Art History

John Singleton Copley: An American Painter in European Clothing

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One of the foremost painters of his generation, the American John Singleton Copley brought the experiences of the New World to the traditions of European art. Born in Boston in 1738, Copley grew up in a world that, in his words, regarded painting as, “no more than any other usefull trade, as they sometimes term it, like that of a Carpenter tailor, or shew maker, not as one of the most noble Arts in the World.”

The American colonies were provincial adjuncts of the British Empire. Massachusetts, like the most of the Northern colonies, was commercial in outlook. Boston was a growing center of trade and small crafts, but not much more. Art and artistry were still thought of as something alien to the rough and ready world that was still being carved out of the pristine wilderness. The Puritan ethos dominated. The principles of hard work, simplicity, and frugality were more characteristic than those of creativity for its own sake, and an understanding of art as a necessary prerequisite to the pursuit of a higher civilization. Painting such as it existed in Copley’s Boston was intimately linked to general attitudes toward wealth and status. According to the Puritan view, one’s material success served as a signpost of one’s spiritual well-being; the more one was favored by God, the greater would be one’s material success, and all of its outward manifestations. To this end, painting was seen primarily as the art of portraiture – a cataloging of the relative worth of an individual or individuals. Copley would see a considerable amount of portrait art in Boston, though not always of the highest quality. What there was of true “fine art” would be found in the form of engravings in the homes of the wealthy and prominent.

As a result, the highly talented youngster was forced to fall back on his own devices, studying the copies of European art that came his way, and attempting to make sense of the limner tradition that then represented the American Colonial version of high art. Not true folk painting, which is unchanging, the limners who had dominated American portraiture since the earliest days of the colonies were actually attempting – without any formal training – to copy the styles and techniques they saw reproduced in the European engravings with which Copley was familiar:

The limner, as an untrained artist, presented reality conceptually, as idea, and pinned it down with two-dimensional surface patterns characterized by linear boundedness and equal emphasis of parts…. though generically primitive, was essentially archaic, having within it the potential for change and development.

And so too did Copley who quickly developed his own interpretation of the limner style fused with his attempts to copy the techniques of the . What Copley learned from the limners painstaking attempts at delineating the sheen and texture of rich draperies, and their almost microscopic attention to every detail of costume and setting, was the connection between these elements and the mercantile ethos of the land of his birth. From an early date, Copley was interpreting the techniques of European painting within the context of New England life and society. Mars, Venus, and Vulcan: The Forge of Vulcan (1754) is an early attempt to apply an American view to a quintessentially European subject. In this work, it is Copley’s choice of subject matter that reveals his aspirations to the European academic tradition. Classical mythology had played a central role in European painting since the Renaissance. Indeed, in the Eighteenth Century, as earlier, contemporary subjects were often presented in Classical garb and settings, as if to say that only an idealized version of the world could properly show the true place of persons and events in the grand sweep of history. Myths are told and re-told down through the ages because they encapsulate some ultimate truth. Their messages resonate with generations utterly unfamiliar with the actual circumstances of the time and place of the original story. The characters in myth, and the actions they undertake, are stand-ins for archetypal individuals and themes. Mars, Venus, and Vulcan can easily be seen as personifications of Copley’s America – a new place and culture born of battle and passion, transmuted in the forge, the Old World reborn as the New.

