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: A Colonial Portrait by John Copley


Minneapolis Institute of Arts



Institution Minneapolis Institute of Arts
“The features of our famous ancestor reveal the deadly reality of Copley and his pitiless and seldom complimentary probing character. For Copley, as you know, probably because of his plain beginnings, did not have the politeness or the graceful tradition of either Stuart or Blackburn.”Thus John P. Marquand, himself a pitiless and seldom complimentary prober of character, sums up, in the words of The Late George Apley, the qualities of the man who might have become the unquestioned father of American painting. It is a conclusion natural enough to one viewing Copley from a distance of some two hundred years, since the uncompromising reality of his portraits takes on, for contemporary eyes, an element of more profound intention than probably existed in the artist's mind.The realism that at once placed Copley far above the level of early colonial artists is the most striking element in the portrait of Mrs. Nathaniel Allen, just acquired by the Art Institute. It is a characterization that may well impress the observer as a more studied experiment in analysis than in fact it was. Copley was not consciously a prober of character. He was an artist with an extraordinarily fine sense of seeing. He was concerned primarily with depicting what he saw, as faithfully as it was in his power to do so. If, in his delineation of colonial character, he gives a more accurate appraisal of his sitters than other artists were accustomed to do, it was because he had to a high degree the gift of conveying precisely what he saw.In Mrs. Nathaniel Allen he saw a strong and boldly handsome young woman, with somewhat masculine cast to her features. This quality is emphasized by the severe dressing of her black hair, drawn back from a broad, rather craggy forehead and almost concealed under a wide, shallow hat held on with a lace band ending in a bow of white ribbon. Her nose is straight and well-cut, her mouth firm above a determined chin, and her eyes excessively piercing under straight, low brows. She is not a woman to be trifled with. As she stands in her best blue satin, laced a the bodice with blue ribbon and topped with a snowy fichu, she is drawing a long white glove on her right hand preparatory to making a call, perhaps, to which she looks forward with no great pleasure. One can imagine her telling the children exactly what she expects of them during her absence.Copley painted her about 1763, when he was twenty-five and she had been married some ten years. She was Sarah, daughter of Epes Sargent, and she lived most of her life in Gloucester, where her husband carried on a mercantile and shipping business.When Copley painted her portrait he had already been subject to—and largely freed himself from—the “graceful tradition” of Blackburn, who had arrived in the colonies in 1754 full of news of the latest happenings in the artistic circles of London. In pose the picture is reminiscent of the fashionable English style in which Blackburn had been trained. Yet Copley has proceeded far enough on his individual path of realism and simplicity to rob it of the artificial flavor that marked some of his earlier works. It was produced just on the threshold of his mature an most distinguished style; the style that would have led to a position of unquestioned leadership in the founding of an American tradition in painting had Copley not gone chasing the will-of-the-wisp of English acclaim.The Institute's new portrait shows him to have been already the master of his realistic style with regard to delineation of the head. The face is well-modelled and full of character, with warm tones appearing in the shadows. The figure, which still betrays the irregularity of drawing that marked Copley as a provincial artist, is easily disposed in a landscape background. The treatment of fabrics, here as in other works, shows Copley to have been gifted in the painting of materials and the play of light on their surfaces. It the pose of the figure does not reveal the deeply intimate and personal quality of certain late works such as the portraits of Mrs. Thomas Boylston, Nathaniel Hurd, and Thomas Boylston, neither does it possess the theatrical quality of earlier works such as Ann Tyng, painted under Blackburn's full influence, Ann Gardiner, and Mrs. Daniel Rogers.That Copley was able to establish his style, even in the face of his belief in the superiority of English painting, is a tribute not only to his ability but to his integrity as an artist. That he was able to maintain that style, with but temporary deviations, in the face of influence and suggestions from London is proof of his native good sense and perhaps unconscious awareness of suitability. If, as has been suggested, he ended by influencing Blackburn, Copley emerges as an exceptionally strong artistic personality admittedly capable of contributing something to the English traditions with which he yearned to identify himself.The something that Copley contributed was simple realism. From the early 1760s until his departure for London in 1774, he produced a group of portraits that rank among