Self Portrait1769 by John Singleton Copley

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.

...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.

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.

...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.

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.
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Media: drawing