John Singleton Copley’s father, a Boston tobacconist, died shortly after his son’s birth. When Copley was ten years old, his mother married Peter Pelham (1697-1751), a portrait painter and mezzotint engraver. In the three years before Pelham’s death, Copley thus had the advantage of close contact with a skilled and experienced artist. Through Pelham he also knew other artists, including John Smibert (1688-1751), the foremost painter then working in the colonies. Copley’s talents developed quickly, and with the incentive of contributing to the support of his twice-widowed mother, he produced his first works--a mezzotint, some portraits, and mythological paintings copied from engravings–by the time he was fifteen.
By the 1760s Copley’s portraits had earned him an extensive clientele, and he was widely considered the colonies’ premier artist. His mature style is recognized in his meticulous depiction of realistic detail, his use of clear colors, and his extraordinary ability to render textures. In 1765, he sent Boy with a Squirrel (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston), a portrait of his half-brother Henry Pelham, to London for the spring 1766 exhibition of the Society of Artists, where it caught the attention of Benjamin West (1738-1820), who urged Copley to travel and study in Europe. Although favorable response from West and others told Copley that he could succeed in the art centers of Europe, he remained in Boston for several more years, continuing in his lucrative portrait practice and marrying into an important family of successful Boston merchants.
In the years leading up to the Revolution, Copley enjoyed the patronage of both Tories and Whigs, but his own Loyalist sympathies and those of his family were a deciding factor in his move to Europe in 1774. After traveling on the continent, Copley was joined by his family and settled in London by the end of 1775, and set up a studio in a fashionable neighborhood where he could receive wealthy and prominent sitters. Although his early aspirations and West’s example inspired him to paint historical subjects, he recognized that his family’s prosperity would depend on his portraits--especially if the Copleys were to lose their American property. Copley’s many English portraits tended to be larger and more elaborate than his American works. His best known historical paintings are Watson and the Shark (1778; National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.) and The Death of the Earl of Chatham (1779; Tate Gallery, London). Copley remained in London for the rest of his life, becoming a power in the Royal Academy and, ironically, a bitter enemy of its American-born president, Benjamin West..
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