AMERICANS HAVE long thought of the Boston-born painter John Singleton Copley as a founding father, one who happened to wield a paintbrush instead of a quill. Among the first great artists born in the colonies, Copley painted portraits of revolutionary-era Bostonians that still serve as our mind’s-eye pictures of the patriots who made the United States. Just as Washington was “the great master of the art of war” and Franklin “the chief of Philosophers,” one newspaper proclaimed in 1785, the talented Copley allowed the new nation to “pride herself in giving birth to the most celebrated Artists of the present age.”
That pride is especially evident in Boston, where Copley lived until he was nearly 40. In 1883, city fathers named Copley Square for the man who had depicted so many of their ancestors, making Boston one of the only American cities with a major public space named after an artist. Today there may be no better illustration of Copley’s role as an American icon than the new Art of the Americas wing of the Museum of Fine Arts. The museum owns an astonishing 62 Copleys — 46 oils, eight miniatures, and eight pastels — the largest collection of his work in the world. Copley’s work dominates three galleries on the main floor of the museum’s new wing. The MFA deploys Copley, more than of any other artist, to tell the story of fine art, and of America itself, during the age of the Revolution.
Copley’s “Paul Revere’’ greets you at the door of the new wing. The painting is a Boston icon and a national treasure; flanked by vitrines filled with Revere silver, Revere becomes the center of a New England altarpiece. Along the wall to the left hang Copley’s portraits of Samuel Adams, John Hancock, Joseph Warren, and Mercy Otis Warren: a patriot pantheon. In this gallery, called “Revolutionary Boston,” John Singleton
Copley is painter to the rebels, himself a revolutionary.
But Copley did not imagine himself that way, and might well have been surprised to discover how thoroughly America has claimed him. Copley’s life, his works, and his words defined him as a subject of the British empire, not a citizen of the American republic. Born in British America in 1738, he died in his comfortable home on Hanover Square in London in 1815, having spent the Revolution, the War of 1812, and more than half of his long life in England. Copley was buried as he was born: a loyal subject of the crown. He never set foot in an independent United States.
Understanding how Copley saw himself changes our view of the America he knew, of the Americans he painted, and of the tumultuous era that gave birth to the nation in which we live. We who have inherited the ideals of some of Copley’s sitters tend to imagine their world as a place where staunch, unwavering Patriots squared off against stubborn, intransigent Tories: heroes vs. villains. But John Singleton Copley lived in a world not of black and white, but of vivid color, and almost infinite shades of loyalty and identity. The imperial struggle that made Boston’s reputation as “the cradle of liberty” and resulted in the creation of the United States had not two sides but many. Copley’s own story defies some of our most cherished notions of the crucible in which our nation was forged.
IN 1738, WHEN Copley was born, Boston was a town of crooked muddy lanes and cramped wooden buildings. The only thing taller than the church steeples was the forest of ships’ masts crowding the harbor. Merchant vessels sent timbers, salted fish, and naval stores across the Atlantic and returned, months later, laden with the luxury goods the colonists increasingly craved.
Though some Boston institutions were democratic by the standards of the day — the town meeting, most centrally — there were few if any stirrings of American liberty, nor was there much sense of a collective American identity in the world of Copley’s youth. Major street names were proudly British; King Street and Queen Street met at Cornhill. An Anglican church, built of Quincy granite, loomed beside the Common, and golden sculptures of an English lion and a Scottish unicorn graced the soaring cupola of the Town House. Until the 1760s, the fault lines running through Boston were chiefly religious and economic, separating haves and have nots rather than loyalists and rebels.
Copley’s father, a tobacco seller, died when the boy was young, and in 1748, his widowed mother married Peter Pelham, a London-born painter and engraver. When Pelham died three years later, 13-year-old Jack took up his stepfather’s tools and became a painter of portraits, the only type of art Bostonians would buy. The MFA’s “John Singleton Copley” gallery traces his growing skill as he learned to represent hair and hands and dazzling, lifelike “stuffs”: the cloth and metals and furniture that signaled the status of his patrons. Like the tobacco his father had stocked, these goods made their way to Boston along the sinews of the empire.
In the 1760s, as Copley grew into adulthood, Boston’s comfortable sense of British identity would fracture. American soldiers had helped to win the Seven Years’ War, and to pay for Britain’s costly victory in that conflict, Parliament debated a new duty to be levied by means of a stamp placed on all paper used in the colonies. The resulting Stamp Act inspired angry protests in towns all along the North American seaboard in 1765, the first in a series of conflicts with crown and Parliament that would end, a decade later, in revolution. Nowhere were the actions of the crowd more stirring, and more violent, than in Boston.
Copley, by this time, had become the leading painter in New England if not all of British America. Business was good: he found himself as busy at his easel as he “could expect or wish to be,” he wrote. But he wanted more: he craved success in the English metropolis, which was fast becoming a standard-bearer in the world of contemporary art. In “this country,” he said of his native New England, “the hands of an artist is tied up” painting faces, a copyist’s craft. Copley longed to “get disingaged from this frosen region.”
Two weeks after Parliament passed the Stamp Act, Copley began a decade-long quest to slip what he called his “bondage” to career and family in New England. He sent a portrait of his young stepbrother Henry Pelham across the Atlantic, to see how his art, so beloved in Boston, might hold up “at home.” By “home,” this 27-year-old who had never left New England meant London.
