Editor's note: The following exhibition description was reprinted in Resource Library in November 8, 2007 with permission of the author. If you have questions or comments regarding the text, please contact the author at The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston directly by calling 713-639-7300.

John Singleton Copley's 'Native' Realism & His English 'Improvement'

by Emily Ballew Neff


Through his portrayals of American icons, such as Paul Revere, John Adams, and John Hancock, John Singleton Copley (1738-1815) captured an enduring image of pre-Revolutionary America. After Copley moved from the American colonies to England in 1774, he made significant contributions in the field of contemporary history painting, fashioning himself as an impresario of the popular spectacle and reorienting the genre. However, it is the convincing realism of Copley's colonial portraits that subsequent historians have appreciated -- his attention to the details of patterned lace, polished wood, metal surfaces, brilliant fabrics, and lustrous pearls rendered with the precision of a master carver, tailor, or jeweller.

In the late 1760s, Copley complained that the American colonists considered painting like " ...any other useful trade...like that of a Carpenter tailor or shew maker [sic], not as one of the most noble Arts in the World."[1] Ironically, his American portraits disguised the hand of the artist, as if their elements were indeed turned, sewed, hammered, or welded with the tools of a master artisan.

Copley's statement, made to an unknown correspondent, is relevant not only to his American career, but also to his European reception and development. Most views of Copley tend to define his art nationalistically: he was an essentially American artist who reflected the realism, pragmatism, and materialism of the colonial period. Once abroad, he evolved into an essentially British artist who lost these "American" characteristics and succumbed to decadent aristocratic fashion. Although its nationalist implications have their own interest, such a limited view discredits the artist and diminishes our understanding of his motivation and achievement in his own time and milieu. However, a better appreciation of the nature of Copley's realism, as defined by himself, his patrons, and his contemporaries, reveals a complex, astute artist with a keen eye for both colonial and English markets.

Literature on Copley abounds with tales of the artist's realism. Like the ancient Greek painter Zeuxis, whose convincing image of grapes caused credulous birds to swoop down on the luscious-looking fruit, Copley's portraits elicited similar human reactions. When a one-year-old encountered a Copley portrait of his father, "He sprung to it, roared, and schriched [sic], and attempted gripping the hand...and when any of us askt [sic] him for Papa, he always turned, and pointed to the Picture."[2]

Similar accounts extended to sophisticated patrons and artists, who repeatedly paid tribute to Copley's ability to capture a forceful likeness. Articulating the engaging quality of a Copley portrait, John Adams wrote in 1817 that "...you can scarcely help discoursing with them, asking questions and receiving answers."[3] Gilbert Stuart, known for his ability to "nail the face to the canvas," once challenged a viewer of Copley's portrait of Epes Sargent, "Prick that hand and blood will spurt out."[4]

These testimonials help define the province of the Copley portrait as it hovered somewhere between artifice and reality. But if his critics observed a magical quality of illusionism in his images, they did not assume it was achieved by sleight of hand. Unlike Stuart, whose admirers claimed he wielded a "magical wand" instead of a brush, the Copley who emerged in literature was not a conjurer but a laborer.[5]

Observers consistently referred to Copley's determination and vigor, noting the artist's exhaustive efforts to match the sitter's skin tone with pigment. Stuart, contradicting himself, claimed the process resulted in "labored flesh" resembling "tanned leather."[6] And few accounts neglect to mention the numerous sittings required of Copley's subjects. Descriptions of the artist and his work invariably included the terms "work," "labor," "mechanical," and "industry." Regarding Copley's portrait of Josiah Quincy, Stuart exclaimed, "...there is as much work in one of those hands as I put in a whole portrait.... The industry of Copley was marvelous."[7]

That comment discloses as much about the observer as it does about the observed, revealing Stuart's effort to portray himself as a natural genius. Stuart implied that he captured a likeness swiftly, perhaps effortlessly, while Copley's method seems methodical and dogged by contrast. Stuart's use of the term "industry," which in the early nineteenth century suggested a trade, cleverness, and systematic work, seemed to identify Copley as a mechanic fashioning highly finished products.

