J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Monday, October 25, 2010

Following John Singleton Copley Through the Years

The 18th-Century American Women blog has posted several entries on John Singleton Copley, colonial Boston’s self-made portrait artist. Among them is half a biography covering the first part of his career, in America.

Copley went to Europe to study shortly after his frustrated attempts to mediate the tea crisis for his in-laws, the Clarkes. He was therefore outside America when the Revolutionary War began, and there he remained. As an Anglican, a luxury craftsman, and the relative of a tea consignee, Copley’s interests all pulled him toward Britain instead of America (though he did leave his mother behind).

Copley reinvented himself in London as a history painter, breaking free of the portraits that nearly all his Americans clients had wanted. He produced some monumental images, but tended to work slowly. In America, Copley was the biggest fish in a small pond; in London, he faced much more competition, and more changes in artistic fashion.

Because Copley had left Massachusetts before the war, the state didn’t confiscate his large estate on the southwest part of Beacon Hill when it seized other absentees’ property. Some biographies suggest he lost that land as a Loyalist, but in fact he sold it to some Boston men in 1795, only to learn that the area was being developed and he might have gotten a better price.

The painter sent his oldest son, who had entered the law, to argue that the family should get the land back so he could sell it again. That went nowhere. John, Jr. (1772-1863), was more successful back in London, eventually becoming Baron Lyndhurst.

Back to the 18th-Century American Women blog. Other postings show how Copley used English engravings as models for his portraits, or borrowed clothing from such a print, or used the same dress and pose for three women in the same family. Examples like these remind us that Copley’s portraits aren’t photographs of exactly how people looked and dressed in colonial America, as lifelike as they may look; they were artistic creations, manipulated to create certain impressions.

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