John Singleton Copley

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About this artist

One of this country’s greatest artists, John Singleton Copley was a towering figure among American artists of the eighteenth century and rose to prominence as a portraitist and history painter during his subsequent career in England.

After his father’s death Copley’s mother married the painter-engraver Peter Pelham (1697-1751) in 1748. Although his stepfather died less than four years later, the young Copley grew up in artistic circles and by 1753 was active as a professional mezzotintist and portraitist. He rapidly assimilated influences from other painters and from prints, emerging within five years as the preeminent portraitist of Boston. He achieved wealth and property, as well as a national reputation.

Desiring to study in Italy and England and to escape the political conditions of Boston, Copley sailed for London on June 10, 1774. After a period of study on the Continent, he joined his family in London in October 1775. (He had married Susanna Franham Clark, from a prominent Tory family, in 1769.) They were never to return to America. In London, Copley continued his successful practice as a portrait painter but altered his style to current English practices. He had a significant influence on the development of history painting. He was elected to the Royal Academy in 1779 and achieved numerous other honors.

Augustus Thorndike Perkins, A Sketch of the Life and a List of Some of the Works of John Singleton Copley, (Privately printed, 1873), with supplement § Letters and Papers of John Singleton Copley and Henry Pelham, 1739-1776 (1914; reprint, New York: Kennedy Graphics, Inc., and Da Capo Press, 1970) § Jules David Prown. John Singleton Copley, Ailsa Mellon Bruce Studies in American Art, 2 vols. (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press for National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1966), with catalogue raisonné, analyses of data on portraits, genealogies, lists of exhibitions and contents of various sales, bibliographies § Ann Uhry Abrams, "Politics, Prints, and John Singleton Copley’s Watson and the Shark," Art Bulletin 61 (June 1979): 265-76 § Trevor J. Fairbrother, "John Singleton Copley’s Use of British Mezzotints for His American Portraits: A Reappraisal Prompted by New Discoveries," Arts 55 (March 1981): 122-30.