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You are here: MAG Home > In depth > Biographies A-Z > Biography of John Singleton Copley
Biography of John Singleton Copley (1738–1815)

American-born history and portrait painter, who began painting portraits in his teens in his native Boston. Although self-taught, he was familiar with European art through the study of prints in the collection of his stepfather, the engraver Peter Pelham. His early pieces had a freshness and spontaneity of handling rarely seen in works by his contemporaries (‘Portrait of Colonel Epes Sargent’, circa 1760, National Gallery of Art, Washington). In 1766 he exhibited the portrait of his stepbrother, Henry Pelham (‘Boy with a Squirrel’, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston) in London. Despite critical acclaim both at home and abroad he lacked confidence. In 1776 he visited Italy where he worked on devotional pictures. Later in the same year he settled in London with his family. ‘The Copley Family’ (1776–77, National Gallery of Art, Washington) marked the occasion. In London he continued as a portrait painter, but his fine style lost its originality: he followed fashion rather then conviction.

With demand for history subjects much greater in England than America, he pursued this genre seeking new modes of expression and using modern costume for historical characters. In ‘Brook Watson and the Shark’ (1778, National Gallery of Art, Washington) he gave a novel interpretation of the Hellenistic sculpture of the ‘Borghese Gladiator’ (Louvre, Paris) by modelling the figure of Watson on the ancient hero. His heroic ‘Death of Chatham’ (1779–80, Tate, London) was a response to Benjamin West’s ‘Death of Wolfe’. Copley became a member of the Royal Academy in 1779. He soon engaged in bitter, artistic and financial rivalries with fellow Academicians, some related to his innovative showmanship in displaying his major works independently for profit, such as the huge ‘Siege of Gibraltar’ completed in 1794 (Guildhall Art Gallery, London). He fell out of fashion and died forgotten and bankrupt, although his eminent lawyer son, later Lord Lyndhurst, was three times Lord Chancellor of England.

View paintings by John Singleton Copley