The composition itself centers on the figure of Venus. The viewer’s eye is drawn to the image of the beautiful woman in shimmering drapery – an inheritance of the limners. She, the figure representing love or passion, is the primary one in the narrative. Vulcan almost disappears into the background beside her, the coloration of his skin and costume causing him to blend in with the natural rock. He is a thing of nature, unobtrusive, but ever at her side (in myth they husband and wife). In the further use of a European device, Copley sets a cupid or cherub floating above Venus, and one to her side in front of Vulcan. The aerial putti were a common bit of purposeful decoration in European scenic painting, functioning almost as armorial bearings in many a city view or battle scene. They bear the “signs” that identify the scene, and serve in some sense as a bridge between the earthly and heavenly spheres. One in the air, and one on the ground, only enhances this linkage between the temporal and momentary on the one hand, and the sacred or eternal on the other with the third, recumbent, providing a still further grounding. The lowest cupid is, in fact, a fitting herald for the entrance into the scene of Mars in full battle dress. Surely belligerent Mars does not belong in this scene, anymore than does Vulcan on the other side. Venus is strangely torn between two extremes, and fits with neither. Her luxuriant pose; the empty bowl, the arrows she holds nimbly in her hands – she is a voluptuous image in the midst of potential conflict. Copley had to have recognized that in painting Venus he was painting America. But did this image depict America as he, a New Englander saw her, or as she was seen by those across the ocean in the mother country? Copley’s Venus can be either a prize that is fought over by two opposing forces – nature on the one hand, and battle-girded civilization, i.e. Europe, on the other. From the perspective of a colonist, she is well-endowed prize with multiple opportunities, and just possibly, too many suitors. The cave-like setting of the forge with the wedge of sky beyond, offers the hope of freedom.

As befits a student of European art, and one who is learning from inferior models, Copley Mars, Venus, and Vulcan is not academically perfect. The composition is somewhat crude and not perfectly balanced. it, like Copley, was crying out for the opportunity to learn more, to be enlightened. The picture can be read as an image of the artist’s yearning to belong fully within the European tradition, but still, in America, being bound by the provincialism of the land of his birth and upbringing. Soon enough Copley would receive recognition from England, and begin to receive the exposure he craved and deserved. Concentrating again on actual portraits, his portrayal of his half-brother, Henry Pelham, as the Boy with the Squirrel, won him great acclaim when it was exhibited in England in 1766. Again, the Boy with the Squirrel follows clear European traditions. Persons of rank were often depicted accompanied by small animals. Leonardo painted his Madonnas with small birds, and royal and aristocratic personages were commonly shown with small dogs set ornamentally within the frame of the picture. Here too, the squirrel is minute. In fact, it almost disappears into the woodwork of the tabletop. Perhaps Copley was making a statement about his academic accomplishment to the effect that he knew enough of the grand manner to include a small, peaceful animal, but did not feel it necessary to draw the viewer’s eye to this academic trifle. The real attention in this portrait is focused completely on the face of the boy and on his clothing. Everything else merges into a sweep of earthy color, the drapery behind the boy practically dissolving into the desk, and the desk itself being swept up by the drapery. The boy seems intent on something that is going on completely outside of the space occupied by the picture. His expression is difficult to read, not because an emotion is not clear, but because we do not know what he is watching and thinking about. Clearly, something moves him, but whether he is exhaustingly occupied, or bored, is not made known to us. Like the limners with which was familiar, Copley gives clear form to the texture of the boy’s clothing and hair. As in their works, these things seem to shine and shimmer in the light. But Copley is far more adept in his use of light. The glow seems to come both from the direction the boy is looking and also to glisten on his own skin and in the whiteness of his enormous collar. The dress is refined, but oversized and ill-fitting as befits a young boy. Here too, an Americanism is no doubt being added. Rather than make Henry Pelham appear too formal, as the scion of some great house in a European portrait, Copley reminds us that his subject is quite young and , or else some cost-saving garment into which he will eventually grow. It is a budding American disregard for class – a break with both the limners and the European masters. Copley’s half-brother is both a young man of a good family and of a certain standing in society, and also any boy of the same age and similar means. In many ways, Henry Pelham comes across as a typical schoolboy. The way he holds string in his hand makes it appear like a pencil or pen that he is absent-mindedly twirling in his fingers as an unseen teacher continues with another tedious lesson. The desktop adds to this feeling, and the small glass of water might be doubling for an inkwell. Possibly, Copley means to give us the sense that his narrative, that is, the painter’s, is actually being composed by the subjects of the painting – the boy and his squirrel. Like so many thinking Americans, Copley would have been conscious of the fact that his people were writing their own history, composing a narrative that did not quite fit with the age-old stories and traditions of Europe. The relative blankness of the background is well within European traditions of portraiture, but here it seems to serve for more than to make the human figure stand out to the viewer. In Copley’s hands it is a metaphor for the “blank slate” that is both America, and the young boy. Each has a whole life ahead to make of it what he will. As well, the drape can be a curtain, as in a theater, concealing the drama that lies beyond. The simple straightforwardness of a boy, a face so easily read in the bright light, can conceal great complexity, dreams of the future, and infinite nuance. America might have appeared provincial, but there was much going on behind the scenes, not only inner turmoil, but dreams for a great future. Anything could happen on the stage behind that curtain. If only we could shift that light from the boy’s face to what lies beyond.

