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8 minute read
Robert Hughes

JOHN SINGLETON COPLEY IN AMERICA,” the show of some 75 paintings that opened last week at New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, is a thoroughly absorbing affair. There has never been any doubt about Copley’s importance to American art. He was the best portraitist the young colony produced in the 18th century. He was also its second major cultural expatriate, after Benjamin West. His career falls into two halves, the first set in provincial Boston and New York, the second in imperial London. And yet, fine as his English work was, one may prefer his American paintings, with their hard-won extraction of character. He is the classic example of the artist pulling himself up by the bootstraps, rising by grit and talent above the dilemmas of provinciality.

Copley’s origins were humble. Born in 1738, he was raised by his widowed Irish mother, who sold tobacco in a dockside shop; his education was sparse. Beyond that, 18th century Boston presented him with special difficulties in becoming a painter–obstacles that are almost unimaginable today. Boston had no drawing schools or art collections; a cabinetmaker there could see first-class examples of English furniture, which the elite of Massachusetts bought in quantity, but no budding artist could lay eyes on an original work by Sir Joshua Reynolds, let alone by Rembrandt or Raphael. With luck he could see a few prints (the show contains some eager attempts by the young Copley to copy mythological subjects from mezzotints), but that was all.

Late 18th century Boston and Philadelphia had a stronger material culture than any other cities in America, but the old Puritan and Quaker distrust of the graven image and preference for the Word had delayed their appreciation of painting (as distinct from furniture or silverware)…Art was mere “limning” and, as Copley complained to West in London, people “regard it as no more than any other useful trade…like that of a Carpenter, tailor or shoe maker, not as one of the most Noble arts in the world. Which is more than a little Mortifying to me.”

Worse still, the young artist could expect no informed criticism. In Boston, Copley complained, people judged portraits only on their likeness to the sitter–as effigies, not paintings. He set out to resolve this dilemma, at least, by painting a demonstration piece and sending it to experts in England.

It was Boy with a Squirrel, 1765. It shows his 16-year-old stepbrother Henry Pelham absorbed in reverie in front of a red curtain, his gaze slightly raised like a Guido Reni saint as he toys with a gold chain. The other end of the chain is attached to a tame flying squirrel nibbling a nut. Everything in the painting is a show of skill in illusion: the squirrel’s pelt, the reflections and the thread of white highlight on the mahogany tabletop, the glass of water (to show how well he could do transparency), the boy’s fresh, young skin.

Copley sent it, through a seagoing friend, directly to Reynolds in London, the foremost portraitist of his age. Reynolds wrote back, urging him to cross the Atlantic at once: “You would be… one of the first Painters in the World,” if only he came “before your Manner and Taste were corrupted or fixed by working in your little way in Boston.” West, the American painter who had already made a career in London, agreed. He found Copley’s style too “liny,” harsh and emphatic in outline but felt that could be corrected by “a sight of what has been done by the great masters.”

This, one might have thought, would have been enough to make Copley grab a berth on the next ship to London. He did nothing of the sort. At 28 he was already the one big fish in Boston’s tiny cultural pond. In London he would have been a sprat in a sea of talent. So he hung back for nine more years, until 1774, and left only when the riots and disturbances that presaged the American Revolution threatened to ruin his market.

Copley was, in fact, the first American painter really to prosper on his home ground. To do so, he had to rise socially. The portrait painter has to have the same values, and preferably move in the same social sphere, as his clients. He must know the details of dress, possessions, gesture, expression–the whole theater of a sitter’s self-representation–from within. Titian, Rubens, Van Dyck and Reynolds had shown that; and Copley, in a smaller domain, knew it too. In 1769 he cemented his place in the upper crust of Massachusetts by marrying Susannah Clarke, daughter of a Tory merchant nabob who represented the East India Company’s tea interests (it was his tea that was dumped in the harbor during the Boston Tea Party). This marriage put the Irish tobacconist’s boy at the same level as his sitters, and commissions rained on him.

Artists, like sleepwalkers, sometimes take the right turn for unconscious reasons, and so it was with Copley. The “liny” style of his “little way in Boston” turned out, in the end, not to be a provincial flaw. Rather, it proved the very basis of his best achievement as a painter. It produced the hard, unfussed, straightforward realism of his portraits, which make up a unique record of the men and women who formed America from the top in the late 18th century.

We can now see Copley’s work as the origin of one of the main lines of American painting: that empirical realism that, disdaining frills of style and “spiritual” grace notes, tried in all its sharpness (and, occasionally, bluntness) to engage the material world as an end in itself. Later figures in this line would be John James Audubon and Thomas Eakins. But Copley was the first. He took the linear, enumerative style of early American effigy painting and made it peculiarly grand–not through rhetoric, as in the “grand manner,” but through the candor of its curiosity. He did not edit out the warts and wens, the pinched New England lips, the sallow skin and (as several portraits show) the pockmarks that were the common disfigurement of an age before vaccination. Eighteenth century America did not have today’s obsession with the cosmetic.

The closest he came to the rococo sparkle of English portraiture was in his 1767 portrait of Nicholas Boylston, Boston’s biggest luxury-goods importer: blue-chinned, sharp-eyed and relaxed in his morning panoply of damask dressing gown, unbuttoned waistcoat (showing the careless ease of the gentleman) and velvet turban. His ships ply the sea behind him, and his arm rests on an account ledger. As art historian Paul Staiti observes in an excellent catalog essay, Copley’s clients liked his style because it was so embedded in the world of substance and inventories that had made them what they were.

But he didn’t paint only Tories. He did one memorable portrait of Paul Revere, the artisan-radical, rhyming the smooth, rather inexpressive mass of Revere’s head with the silver teapot he is holding.

Copley also painted the populist stirrer Samuel Adams, whose writings were pointing the way to the Declaration of Independence. Adams was as poor as a church mouse and had to pose in borrowed clothes; the portrait was paid for by his friend John Hancock (he of the signature). It is the only Copley painting to show a political figure engaged in conflict. Tight-lipped, all Calvinist fervor and republican anger, Adams points with one rigid finger at the royal charter of the Massachusetts colony, while gripping in the other hand a screed of protest from Boston citizens. In its sharp contrasts of highlighted flesh and dark clothes, it is a most dramatic image, and yet you can’t tell from it where Copley’s own political sympathies lay–with the common citizenry that he came from and Adams spoke for, or with the Tories (including Copley’s in-laws) who detested Adams as a tribune of the “mob.”

Perhaps the finest of Copley’s family portraits is that of Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Mifflin, done in 1773. Mifflin was a rich young radical Whig of Quaker origins, who would become George Washington’s aide-de-camp and, after the Revolution, Governor of Virginia. The portrait is very sober in color–browns, grays and silver, the only bright note being a red flower pinned to Sarah Mifflin’s bodice. What is especially striking about it is the way it preserves Quaker ideas of matrimonial equality. Conventional 18th century portraits have the wife looking adoringly at the husband, who looks at you. Not here: it is Sarah who occupies the foreground and fixes you with a composed, level gaze, while Thomas looks at her with a pride that seems very far from proprietorial complacency. It is a beautiful reflection of the equality of man and wife in a voluntary contract.

Out of the poverty of means then available to an American painter, Copley had created a counterpart to the plain, didactic neoclassical style that Jacques-Louis David used in his portrait of the Lavoisiers: earnestness, probity, equality, set forth within the frame of marriage, an Ideal Republic of two. In England he would paint more elaborate images than this–but none more close knit and concentrated.

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