John Singleton Copley

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Boston, United States
Birth Sign
Boston, United States

One of the most well-known painters in colonial America and England was John Singleton Copley. His portrait paintings of notable persons in colonial England made him famous. He had an amazing capacity to create impressive illusions of individuals with distinct textures of skin, hair, and textiles employing dramatic contrasts of light and dark, and he had an innovative and different technique of depicting his subjects. Although little is known about Copley’s childhood and youth, it is widely assumed that he received painting, printmaking, and portraiture instruction from the renowned engraver Peter Pelham, who eventually became Copley’s stepfather. Along with Pelham, English artists John Smibert and Joseph Blackburn influenced the painting techniques of the 17th and 18th centuries, and the young Copley was no exception. Copley had the opportunity to witness and study the works of these great artists. The most major impact on the development of his artistic ability was Joseph Blackburn. From Blackburn’s work, he was able to learn about compositions, rocco stances, and motifs. Copley was a lifetime observer and learner who achieved such high levels of artistic excellence that he became the first American painter to acquire both social and commercial fame.

Childhood and Adolescence

John Copley was born in 1738 in Massachusetts. His father, a tobacconist named Richard Copley, was in terrible condition and traveled to the West Indies to recuperate his strength, where he died.
To make ends meet, his mother ran a tiny tobacco shop, and in 1748 she married engraver Peter Pelham.

Copley’s infancy and schooling are unknown, however, it is assumed that he obtained a good education in numerous disciplines as he grew up to be a well-educated gentleman.
Copley’s stepfather worked as an engraver, a painter, and a teacher. Copley learned to paint and engrave in mezzotint while growing up in such a home.

As a child, he came into contact with the works of renowned artists John Smibert and Joseph Blackburn. Despite the fact that Copley never received any official painting training, he did have access to renowned painters’ paintings and prints, and he learned a lot from studying them.

John Singleton’s Career

When he was 14, he drew his first known artwork, a portrait of his half-brother Charles Pelham. When he painted the Rev. William Welsteed portrait, he was only 15 years old. He also painted an undated self-portrait of a 17-year-old guy.

His paintings were in high demand because they were so lovely and lifelike. He began his professional painting career while still in his teens.

Some of his admirers were so taken with his art that they recommended him to go to Canada, where more people would be willing to hire him, but he declined because he had so much business in America.

He produced oil portraits and was a pioneer in the use of pastels. He once asked a fellow painter in Switzerland for a set of the greatest grade crayons. His ability to portray diverse textures became obvious as he progressed as a painter.

In England in 1766, he displayed his picture ‘A Boy with a Squirrel,’ which depicted a boy seated at a table playing with a pet squirrel. He was appointed a Fellow of the Society of Artists of Great Britain as a result of this painting. He was offered the opportunity to stay in Europe for three or four years to innovate his art, but he declined at the time.

The most notable figures came to him to have their pictures made, and he earned a large sum of money, which was considered a large sum for an artist at the time. He and his family had a lifestyle similar to that of his aristocratic patrons.

Copley arrived in London in 1774, followed by his family.
In 1775, he firmly embarked on his English career, expecting to establish himself among the great British artists. Along with portraiture, he began to paint historical paintings.

In 1778, he painted ‘Watson and the Shark,’ depicting the rescue of a little child named Brook Watson from a shark attack. The picture became extremely well-known.

In 1781, he painted ‘The Death of the Earl of Chatham,’ an oil painting that confirmed his reputation as a historical painter. Major Francis Peirson’s death in the Battle of Jersey was shown in the picture.

Copley was devoted to his job, but it took a toll on both his physical and emotional health. He became increasingly despondent and dissatisfied with life in his senior years. He also suffered financial losses, and by the end of his life, he was deeply in debt.

John’s Major projects

His work ‘A Boy with a Squirrel’ (1765), which featured his half-brother Henry playing with a pet squirrel, was the one that drew the most attention at an exhibition in England. Benjamin West, an Anglo-American painter, was so taken with Copley’s work that he wrote him numerous letters urging him to visit England.

One of his best-known paintings is ‘Watson and the Shark,’ which depicts the rescue of a cabin boy from a shark attack in 1778. After moving to England, it was his first large work.
In 1781, he created ‘The Death of the Earl of Chatham,’ which shows the 1st Earl of Chatham’s collapse during a House of Lord’s argument in 1778. The painting became well-known, but it also sparked some debate.

In 1783, he painted ‘The Death of Major Peirson, 6 January 1781,’ a big oil painting. Major Peirson is depicted in the picture being shot down in the Battle of Jersey on January 6, 1781. When the picture was displayed, it drew large crowds and made Peirson a national hero.

Personal History and Legacy

In 1769, Copley married Susanna Clarke, the lovely daughter of a wealthy trader named Richard Clarke. They enjoyed a wonderful marriage that lasted till Copley’s death and had six children.

During his later years, he struggled with melancholy, anxiety, and a variety of other physical and mental issues. He died in 1815, at the age of 77, after suffering a paralytic stroke.

The “John Singleton Copley Award,” named after him by the American Associates of the Royal Academy Trust, is given to those who have demonstrated originality and brilliance in the field of art.

Estimated Net worth



Copley Square, Copley Square Hotel, and Copley Plaza are just a few of the places in Boston that bear his name.
His father-in-law was the merchant who originally received the tea that sparked the Boston Tea Party.