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John Singleton Copley
Biography



For a budding young artist in Colonial America the possibilities of making a living at his craft must have seemed rather daunting. There were basically only two types of painting provincial America was interested in--sign painting and portraiture. Later, as the American Revolution neared, there was a growing use of etchings and woodcuts but these were more in the area of illustrations or advertising/graphic design, and while they were good training for the would-be painter, they offered limited options in the area of creativity and, like sign painting, they were mostly utilitarian in nature. Portraiture of course was a high art and those few who were very good at it (sadly most were quite mediocre at best) could earn a respectable livelihood. However if one aspired to more, there was only one option. Go to Europe, and being English, that usually meant London.

This was the plight of John Singleton Copley. Born in 1738, he'd learned his craft from his stepfather who was an engraver. He'd paid his dues as a portrait painter, and a very good one at that. His portrait of Paul Revere, for instance, and several group portraits of his own and other colonial families before the war raised him to perhaps the pre-eminent portrait artist in the colonies. And, residing in Boston, he probably could have lived out his years quite comfortably as the New England equivalent of Philadelphia's Gilbert Stuart, or Charles Wilson Peale. Many would argue, in fact, that he was a better painter than either of these countrymen. Instead, he chose England, and later, at the behest of Benjamin West, studied in Italy. He arrived in London in 1774. Shortly thereafter, seeing war on the horizon, his family joined him there.

Probably Copley's greatest, non-portrait masterpiece is Watson and the Shark, painted in 1778. The work is considered history painting in the broad sense, because it depicts an actual incident, although it doesn't encompass an epic event such as a war or a coronation. It many respects however, it is one of the most dramatic and exciting paintings of its kind ever done. The scene is Havana harbour in Cuba where a nude boy of perhaps 18 (Brook Watson) with long, flowing, blond hair is about to be attacked by a sizeable shark. The boy and the shark are arrayed in the watery foreground while in the middle ground, in a longboat, a harpooner is about to plunge his weapon into the shark passing just in front of the boat. Meanwhile seven other figures in the boat strain to rescue the hapless young man. A misty Havana waterfront can be seen in the background. The work, commissioned by the boy's father, is a masterpiece of planning, draughtsmanship, and emotion-filled action. The painting served as a sort of "grand entrance" for Copley into London art circles. Unfortunately for American art, so successful was he in London that after the war, Copley and his family never returned to this country.

contributed by Lane, Jim


14 May 1998
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