The Copley Family1788 by John Singleton Copley

From 1776 to 1777, after immigrating to England from America, Copley painted a monumental portrait of his family (now at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC). He had preceded them to Europe by 18 months, so the composition celebrated their happy reunion. It also demonstrated Copley’s skills as a portraitist. His paintings soon became sufficiently popular that he could sell prints made after them. Copley made this oil sketch 12 years after completing the original work, painting it in gray tones to guide the engraver. The prints proved to be good investments—not only did they sell, but they also inspired new commissions for paintings.

Here, Mrs. Copley affectionately hugs John Jr., the future Lord Lyndhurst. At her side is daughter Mary; the self-possessed Elizabeth stands in front. Susanna, born in London, sits on the lap of Mrs. Copley’s father, Richard Clarke. Standing behind his family and elegantly dressed, Copley portrays himself as a sophisticated gentleman recently returned from visiting the principal cities and places of interest in Europe. His daughters wear frocks tied loosely with sashes, a new fashion for children. Such dresses were not scaled-down versions of adult attire but were designed to allow freedom of movement, in keeping with new theories about the nature of childhood. Copley updated several aspects of his original portrait to conform to current fashion: he changed his wife’s hairdo and gown and altered the settee from the rococo to the newly popular neoclassical style.

This text was adapted from Carol Troyen and Janet L. Comey, Amerikakaigakodomo no sekai [Children in American art], exh. cat. (Nagoya, Japan: Nagoya/Boston Museum of Fine Arts, 2007).
(http://www.mfa.org/collections/object/the-copley-family-34253)
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