John Singleton Copley had a half-brother who made him famous, but that wasn’t why Copley cared so much for his future happiness.
Copley is known for his fine portraits of important people in colonial America. Many are now in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.
John Singleton Copley was born in Boston in 1738 of Anglo-Irish parents. His father was a tobacconist who died shortly after he was born. His mother owned a tobacco shop on Long Wharf. She remarried an engraver, Peter Pelham when he was about 10.
Copley taught himself to paint. His son and namesake, who became lord chancellor of Great Britain, wrote, with some exaggeration, of his early training:
…‘he was entirely self taught, and never saw a decent picture, with the exception of his own, until he was nearly thirty years of age.’
Before he was 21, Copley was accepting portrait commissions. At 28, he established his reputation in England with a painting of his young half-brother, Henry Pelham, called The Boy with the Squirrel.
The painting was delivered as a favor to the American artist Benjamin West, then living in London. West is said to have exclaimed, ‘What delicious coloring worthy of Titian himself!’ He submitted it to an exhibition, which earned Copley a fellowship in the Society of Artists of Great Britain.
Copley married a Loyalist, Susanna Farnham Clarke, though he stayed away from politics. By 1774, Copley made up his mind to go to Europe, partly to study painting and partly to escape the rising tensions in Boston.
He chronicled his arrival in Paris on Sept. 2, 1774, with a letter to Henry Pelham, of whom he was fond. ‘My dear Harry,’ he wrote, and launched into a description of France: Normandy was full of delightful landscapes; the peaches are very good; he carried a knife and fork in his travels, in the French style. And then Copley gave his half-brother some advice on becoming an artist:
…let me just recommend to you to keep the faces of your portraits, particularly your womens, as Clear of Shade as possible, and make broad Masses of Lights and shade. practice continually. Draw Landscapes, Dogs,
Cats, Cows, horses, in short I would have you keep in your Pocket a book and Porto Crayon — as I now do — and where ever you see a butifull form Sketch it in your Book. by this you will habituate your Self to fine forms. I have got through the Dificultys of the Art, I trust, and shall reap a continual Source of pleasure from my past Industry as long as it pleases God to give me health and life, but yet I lament I had not saved more of my time than I have done. you have it now before you and if you are determined you will accomplish it. Study those Works of Raphael which you can procure, the Cartoons in perticular. Draw them not in a finished manner, but to habituate yourself to the manner of combining your figures. I trust you will take this in a manly manner and feel its force.