In 1774, John Singleton Copley moved at last to England. There his fame and importance would increase a she received commissions from George III and other notables. He would further refine his academic skills and continue to paint portraits that were inspired by the twin factors of the European classical tradition and his own uniquely American experiences. Much of the American experience revolved around a closeness to nature, and the resulting battles that ensued between human beings and sometimes overwhelming natural creatures and forces. Nature, like America, was vast; uncontrollable, and unpredictable. European painting typically demanded careful realism of form and extreme mathematical precision in composition and construction. Like the myths that were such frequent inspirations for European art, the works of academically-trained European artists followed strict models. A story could only be told in a particular fashion and certain symbols used to create a narrative that would be understood instantly by anyone with the proper education and training. Like the geometrically-arranged trees and flower beds of Versailles, and many an Italian palazzo, nature conformed to Arcadian norms. It was either pastorally tame, stage set or backdrop as in the works of Poussin, or wild in a studied sort of way as in the best paintings of the Dutch landscapists. As usual, John Singleton Copley took an American approach to both the historic painting and the landscape. Like many of his countrymen, he had learned to put together what worked, and so he took two different genres and fused them into one in his master Watson and the Shark (1778). In this, one of his greatest works, Copley portrays an actual event, and one that combined the sweep of personal history with the roiling power of nature. Powerful human emotions combine with a living nature as man faces beast. In Watson and the Shark, Copley portrays an actual shark attack that occurred in the Caribbean, capturing the awful assault at its most terrifying moment. Watson and the Shark is raw emotion stripped of any pretense of academic nicety. The victim of the attack, white and naked, floats helplessly on his back in the sea as a out of the waves. The look of terror in the man’s eyes is matched by the carnivorous ferocity of the large, fixed eyes of the shark. Only the shark’s head is visible above the waves, the color of his body almost matching that of the sea. He is a creature of the sea; at one with it. By contrast, the man is like a helpless piece of flesh awash in agony, and completely out of his element – a mere morsel for the predatory creature that lunges toward him. Dorsal fins in the background show us that there are nearby like the shark, that this creature is not alone in the water… unlike the man whose only companions are a crowd of men in a tiny boat. They can only hope to get to him in time. Most of them can do nothing but turn away. They are helpless, too. One man, his face shadowed, aims a harpoon down into the water at the shark as another man reaches out to try to grab Watson’s outstretched arm.

The men on the boat are representative of all men. They are Black and White, fairly well-dressed and rather ill-clad. They are old and young. Some try to hide their disgust and terror, while others rush frantically to attempt to help the threatened and already injured man. It is the whole human world in a tiny boat. The main ship floats in the far distance. These people are alone, but not as alone as the pitiable, pale man in the water.

Copley’s contemporaries immediately recognized the uniqueness of the scene and its manner of portrayal. The painting’s original owner wrote the following note on the back of the canvas – “shewing that a high sense of INTEGRITY and RECTITUDE with a firm reliance on an over ruling PROVIDENCE […] are the sources of public and private virtue […] honours and success.”

His was a highly moralistic view, and typical of the European sense of the ultimate meaning of historical painting. As with other historical scenes, this one is scene in the context of the larger myth, the larger themes of human existence and purpose. A human being triumphs over the darker forces of nature by living according to God’s plan. He appeals for God’s aid, and believes firmly in the power of the Divinity to preserve him from harm. Moral and physical good and evil are inextricably linked in a very civilized and theological way. The good man, the virtuous man, will come through the ordeal unscathed for, in the end, that is what it is – a challenge, test put forward by Providence, one which the unfortunate man in the sea must pass. However, it is not clear that this is Copley’s view of the matter. In genuine American fashion, humanity and nature are opposed but complimentary. The vastness of nature, the absolute mastery of the sharks in their element is contrasted to that of the lonely emissaries of humanity in their tiny boat. They are helpless because they do not belong. A man is reasonably fine on the ocean as he long as he stays on board a ship, but once he crosses the boundary, his fate is in the balance. Only sheer strength of will combined with human ingenuity and the strength of the group pulling together can achieve victory over nature’s most deadly assaults. These are the lessons of a life lived on the edge of a frontier. All of America was frontier in those days. Even Boston, one of the great “metropolises” of the colonies was not very far from the edge of settlement and the boundless forests with their wild animals, “savage” races” of human beings, and dangerous, killing storms and other natural calamities.