The characterization that Copley's hard work and diligence ensured his success, has, for the most part, endured for almost two-hundred years. More than any other colonial American artist, Copley has come to represent the myth of the colonial American as singularly determined and honest. By mid- to late nineteenth century, historians such as Henry Tuckerman identified Copley's stylistic traits with the colonial model of hard work, simplicity, and directness by identifying those virtues in the hard edges and meticulous details of the artist's pictures.[8] After Copley relocated to England, the relative linearity of his early brushwork gave way to freer handling; latter historians, such as Samuel Isham and Charles Caffin viewed this change as evidence of degeneration.[9]

Copley's so-called decline and loss of colonial innocence was mirrored in the literature on American art during the early nineteenth century, when many members of the American Academy of Fine Arts sought to create and nurture a "national" art. Accounts of American art of this period often made reference to the heartiness of the colonial artist who risked contamination when exposed to the refinement (or decadence) of foreign schools. These warnings, however, constructed to caution American artists about the perils of expatriation, did not deter them from traveling abroad.

The isolationist argument for American progress created an atmosphere which fostered negative interpretations of Copley's English career. Once Copley had left the fertile American landscape, itself increasingly associated with American identity, his roots would be said to have decayed in England's depleted soil, and his English paintings would be condemned by twentieth-century historians for their seeming artiface. Under the influence of these nationalistically charged viewpoints, critics largely fashioned their estimation of Copley to accommodate evolving theories of American identity.

The perception of Copley as a colonial innocent that has emerged in twentieth-century literature reveals a paradoxical relationship to the artist's own efforts at presenting both himself and his art. Copley, like any artist marketing his work, was conscious of the perception of provincial innocence and naiveté and he used it, as necessary, to orchestrate an extraordinarily successful career in the colonies as well as in England.

Copley believed that American colonial painting was severely limited and he criticized unsophisticated observers as if surrounded by philistines: writing bitterly to an artist abroad that preserving a likeness was the "...main part of the excellency of a portrait in the oppinion [sic] of our New England Conoseurs [sic]."[10] He repeatedly recognized and resented the limitations of painting in America, where portraiture enjoyed popularity, while history painting, the highest genre an artist could practice in the academic hierarchy and the focus of Copley's ambition, languished.

Perhaps Copley's fellow colonists did not share his appreciation for history painting. But, his description of the colonies as visually starved hardly characterizes the rich environment that indeed existed. As economic historian T. H. Breen reminds us, American colonial society was thoroughly English and reflected English standards of taste, largely transmitted through manufactured goods.[11] As for painting, sophisticated aesthetic material was available in John Smibert's well-appointed Boston studio, which boasted copies of Old Master paintings and portfolios of European and English mezzotints, as well as in Chief Justice William Allen's home in Philadelphia, where Copley studied copies of paintings by Titian, Corregio, and Van Dyck.[12]

In Copley's letter accepting admission to the Society of Artists of Great Britain -- he was elected in 1766 while still in Boston -- he exaggerated the disadvantages of colonial America, "...their [sic] is neither precept, example, nor Models, to form the taste direct and confirm the practice" of art.[13] These sorts of complaints allowed Copley to magnify his own talent as it developed in the colonies. By making reference to colonial primitiveness, Copley could advertise abroad his astonishing talent even before he left colonial soil.

By claiming a state of innocence, Copley drew attention to his desire and potential for "improvement," a term reverberating throughout Anglo-American eighteenth-century literature, in agricultural treatises and etiquette books advising the unimproved on matters of manners and morals. These writings proliferated as the Lockean model of nurture over nature informed English culture. According to this model, education, not natural proclivity, lead to personal and public improvement and, ultimately, the prosperity of England. Appeals for "improvement" proved a potent form of nationalism, since they created an environment which encouraged the notion of England as a world power.

