Sunday, June 28, 2015

John Singleton Copley

The Death of the Earl of Chatham
oil on canvas
228.6 307.3 cm
National Portrait Gallery, London, UK

John Singleton Copley (1738-1815) was an American painter of portraits and historical subjects. He is generally acclaimed as the finest artist of colonial America.

Little is known of his boyhood. He gained familiarity with graphic art from his stepfather. He soon discovered that his skills were most pronounced in the genre of portraiture. In his portraits, he revealed an intimate knowledge of his New England subjects and milieu and conveyed a powerful sense of physical entity and directness.

Although he was steadily employed with commissions from the Boston bourgeoisie, he wanted to test himself against the standards of Europe. When political and economic conditions in Boston began to deteriorate (his father-in-law was the merchant to whom the tea that provoked the Boston Tea Party was consigned), he left the country in 1774, never to return.

His ambitions in Europe went beyond portraiture. He was eager to make a success in the highly regarded sphere of historical painting. In his first important work in this genre in 1778, he used what was to become one of the great themes of 19th-century Romantic art: the struggle of man against nature. In 1779, he was elected to the Royal Academy. His English paintings grew more academically sophisticated and self-conscious, but in general they lacked the extraordinary vitality and penetrating realism of his Boston portraits.