the finest expressions of the colonial spirit. Copley frequently complained about the status of art in the colonies; about the difficulty of getting adequate instruction, and the impossibility of producing any great work for a clientèle that was interested chiefly in “face painting.” Nevertheless he must have become absorbed in spite of himself in the problem of presenting his sitters as individuals. He acquired early the gift of painting heads with character, and as his style matured and deepened he realized that it was not only in the face that one saw character, but in the clothes, the gestures, and the poses of his sitters. He therefore turned his attention increasingly to the problem of creating true and individual portraits, abandoning the trappings he had formerly used to lend style to his pictures, and subordinating details to the whole. This interest in the total effect of his characterizations led also to an improvement in the composition of Copley's portraits. The figures moved comfortably in the surroundings, acquiring a more three-dimensional aspect than in former works.It is because he finally visualized his sitters as complete entities that Copley was able to give such an authentic impression of his colonial patrons. To contemporary observers they may well appear to be more realistic than charming, but theirs was a realistic and difficult age. They had to be sturdy and self-reliant if they were to survive. Copley's supreme gift was that he could paint them as they were, without any hanky-panky about the subconscious, and with no intent to reveal their inner selves apart from the revelation of self that arises from a gesture or the manner in which one sits in a chair.That he could reach such heights in portraiture on a foundation largely of self-instruction gives cause for some wonder. But as a young boy Copley determined to be a painter, and he appears to have been the first American to make art his profession. He was the only son of Richard and Mary Singleton Copley, who had come to America from Ireland in 1736. The year of his birth has been fixed as both 1737 and 1738, but on the basis of a statement in Copley's hand the Institute has accepted the later date. His father died in 1737 while on a voyage to the West Indies, and the first ten years of Copley's life seem to have been passed on Long Wharf in Boston where his mother ran a tobacco shop.When Copley was ten years old his mother married Peter Pelham, the engraver. It was Pelham who gave the boy his first lessons in painting, and who encouraged him in his choice of a career. Copley was also familiar with the work of John Smibert, who came to this country in 1728 and whose studio contained numerous engravings and some copies of European works. While he was fumbling about trying to find himself, Copley probably copied the style of any artist on whose work he could lay his hands. Among them, besides Smibert, were John Greenwood, Feke, Blackburn, and possibly through Blackburn, Highmore. By the time he was twenty years old Copley already had enough work to support himself, and from then on he showed continuous improvement.One of the high points of his colonial period was the acceptance of his portrait, The Boy With the Squirrel, for the exhibition of the Society of Artists in London in 1766. The paintings, a portrait of his half-brother Henry Pelham, caused a sensation in London, and marked the beginning of Copley's correspondence with Benjamin West. This event was instrumental in changing the course of Copley's life, for West's insistence on the importance of European travel and study, together with Copley's own desire to see how things were done in a great art center such as London, culminated in his departure for England in 1774.He never returned to this country. His wife and children, disturbed by conditions in Boston in the spring of 1775, had sailed for London, and when he joined them there after an extended tour of Italy and the Low Countries, he decided to make his home there. This step marked the beginning of a new phase of his artistic life, for while he continued to paint portraits his chief interest lay in the large historical compositions that had been the vogue in London for several years. At first he was highly successful, but as time went on his paintings ceased to interest the public, and his life ended, in 1815, in bitterness and poverty.Actually, Copley had got beyond his depth in England. He had been content to stay in America, or even to return to America, there is little doubt that his glory would have been far greater and his place in the evolution of American painting unequivocal. The best of his colonial portraits, produced from the early 'sixties to the middle 'seventies, have rarely been surpassed in this field of American art, and the Institute is extremely fortunate in having secured such a fine example of his colonial period.Referenced Work of Art
  1. Portrait of Mrs. Nathaniel Allen by John Singleton Copley. American, 1738-1815. Dunwoody Fund.
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Source: "A Colonial Portrait by John Copley," <i>The Minneapolis Institute of Arts Bulletin</i> 30, no. 24 (October, 1941): 118-121.
Rights: ©MIA
Added to Site: March 10, 2009