Museum Review: Copley at the MFA

Posted on April 20, 2012


John Singleton Copley. "Paul Revere." 1768.

The Art of the Americas Wing in Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts features dozens of paintings by John Singleton Copley (1738-1815), the eponymous scion of many things Bostonian who is regarded as one of America’s first important painters. Copley, self-taught and ambitious, was by his mid twenties doing a brisk business as a society portraitist, painting the likes of John Hancock (1765), Nicholas Boyalston (1767), Paul Revere (1768) and Samuel Adams (1772), all of which hang at the museum.

Despite great success, Copley longed for a move to England, where he hoped a more sophisticated clientele could support the grand history paintings he aspired to make. Lamenting his distance from the artistic traditions of Europe, he painted Boy With a Flying Squirrel (1765), expressly to demonstrate his skills to the painters he admired in England. Shipped overseas, the work gained the approval of Sir Joshua Reynolds in London, and, eight years later, Copley’s own leap across the pond was ushered along as life (his in-laws were Loyalists) became increasingly difficult in pre-Revolutionary Boston.

That Copley’s move was an artistic necessity as much as a political one is attested to by the MFA’s holdings of his works from England. After a compressed Grand Tour that took him to France, Italy and Germany, Copley settled in London for the rest of his life, where he painted portraits, history paintings, and even some religious themes. The museum’s Watson and the Shark (1778), Copley’s own copy of his first foray into history painting, is the beginning of the painter’s grapple with a tradition that had hitherto been unavailable to him. The results of that effort are represented in the splendid Saul Reproved by Samuel (1798), to my eye the best of the MFA’s Copley holdings. This late painting has some of the plastic heft of Titian, in that each figure is an integral part of a larger pictorial harmony. (The dance of men’s and horses’ feet across the bottom of the picture could well be the influence of the Venetian.) The way each figure is canted back on diagonal recoil from Samuel’s pointing finger suggests the great power of his judgment. Remarkable also is Copley’s color sensibility, as blazes of warm light illuminate cloth, limbs, horses and armor against a smoke-clogged atmosphere. That the painting predates Delacroix’s masterful Death of Sardanapalus by almost thirty years is astonishing.

John Singleton Copley. "Saul Reproved by Samuel." 1798.

Received wisdom tells us that Copley’s brushwork grew freer to reflect that of England’s great portraitists Reynolds and Thomas Gainsborough, and that his subject matter grew more complex because of his engagement with the European tradition. While these assessments are evident enough, they obscure another equally true but seemingly untold aspect of Copley’s history: his early Boston portraits are poor paintings. The things said about these paintings—that Copley had a mastery of form, that he was able to paint any surface—are simply not true. Take Paul Revere (1768), in which the famous silversmith/Son of Liberty holds his chin pensively, his left hand clutching a silver teapot with his engraving tools spread before him. His head is too large for his body. One would be tempted to describe the teapot as “ham-fisted,” were that adjective not perfectly suited for the hand that holds it. The engraving tools, bereft of form, hover in a tonal and coloristic no-man’s-land. The one nearest the edge of the table appears to be half submerged in the hardwood.

John Singleton Copley. "John Hancock." 1765.

The historical value of having our Revolutionary forbears immortalized in paint notwithstanding, nearly all of Copley’s portraits from this period are weak. Problems with proportion, form and light are consistent among the dozen or so on display. Hancock’s head also is too large, as is Adams’. Where bodies are involved, they twist awkwardly into their allotted spaces. John Hancock (1765) doesn’t sit in his chair so much as contort around it. Of the spatial relationships between chair, Hancock’s knees and the velvet-draped table, it’s anyone’s guess which is where. Each of his sitters shares an intense look that reveals little of their inner character. Contemporary British paintings by Gainsborough, Allan Ramsay and George Romney, in a nearby gallery in the museum’s Art of Europe Wing, offer far more psychologically complex portraits of their sitters.

Of course it was an acknowledgement of this tradition that made Copley pine for England and made men like Reynolds encourage him to move. Trading in a cultural blank slate where he had already distinguished himself as a preeminent talent, Copley made the decision to steep himself in European painting. Saul Reproved by Samuel is just one of many paintings on view at the MFA that display a radically different Copley from the colonial portraitist. Thomas Lane and His Sister Harriott (1792), is notably different from Copley’s earlier works in its full integration of the figures into their surroundings. Not only does the same light fall on the sitters as that which falls on the ground and on the landscape behind them, it’s a light that is achieved by a juxtaposition of hues, rather than a simple addition of white into the paint. It is a far more complex painting than any Copley made in the colonies.


John Singleton Copley. "Thomas Lane and His Sister Harriot." 1792.

Interestingly, once in England, Copley is reported to have doubted his ability to match the achievements of his earlier paintings. Given that the artistic legacy of his move was a realized appreciation for art history (and the accompanying formal knowledge), the question remains of how art history was served by Copley’s choice.

Saul Reproved by Samuel may well be Copley’s most sophisticated painting, but is it less American, too? The position of a painter on the margins of tradition is nuanced. What is the value of embracing a tradition? Of eschewing one? These questions could be asked of the “Haitian Masters” currently on view at Edward Thorp Gallery, and of Forrest Bess, currently at the Whitney, and, in particular, of Odd Nerdrum, currently at Forum Gallery.



Posted in: Museum Reviews