strong though conventional and certainly historically inaccurate canvas. Indeed, Copley took the most cold-blooded liberties with history whenever he fell foul of her. But, in com pensation, he painted with extraordinary smoothness and care, drew well, and finished’ conscientiously. His color was . rich, though somewhat sombre, and he had a keen eye for the harmo nies. A feature that struck me about his pictures was his mania for working up the hands in them.
But in his day the old German theory held full force, that no man was an artist who could not draw a perfect hand, and the man who could paint a perfect hand was an artist. Altogether, it seems to me that Copley’s standing is, assured beyond the possibility of shaking. He was the first American who lent any dignity to our art. He soared upward, in an age of portrait painters, almost to the level of legitimate history. The pictures he turned ouit in his American period were marvels when we consider the limited facilities from which they grew.
When he got a chance to study he became conventional, it is true, but through all the studied precision of line and color which characterizes his latter productions there glows a certain suggestion of his early natural, though crude force. If Copley had been born a century later, I believe we would be looking up to him -as a great man to-day. The art interest of Copley expires with him. He left his heri tage of talent to no descendant, but his family has enjoyed a some what interesting history since. He’left six children, all born in America. One daughter lived an old maid to the age of ninety five. His most noteworthy child was the son who became Lord Lyndhurst and High Chancellor of Great Britain.
This boy, born on Beacon Hill, was bred an Englishman and a lawyer, and in I8I7 was elected to the House of Commons to represent Yarmouth. In his eighty-eighth year, in i86o, he was an active member of the Lords. Lyndhurst died in I863 with the title of the Nestor of the House of Lords, ashamed’ to the last of his American origin. The same sentiment seems to have pervaded his family. His sister, who wrote the pretentious biography of her father from which I quote, lays less stress on the eminence which made that parent illustrious than on the fact that he was the father of a real, live Lord.