John Singleton Copley was uniquely situated to take advantage of the finest artistic training available in the American colonies. In 1748, his widowed mother married the English emigrant artist and mezzotint engraver, Peter Pelham, who worked closely, in Boston, with yet another English émigré, John Smibert, the first professional portrait painter in America. Smibert stopped painting in 1746 and died in 1751. Smibert’s family, however, continued to run the paint shop that the artist had established, as well as to preserve Smibert’s upstairs studio. After Smibert’s death, the studio continued, as it had been during his lifetime, to be a place of pilgrimage for artists in the American colonies.
In the formative time when he was 11 to 14 years old, Copley was able to learn directly from Peter Pelham and to enjoy, then, as well as afterward, free and frequent access to the finest collection of copies of Old Master paintings and plaster casts to be found anywhere in the colonies. This confluence of fortunate circumstances buttressed Copley’s own precocious and prodigious natural gifts. By 1760, when he painted his masterful portrait of the merchant Epes Sargent (National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.), he was, at the age of twenty-two years, the wunderkind of American art, the undisputed premier portraitist not just of Boston, but of all the British North American colonies. Copley’s early and easy success, though artistic, financial, and personal, was still, by definition, provincial. It failed to give sufficient sweep to his abilities and ambitions. In Academy: The Academic Tradition in American Art (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1975, p. 23), Lois Marie Fink and Joshua Taylor aptly describe the Boston native’s dilemma: “The very image of art . . . was lacking in the United States. . . . For Copley, as for most artists of the time born in America, it was a fundamental necessity for his art to feel himself to be working in the great tradition of Western painting. . . .” Copley aspired to be a first-rank, world-class history painter. He could not do that without going to Europe.
In 1774, in pursuit of his goal, Copley left Boston. While his wife and children remained temporarily at home, he went first to Italy, and then to London. (Two museum exhibitions and accompanying catalogues have examined his American and English careers, respectively. They are Carrie Rebora and Paul Staiti, John Singleton Copley in America [New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1995], and Emily Ballew Neff and William L. Pressly, John Singleton Copley in England [Houston: The Museum of Fine Art, Houston, 1995]). In this respect he followed the path taken in 1760 by Benjamin West, a Pennsylvania native born in the same year as Copley. West was living proof that American birth was no barrier to London success. West arrived in London in 1763, and, by 1768, was a founding member of the British Royal Academy of Art. His history painting of 1770, The Death of General Wolfe (The National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa), was a major critical success, resulting in royal commissions. By 1772, West described himself, in the Royal Academy catalogue, as “Historical Painter to the King.” None of this would have been lost on Copley, as he was confined to painting portraits in Boston. Later, when both men were in England, the personal and artistic parallels between Copley and West, compounded by their markedly different temperaments, stoked a sibling-like rivalry that remained a nagging leitmotif of Copley’s English career.
Copley’s family joined him in London in 1775. In 1776, as a grand calling card, he exhibited his tour de force family portrait at the Royal Academy, The Copley Family (National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.), and in that same year was elected to membership. Copley pursued a successful career in art in London for the rest of his life, painting major historical canvases as well as portraits. He expanded his stylistic language, adding to the characteristic hard-edge Neo-Classical mode of his earlier American work a more fluid, feathery, and romantic brushstroke favored in cosmopolitan London. For the substantial remainder of his career, Copley painted in whatever style was most appropriate to his subject. Personally, the artist seems to have possessed a restless and striving spirit. He never satisfied his own high financial and professional expectations. He was involved in the bitter infighting that marked the London artistic community, and, throughout, his life in England was plagued by financial difficulties. Nonetheless, his family prospered in England. The Copleys, despite financial uncertainty, lived a very comfortable life in the British capitol. Copley attained a position of leadership at the Royal Academy. He was regarded, as he had wished, as a gentleman—not a mechanic or glorified artisan (cultural identities that were the bane of proud American painters and sculptors), but as a respected professional who mingled freely in the same social circles as the substantial patrons whose portraits he painted.