Jane Kamensky’s article on John Singleton Copley, an artist Boston has long been proud of but himself a proud Englishman. Not only was he in Europe when the war broke out, but he had his sights on the imperial capital years before:
Copley, by this time , had become the leading painter in New England if not all of British America. Business was good: he found himself as busy at his easel as he “could expect or wish to be,” he wrote. But he wanted more: he craved success in the English metropolis, which was fast becoming a standard-bearer in the world of contemporary art. In “this country,” he said of his native New England, “the hands of an artist is tied up” painting faces, a copyist’s craft. Copley longed to “get disingaged from this frosen region.”The Museum of Fine Arts has the world’s largest collection of Copleys, anchoring its gallery on eighteenth-century American art. But America has only a few of the history paintings he longed to create instead of portraits.
Two weeks after Parliament passed the Stamp Act, Copley began a decade-long quest to slip what he called his “bondage” to career and family in New England. He sent a portrait of his young stepbrother Henry Pelham across the Atlantic, to see how his art, so beloved in Boston, might hold up “at home.” By “home,” this 27-year-old who had never left New England meant London.
The picture, “Boy with a Flying Squirrel”, is a compact tour de force. It would serve as his calling card. Glass, satin, velvet, and gold — empire’s imports — offset the delicately ruffled fur of a North American flying squirrel. Exhibited by London’s Society of Artists in 1766, the portrait set the British cognoscenti chattering and launched Copley’s career in London. It hangs now in the MFA’s “Revolutionary Boston” gallery.