The exponential gain in English wealth based on trade during this period introduced new moral and political problems that many scholars argued could be contained by "improvement." By 1780, Sir Joshua Reynolds explicitly argued what he had long implied: that the artistic profession would be validated through its active promotion of civilization in a world where familiar structures and institutions were shifting. Increased trade brought riches, but not necessarily enlightenment. Claiming that enlightened artists could extoll public virtue through their work and prevent a society of merely economic men, Reynolds constructed a role for English artists to play in the expanding circle of trade.

Copley's incessant complaints about the absence of artistic appreciation in the colonies should thus be understood as more than the sign of discontent. His desire for improvement and claims of innocence worked to his advantage -- they signified his participation in the eighteenth-century intellectual notion of progress. They also forged a role for him in the larger project of civilizing America and demonstrated to those whose help he sought abroad, such as Reynolds and Benjamin West, his yearning to be a part of a larger program in which artists would serve as civilizing agents in a society transformed by a market economy.

Copley's letters consistently reveal his artistic ambitions and his cultural aspirations for the colonies, which were, he wrote, "...intirely [sic] destitute of all just Ideas of the Arts."[14] He demonstrated his earnestness in letters soliciting advice from Reynolds and West.[15] To his European and colonial contacts, Copley repeatedly claimed that America would, one day, be an enviable environment for the arts.

Copley echoed Reynolds in his desire to play a part in the eighteenth-century notion of "progress," in which artists would prevent the state from succumbing to conditions of barbarism and so-called primitivism. Yet he played on the perception of his own provincial origins as primitive, once remarking, "We Americans seem not half-removed from a state of nature," an exaggerated reference to American "primitiveness."[16] Copley's pronouncement of innocence is similar in spirit to West's when he equated the Apollo Belvedere with a Mohawk warrior before his learned European audience.[17]

West, Copley, and Stuart fashioned themselves in a manner common during the eighteenth century in their repeated references to distant lands and identification with the fashionable "other" which proved to be an attractive marketing device. Both West and Copley, once abroad, included either Native Americans, as in West's Death of General Wolf, or African Americans, as in Copley's Watson and the Shark, in their history paintings as references to help identify the distant lands considered so appealing and essential to British prosperity.[18] Primitive or exotic associations were thus advantageous to artists eager to practice their profession in new surroundings. By making reference to colonial outposts, the source of new English wealth, both Copley and West played on England's image of itself as a world power.

Copley's art often engaged the subject of trade, however indirectly, in ways that caused consternation among conservatives such as Reynolds, who recognized the promises and perils of increased trade but did not address them in his art. American lands, colonized for the mutually beneficial mercantile system in which raw materials were exchanged for finished products, soon emerged as the largest market for British manufactured goods. Thus the colonies functioned as a trading post, in which portraiture was, as Copley complained, just another trade. But portraiture in the colonies also was a means by which trade assumed a face. The extraordinary attention artists such as Copley spent on rendering material objects illustrated the wealth and prosperity of the colonies brought about by a mercantile society.[19]

It is possible that Copley's insistent materialism reminded Reynolds and West of the dangers of an unimproved state -- one flourishing because of trade but not yet sufficient in cultural refinements. On one hand, Copley understood his colonial market and glorified its new wealth in portraiture. But to those he wanted to emulate, such as Reynolds and West, his insistent materialism connoted vulgarity. The "lineyness" and "overminuteness" West and Reynolds condemned in his art drew attention to the particular rather than the general, the part rather than the whole, the stuffs rather than the idea.[20]

Despite his desire for success in London, Copley had a compelling financial motive to remain in the colonies and to retain the particularity of his style, which had proved so attractive to his New England clientele responsible for his dramatic rise in social status. While Copley's development from the linear to the painterly represented progress, it was the particular art market at a given time and place that guided Copley's stylistic change, as he alternately fashioned himself -- with great industry -- as an innocent, a primitive, and eventually, a sophisticate.