So innovative was John Singleton Copley that Watson and the Shark actually anticipated the Romantic Movement in painting by several decades. The sheer emotionalism of the work marks it as little else. Almost everything about the picture is depicted in terms of feeling, of how human beings react without thinking to emotionally-charged situations such as the threat of immanent death, and the fear and altruism that produces. Copley’s newness to the European scene, and his lack of formal training enabled him as an outsider to initiate changes that would probably have been impossible, or at least unthinkable, had he been a classically-trained European. Copley,

Had hardly touched upon European art before he, too, began tinkering with its canons. In 1775, when he had been abroad less than two years, he struck, in his Brook Watson and the Shark, the note of macabre sensationalism that inaugurated Romantic realism in French painting when it was struck again by Gericault in the Raft of the Medusa.

The paring down of the action to images of raw power owed much to the American background and experience of the artist. American’s were used not only to struggling, but to looking at thing sin unvarnished terms. The artificiality that came from long years of formal education produced the academicism of the European tradition. It was living on the edge of the settled world that stripped that over-refinement away, leaving in its place, at best a veneer of civilization, if not a real intimacy with natal brutality. Americans like Copley could see what things actually were and call them so. It was an art that did not mince words; direct, powerful, and inspiring.

Ultimately, John Singleton Copley is remembered as one of the great artists of history because his work incorporated all the aspects of his upbringing. He was born an American in what was then a colony of Great Britain. Conditioned by society to look up to and respect European norms of culture and civilization, he admired, idolized, and aspired to painting in the grand European manner – a manner that was at once highly academic and stylized, but also highly naturalistic and attentive to detail. Using his own eye for detail, Copley imbibed the techniques and styles of his native land and fused them with the copied European works that he saw displayed in America. What Copley produced was a unique and inspiring synthesis of American and European art that was to lead both in profound new directions. Copley took tradition and transformed it. He led the way not as a European, but as an American. His works breathe new life into the European canon by imbuing them with the renewed life and vigor of a new world, a world in which the best way was the right way.

Works Cited

Bell, Judith. “Artist Outgrew His Homeland but Wasn’t the Same Abroad.” Insight on the News 12 June 1995: 32+.


Flexner, James Thomas. Random Harvest. Bronx, NY: Fordham University Press, 1998.


Novak, Barbara. American Painting of the Nineteenth Century: Realism, Idealism, and the American Experience. 2nd ed. Boulder, CO: Icon Editions, 1979.


Preston, Todd. “Moby-Dick and John Singleton Copley’s Watson and the Shark.” Melville Society Extracts July 2005: 1+.


Rather, Susan. “Carpenter, Tailor, Shoemaker, Artist: Copley and Portrait Painting around 1770.” The Art Bulletin 79.2 (1997): 269+.


Susan Rather, “Carpenter, Tailor, Shoemaker, Artist: Copley and Portrait Painting around 1770,” the Art Bulletin 79.2 (1997).

Judith Bell, “Artist Outgrew His Homeland but Wasn’t the Same Abroad,” Insight on the News 12 June 1995.

Barbara Novak, American Painting of the Nineteenth Century: Realism, Idealism, and the American Experience, 2nd ed. (Boulder, CO: Icon Editions, 1979) 15.

Todd Preston, “Moby-Dick and John Singleton Copley’s Watson and the Shark,” Melville Society Extracts July 2005.

James Thomas Flexner, Random Harvest (Bronx, NY: Fordham University Press, 1998) 127.