The Old Print Shop

John Singleton Copley


John Singleton Copley. Born Boston, Massachusetts, July 3, 1738.Died London, England, September 9, 1815. John Singleton Copley is arguably the most artistically accomplished and financially successful portraitist in colonial America. He has long been recognized by art historians for his ability to render the distinct textures of hair, flesh, textiles, and other materials and to create the illusion of people and objects in space with dramatic contrasts of light and dark. Copley ingeniously synthesized that realism with fancy by borrowing settings, compositions, and costumes from seventeenth- and eighteenth-century English mezzotints. As a consequence of his artistic excellence, Copley achieved a level of success that enabled him to become the first American painter to live in a style and earn a social status comparable to that of his patrons. In America he created at least 273 oil portraits, fifty-eight pastels, thirty-seven miniatures, four history paintings, and one mezzotint between 1753 and 1774. In 1774 Copley moved to London, where he adapted his portrait style and shifted his emphasis from portraiture to history painting, and achieved international fame as an artist. Despite claims that Copley was not formally trained, he had more advantages as an aspiring artist than most of his American contemporaries. He spent three years of his youth from 1748 to 1751 in the home of his stepfather Peter Pelham (1695–1751), who was a London-trained engraver.