THE first Colonial master and one of the best painters in American art is John
Singleton Copley, born in Boston of Irish extraction.
The Puritan climate of
New England was not favorable to painting: John Adams wrote that “It was
not possible to enlist the Fine Arts on the side of Truth, Virtue or Piety”; and
Copley himself complained that “painting would never be known in Boston
were it not for preserving the resemblances of particular persons; that people
generally regarded it as no more than any other useful trade like that of the
carpenter or shoemaker.”
Artists from Michelangelo forward have distrusted
their own times, but Copley, by yielding unreservedly to the pressure of his
environment, developed a form of painting which does not suffer by com
parison with the work of Hogarth and the leading French portraitists.
According to his son, “He was entirely self-taught, and never saw a decent
picture of any kind, save his own, until he went to London in his thirties, a
famous portrait painter.”
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The statement is exaggerated-Copley saw engrav
ings after Rubens and the Italians-but it was precisely by pursuing his art
as a trade, by demanding as many as twenty-five sittings of six hours each for
a single portrait, and by the most persistent study of the features, that Copley
acquired his solid mastery of the human head.
He is the only dependable artist
historian of the pre-Revolutionary era. He painted not only “resemblances,”
but a gallery of living Colonials-dignitaries, judges, divines, and merchants,
and their strong, self-reliant consorts; he immortalized the Wmthrops, Pep
perells, Pickmans, and Adamses-tight-lipped colonizers, mercantile aristo
crats, and hardheaded patriots who defied the mad King. He knew the char
acter and social background of his sitters, their place in the community, their
occupations, their Puritanism, and their pretensions.
He painted them in the
cold, clear light of New England, austere and not a little pompous in their
lace and velvet; and his style matured, step by step, with his growing prac
tice-a severe style, polished and original, the opposite of the sensuous and
ingratiating, but compact and devoid of studio makeshifts.
Mrs. Seymour Fort,
painted at the close of his American period-before he went to England and
became very British and fluent-is a specimen of his most finished painting.
Nothing is known of the identity of the subject: to history she is a Colonial
dame painted with dignity and uncompromising directness, living proof of
Copley’s ability to keep his sitter in character, his firm modeling, and his com
mand over textural accessories.