John Singleton Copley

John Singleton Copley

By Elizabeth Marsh

Portrait of John Singleton CopleyIn colonial America, Copley was known as one of the most successful artists of his time. Copley’s portraits were incredibly life-like, gaining him fame in the colonies and Europe. John Singleton Copley’s Anglo-Irish parents had recently immigrated to Boston when he was born on July 3rd, 1738. While very little is known about his childhood, it is acknowledged that his stepfather, engraver Peter Pelham, helped instill a love of art into Copley.

Pelham instructed his stepson in a variety of different forms of art, but Copley was also influenced by many other artists. These included Joseph Badger, John Smilbert, and most importantly, Joseph Blackburn. Copley studied Blackburn’s Rococo portrait style, and “made eloquent use of the portrait d’apparat—a Rococo device of portraying the subject with the objects associated with him in his daily life—that gave his work a liveliness and acuity not usually associated with 18th-century American painting.”[1] Copley was an ambitious painter, and decided to expand his horizons to Europe. He sent Boy with Squirrel to London in 1766 where it was praised.

In 1969, Copley married Susanna Farnham Clarke, a woman of social importance, wealth, and grace. The couple would raise six children. CopleyWatson and the Shark and his family moved to London in 1774 as unrest from the impending American Revolution grew. He would continue to work as an artist, and moved beyond portraits in Europe, and into the world of historical painting. He gained considerable success with Watson and the Shark in 1778. Shortly afterwards, Copley was elected to the Royal Academy in 1779.

As he aged, Copley suffered physically and mentally, though he continued to paint until the last months of his life. He died of a stroke on September 9, 1815, and was buried in Croydon, Surrey.

Boy with SquirrelMany places are named after Copley, such as Boston’s Copley Square, Copley Square Hotel, and Copley Plaza. His paintings are displayed throughout the United States and Europe.

Works Cited

Encyclopaedia Brittanica. “John Singelton Copley.” Last modified 27 July 2014.

Pioch, Nicolas. Web Museum, Paris. “Copley, John Singelton.” Last modified 4 August 2002.

Worcester Art. “John Singleton Copley (1738-1815).” Accessed 4 March 2015.

[1] “John Singelton Copley,” Encyclopaeida Brittanica, last modified 27 July 2014,


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