Once abroad, Copley emphatically asserted his desire to be a part of the eighteenth-century notion of the progress of civilization with his first public self-portrait presentation. In The Copley Family, a tour de force of artistic self-fashioning which he exhibited to great acclaim at the Royal Academy of 1777, Copley followed Reynolds' proscriptions and joined his cause. Copley's family is fashionably dressed in stylish surroundings, but their material possessions do not distract the viewer from understanding the picture's larger message. Copley loosens his brushwork, softens his lines, and draws attention to his status as a gentlemen connoisseur not of the New England type he had earlier deplored, but of the London type to which he had long aspired. Gripping a set of drawings, the artist links himself to an antique urn, the celebrated Medici Vase, and to an Italianate background including what appears to be a Renaissance church. Returning from the Grand Tour, a prerequisite for status as a gentleman and a serious artist, Copley announced his right to join Reynolds' select group, the Royal Academy. He was elected, in fact, just one year later. Copley proved that promoting innocence had its advantages because, in one grand image, he illustrated the reward of seeking improvement by displaying this badge of civility, London style. Copley had arrived, and over the next thirty-eight years he not only emulated London style, but also helped to invent and market it in new, unprecedented ways.



1 Copley to Benjamin West or Captain R.G. Bruce(?), 1767(?). See Letters and Papers of John Singleton Copley and Henry Pelham, 1739-1776, ed. Guernsey Jones, Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society, 1914; reprint New York: AMS Press, 1972, pp. 65-66.

2 Thomas Ainslie, Quebec, to Copley, 12 November 1764. See Letters and Papers of John Singleton Copley and Henry Pelham, 1739-1776, 1914/1972, p. 30.

3 Virgil Barker, "Copley's American Portraits," Magazine of Art 43 (March 1950) pp 82-88.

4 Temple Franklin reported Benjamin West's comments about Stuart's virtuosity to his grandfather, Benjamin Franklin, in 1764. See McLanathan, Richard, Gilbert Stuart, New York: Harry N. Abrams in association with The National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian lnstitution, 1986, pp. 52-55. For Stuart's comment regarding Copley's portrait, see Benjamin, Samuel G.W., Art in America, A Critical and Historical Sketch, New York: Harper & Brothers, p. 20.

5 Whitley, William T., Gilbert Stuart, 1932; reprint, New York: Kennedy Galleries, Da Capo Press, 1969, p. 214. Dunlap, William, A History of the Rise and Progress of the Arts of Design in the United States, ed. Rita Weis, 1834; reprint, 2 vols. bound as 3, New York: Dover Publications, 1969, p. 167.

6 Charles Robert Leslie reported West's comments about Copley's "tediousness" in Dunlap 1834/1969, p. 126. John Neagle recounted Stuart's comments about the leathery quality of the flesh in Copley's portraits, ibid., p. 217.

7 As recounted to Mason by Mrs. Charles Amory (Martha Babcock Amory) in 1825. See Mason, George C., The Life and Works of Gilbert Stuart, 2 vols., New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1879, vol. 2, p. 164.

8 Tuckerman, Henry T., Book of the Artists, New York: G. P. Putnam & Son, 1867, p. 76.

9 Isham, Samuel, The History of American Painting, New York: Macmillan, 1905; reprint 1907, 1942, pp. 33-34, 38. Caffin, Charles, H., The Story of American Painting, New York: Frederick A. Stokes, 1907, p. 21.

10 Public Records Office, London, 25 January 1765. See Prown, Jules David, John Singleton Copley, 2 vols., Cambridge: Harvard University Press for The National Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution, 1966, vol. 1, p. 45, note 2.

11 Breen, T.H., "'Baubles of Britain': The American and Consumer Revolutions of the Eighteenth Century," Past and Present 119 (1988), pp. 73-104.

12 See Copley to Henry Pelham, Rome, 14 March 1775, in Letters and Papers of John Singleton Copley and Henry Pelham, 1739-1776, 1914/1972, p. 304, and Copley to Henry Pelham, Parma, 25 June 1775, ibid., p. 340. References to William Allen's collection appear in Copley to Henry Pelham, New York, 29 September 1771, ibid., pp. 163-165.

