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Look at tumultuous Revolution era through life of John Singleton Copley

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A self-portrait by John Singleton Coppley.
A self-portrait by John Singleton Coppley.Library Research

It is ironic, as Harvard history professor Jane Kamensky notes in her vivid new book, that the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston has the world's largest collection of work by John Singleton Copley. Although his 18th century portraits of Paul Revere, Samuel Adams, John Hancock, et al. have fixed the Boston native in art history as an iconographer of our Revolution, he was in fact alarmed by the rebellion against Great Britain, sailed for Europe in 1774, and never returned. Copley said he moved to London "in pursuit of improvement in my profession . . . not influenced by political Opinions," a position echoed for obvious reasons by his mother and half-brother, who remained in Boston and maneuvered to hold onto his considerable estate there.

"To recover such stories, in all their vexing multiplicity," writes Kamensky, "is to contemplate a different American war, and maybe a different America as well." As those words make clear, "A Revolution in Color" is not a conventional biography, but rather an examination of Copley's life as a study in the complexities of what he called a "civil war" and its aftermath. The rebellion, Kamensky reminds us, was marked by divided loyalties and ethical ambiguities often scanted in more triumphalist histories. The ambitious Copley, who lived for his work and cared little about politics, was probably a more typical citizen than the activists who pressed for independence.

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Moreover, as Kamensky makes clear in her intelligent and substantive analyses of his paintings and drawings, Copley's art captured the zeitgeist of both his native land and the nation in which he lived the second half of his life. His pre-revolutionary portraits make palpable the burgeoning confidence of Colonial elites just beginning to think of themselves as something other than British subjects, while the history paintings of his London days seethe with the beleaguered pride of an empire dealt a major defeat by those erstwhile subjects.

Her focus on the social context and significance of his art is evident in her very brief sketch of Copley's formative years. The account is more history than biography — understandable given the dearth of information about his Irish-born parents's early lives, the reasons for their emigration to Boston, and his father's premature death, of which not even the exact year is known. Suffice it to say that from the age of 13 Copley was supporting his widowed mother and half-brother; his artistic ambitions were considerable but necessarily yoked to the demands of the art market — demands he met so ably that by the time he turned 27 he was "the most sought-after portraitist from Hartford to Halifax."

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This was not enough for the determined young artist. The following year, 1765, Copley made his first submission to London's annual Royal Academy exhibit, "A Boy with a Flying Squirrel.'' It was received kindly but condescendingly. To fulfill his promise, his expatriate contemporary Benjamin West advised him, he must go to Europe and study the masterpieces of the past. West achieved the glory Copley dreamed of when he exhibited "The Death of General Wolfe'' at the Academy in 1771. Epic history paintings, not provincial portraits, made international reputations.

As political turmoil increased following the passage of the Tea Act, Copley's portrait business foundered. In November 1773, he watched a drunken mob trash the house of his father-in-law Richard Clarke, a tea merchant who refused to honor the boycott. Kamensky's Loyalist-eye-view of that night and of the commercial and cultural bond with England cherished by aristocratic businessmen like Copley's in-laws and clients, make it obvious why London would seem to him a safer, saner place than revolutionary Boston.

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Copley settled there with his wife and children in December 1775 after extensive travels in Italy to educate his eye and hand. He demonstrated what he had learned in "Watson and the Shark,'' a dramatic rendering of English heroism that was the hit of the 1778 Royal Academy show and cemented his popularity in 1781 with "The Death of the Earl of Chatham.'' But an ominous note was struck when a member of the Royal Academy scornfully characterized the painting's display in solitary splendor at a commercial hall crammed with middle-class viewers as "a raree-show."

The artist whose Loyalist connections had made him suspect in the colonies came to be disdained in Britain as just another money-grubbing American. Copley's artistic abilities did not decline as quickly as his critical stature, but Kamensky gently acknowledges that "The Defeat of the Floating Batteries at Gibraltar,'' which brought his reputation to a new low in 1791, was "a costly, bloated wreck." Copley died in 1815, his debts far exceeding the value of his unfashionable, un-saleable paintings. Not until the "colonial revival" of the late 19th century would Copley's American portraits be revered as visual documents of a now-sanitized Revolution; his English paintings have yet to regain the esteem they garnered during his first decade in London.

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Copley was survived by a son who became an English lord in 1827 and a daughter who moved to Boston after marrying a wealthy trader whose fortune was founded on slave labor. Such were the transatlantic realities of his world, which Kamensky captures in all its political and moral messiness.

A REVOLUTION IN COLOR:

The World of John Singleton Copley

By Jane Kamensky,

Norton, 528 pp., illustrated. $35


Wendy Smith, a contributing editor at The American Scholar and Publishers Weekly, reviews books for the Los Angeles Times and The Washington Post.