John Singleton Copley

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John Singleton Copley is considered to be the foremost artist of colonial America. He is also one of its most prolific. Copley was born on July 3, 1738, in Boston, and was trained by his stepfather, a mezzotint engraver. Copley's early work shows the influence of the Boston painter John Smibert and of English rococo portraitists. From the latter he learned the device of the portrait d'apparat, in which artifacts used by the subject are included in the portrait, as in Paul Revere (1768?, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston), an intense likeness of the patriot-silversmith holding one of his silver teapots. By 1760 Copley's distinctive style had crystallized, characterized by meticulous technique, clear verisimilitude, and a vivid, balanced palette. His sitters included famous politicians (John Hancock, 1765, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston) and wealthy New Englanders (Mrs. Sylvanus Bourne, 1766, Metropolitan Museum, New York City).

Well aware of his outstanding gifts, Copley sent his painting The Boy with a Squirrel (1765, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston) to London, where it was exhibited. Impressed by the painting, the English portraitist Sir Joshua Reynolds and the expatriate American painter Benjamin West urged Copley to immigrate to Europe. In 1774 Copley followed their advice, touring Italy and then settling in London in 1775. He was elected an associate of the Royal Academy in the following year and a full member in 1779, the same year he exhibited his protoromantic Watson and the Shark (1778, National Gallery, Washington, D.C.; a copy that Copley made for himself is in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston), a virtuoso rendering of an actual incident in Havana Harbor. Under West's influence, Copley turned to history painting, with such splendid large canvases as The Death of the Earl of Chatham (1779-1781, Tate Gallery, London), a dramatically composed version of a timely event. Copley died on September 9, 1815, in London.

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