The picture, “Boy with a Flying Squirrel’’, is a compact tour de force. It would serve as his calling card. Glass, satin, velvet, and gold — empire’s imports — offset the delicately ruffled fur of a North American flying squirrel. Exhibited by London’s Society of Artists in 1766, the portrait set the British cognoscenti chattering and launched Copley’s career in London. It hangs now in the MFA’s “Revolutionary Boston” gallery.
LIKE ALMOST EVERY British-American, Copley was caught up in the first wave of anti-British protest. He hated the new tax and resented that Parliament had passed it without the colonists’ direct representation. In an engraving he cut in the summer of 1765, Britannia hands her American daughters Pandora’s box, filled with stamps.
But Copley also hated the mob, as only one who had lately risen above the rabble could. In a letter that followed “Boy’’ across the ocean, he sympathized with the provincial officials who had seen their houses leveled by angry protesters.
As the conflict deepened, Copley — like many, even most colonists — sought a precarious neutrality. Neither rebel nor Tory, he was loath to mix art and politics. He painted Revere, Adams, and Hancock, but he also painted General Gage. Such neutrality was increasingly elusive in Boston, and Copley’s position grew still murkier in late 1769, when he married Susannah (“Sukey”) Clarke, the daughter of a prominent loyalist merchant who had made his fortune in the East Indies trade. On the night of December 16, 1773, make-believe Mohawks dumped 342 chests of East India Company tea into Boston harbor. The attack hit Copley’s family directly: most of that tea had been consigned for sale by Copley’s father-in-law.
Copley’s own turn would come one midnight the following April, when the mob converged on “Mount Pleasant,” as he called his Beacon Hill mansion. The rebels sought one of the royally appointed mandamus councilors, who had dined at Copley’s that evening. Copley told them his visitor was gone, but the crowd “kept up the Indian yell,” warning that the painter’s “blood would be on [his] own head” if he was lying. “What a spirrit!” Copley wrote his brother-in-law, still garrisoned at the Castle. Boston had come to this.
On June 10, 1774, Copley sailed. He left behind an infant, two toddlers, and a pregnant wife; an aging mother and an adored stepbrother; a grand home and a flourishing career. But he did not leave his nation. Like all his neighbors, even those who styled themselves Sons of Liberty, he was still a subject of the crown. He was traveling from the margins of the British world to its center.
London, for Copley, was bliss. There was “so much Civility in this place,” Copley wrote, “more than equil to all I have ever received in Boston in my whole life.” As 1774 drew to a close, Copley, then in Italy, lamented the fate of the colonies. “When I reflect what a happy people the Americans were, and how unhappy they are at this time, I am much grieved,” he confessed to Sukey. But he set the subject aside, in order “to preserve an undisturbed mind and a tranquillity inconsistent with political disputes.” It became ever clearer that “tranquillity” lay on the Atlantic’s eastern shores. He would not return; Sukey and the children must sail for England. They did so in May 1775, escaping besieged Boston with scores of other loyalists. By then, as Copley’s step-brother told him, the “Sword of Civil War” had been “unsheathd.”
What would become of “poor America”? Most loyalists imagined an easy victory for Britain. But Copley knew the fervor of the liberty men as only one who had drawn them to life on canvas could. He believed from the outset that the rebels would prevail, which is why he had so ardently hoped they would not attempt a separation. Copley had real affection for the part of the empire in which he had come of age, and whatever the new nation became, Copley knew he must one day “stand amongst the first of the Artists that shall have led that Country to the Knowledge and cultivation of the fine Arts.” He found the thought “pleasing.” But he would collect his laurels from London.
COPLEY’S PLAINSPOKEN American pictures tempt the viewer to conflate the artist and his subjects. But this, like painting itself, is an illusion. “Paul Revere’’ was Copley’s work, but Paul Revere was not his alter ego. The artist’s dreams are on display at the MFA, but they are not, for the most part, found in “Revolutionary Boston.”
Copley’s fondest aspirations are more closely reflected in the adjacent rooms, especially in the gallery called “Americans Abroad.” Here his double portrait of wealthy Carolinians Ralph and Alice Izard, painted in Rome in 1775, holds one scarlet wall, much as it must have done in the spring exhibition at London’s Royal Academy in 1776. That year, while a majority of his fellow Bostonians shouldered arms to defend the new nation created by the Declaration of Independence, Copley was busy reuniting his family in London. In November 1776, he became an associate member of the Academy under the patronage of George III, whose sponsorship Copley would court for the remainder of his life. He finally got a royal commission in 1785, two years after the Peace of Paris was signed. His exuberant painting of “The Three Youngest Daughters of George III’’ remains today in the Royal Collection. It hangs today in Buckingham Palace, just outside the throne room.
When we in the United States look back on our national history, we tend to think of American-ness as stable: a crisp and coherent sense of identity, nurtured in places like Boston, and all but destined to prevail. But history can only be lived forward. Copley’s winding path home to England reminds us that things looked very different on the ground. The Revolution unfolded slowly, tentatively, in push-pull fashion. Many choices were logical; no outcome was inevitable. Some of those who loved liberty continued, like Copley, to seek it under its ancient guarantor, the mixed constitution of Great Britain.
The labels on Copley’s works throughout the MFA — indeed, most everywhere in the United States — identify the painter as “American.” This is both right and wrong. John Singleton Copley sailed the wide ocean, but he never crossed the bridge leading from indignation to independence. He lived as an American only in the pre-national sense, and he died a provincial Briton, home at last.Jane Kamensky, Harry S. Truman professor in the Department of History at Brandeis, is working on a book about art, money, and politics in the age of revolution. She can be reached at email@example.com.