13 Copley to Francis M. Newton, Boston, 23 November 1767, in Letters and Papers of John Singleton Copley and Henry Pelham, 1739-1776, 1914/1972, pp. 63-64.

14 Copley to Captain R.G. Bruce(?), 1767( ?), in Letters and Papers of John Singleton Copley and Henry Pelham, 1739-1776, 1914/1972, p. 64.

15 See Copley to Benjamin West, 13 October and 12 November 1766, and Captain R.G. Bruce's discussions with Sir Joshua Reynolds about Copley in Captain R.G. Bruce to Copley, London, 4 August 1766, and London, 11 June 1767, in Letters and Papers of John Singleton Copley and Henry Pelham, 1739-1776,1914/1972, pp. 26, 49-52, 41-43, 52-55.

16 Copley implies the civilized behavior of the British as revealed through their landscapes in a letter to his wife, Susanna Clarke-Copley, London, 11 July 1774. See Amory, Martha Babcock, The Domestic and Artistic Life of John Singleton Copley, R.A., Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1882; reprint New York, 1969, pp. 27-28.

17 Von Erffa, Helmut, and Staley, Allen, The Paintings of Benjamin West, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1986, p. 2. Galt, John, The Life and Studies of Benjamin West, Esq., President of the Royal Academy of London, Subsequent to His Arrival in This Country: Composed from Materials Furnished by Himself, Part II, London, 1820.

18 See Wind, Edgar, "The Revolution of History Painting," Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 2,1938-1939, pp. 116-127, for a discussion of American painters' references the exotic.

19 Breen, T.H., "'The Meaning of Likeness': American Portrait Painting in and Eighteenth Century Consumer Society," Word and Image 6, no. 4 (October-November 1990, pp. 325-350.

20 Benjamin West's comments to Copley were conveyed in letters, Reynolds' through Copley's agent, Captain R.G. Bruce. See Letters and Papers of John Singleton Copley and Henry Pelham, 1739-1776, 1914/1972, pp. 41-45, 56-58.

About the author:

Emily Ballew Neff is the curator of American painting and sculpture at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. She received a bachelor's degree from Yale University, a master's degree in art history from Rice University, and a doctorate in art history from the University of Texas at Austin, where her dissertation on John Singleton Copley formed the basis of an exhibition she co-organized with the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston and the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. Dr. Neff has organized many other exhibitions, including The Modern West: American Landscapes, 1890 - 1950; American Painters in the Age of Impressionism; American Watercolors; American Art on Display; and the inaugural installation of the museum's American art collection, including twenty additional private collection loans, in its first dedicated spaces for American painting and sculpture in the museum's Audrey Jones Beck Building. She has lectured on a variety of subjects from the eighteenth- to the early twentieth-century art at the College Art Association; the National Gallery of Art; the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; the El Paso Museum of Art; and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where she was a Jane and Morgan Whitney Fellow in 1993 - 1994; and frequently at the Bayou Bend Collection and Gardens, where she served as a Jameson Fellow in 1989 - 1990. Yale University Press has just published Dr. Neff's exhibition catalogue The Modern West: American Landscapes, 1890 - 1950, which opened in Houston in the fall of 2006 and at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in the spring of 2007. She also authored Frederic Remington: The Hogg Brothers Collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; John Singleton Copley in England; American Painting in the Age of Impressionism; and co-authored American Decorative Arts and Paintings in the Bayou Bend Collection. Her entry on John Singleton Copley appears in the Dictionary of American Biography.


Resource Library editor's note:

The above text was reprinted in Resource Library in November 8, 2007, with permission of the author, which was granted to TFAO on September 25, 2007. Dr. Neff's article pertains to a special exhibition entitled John Singleton Copley in England that was on view at The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Texas, February 4 - April 28, 1996. The exhibition, organized by The National Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., and The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, was presented in conjunction with John Singleton Copley in America.

This text was also published in the February - March 1996 issue of American Art Review.

Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Shana Herb Johannessen for her help concerning permissions for reprinting the above text.

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