John Singleton Copley (concluding rant)

Originally posted by epppie on 02/25/07

Turning Point

The rivalry with West was one Copley could only lose.  West had Royal patronage locked up, which meant that he was financially secure and secure in his position at the Academy.  Copley had great success with public exhibitions of his major history paintings, at first, but these exacerbated friction between him and the Academy, which West dominated, since they competed with the Academy’s showings.  Later on, in turn, Copley found his own private showings out-competed by other painters and impresarios, who were profitting by his example. 

The turning point for Copley’s career in England was the public display of Charles 1 Demanding in the House of Commons the Five Impeached Members, in 1795.  It was unsuccessful, critically and financially.  Farington, the noted art world diarist of the time, and ally to West, sneered when he went to see Copley’s picture, being most particularly impressed by its awful frame and the lack of attendance.

Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting

Charles I Demanding the Five Members in the House of Commons in 1642…

Copley’s large-scale British paintings often deal with recent political events or the latest military victory. However, for Charles I, Copley focused on an event that occurred more than a century earlier, in 1641 or 1642, when King Charles I accused five members of the House of Commons of treason and demanded their surrender. The House refused, considering this a breach of their rights, and the event proved to be the foundation for the civil war that led to the king’s execution. Not surprisingly, Copley’s choice of subject raised royal ire. At a private viewing, Queen Charlotte after a long and ominous silence, said to the artist, “You have chosen, Mr. Copley, a most unfortunate subject for the exercise of your pencil.” The painting was highly esteemed however, by Americans of a later period: President John Quincy Adams and the Boston painter Washington Allston both considered it one of his finest works.

At roughly the same time as he was working on Charles I, Copley assayed another historical theme, Monmouth Before James II,…. In 1685 the Duke of Monmouth, illegitimate son of Charles II, plotted to overthrow his Catholic uncle King James II with Protestant support. He was captured and sentenced to death, but was given a final interview with James, who hoped to coerce him into naming his accomplices. Monmouth refused, and was led away to execution. Two versions of the events that were available in Copley’s time related differing accounts, one in which Monmouth refused the King with nobility and courage, and one in which he groveled at James’s feet. Copley chose the former, and glorified antimonarchist rebellion. Both Charles I and Monmouth heroize men who rebelled against monarchy, a surprising choice for a painter who still hoped to win favor with the public and the royal family.…

Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting

‘Monmouth Before James II,’ c. 1795, oil on canvas…

At this point in his life, I think Copley badly wanted to return to America.  His son, writing back to his father, while visiting America in 1796, urged Copley to consider returning.  I think he would have been welcomed back to the US and the fires of his genius very likely would have been rekindled here.  But his wife and two of his three surviving children wanted to stay in England.  I think that, more than anything, explains why he stayed and the subsequent downward spiral of his life and career. 

I’m not saying he made the wrong choice, by staying in England.  Clearly,  he loved his family  and acceding to their wishes can’t have been wrong.  But I think the artist in him needed to be back in America.  I think he would have been thrilled to join with Trumbull and Stuart and others in expressing the excitement and hopes of the new Republic.


Copley’s creative powers ultimately diminished to the point where he was a laughing stock for some.  Perhaps more cruelly, the lesser artists who triumphed over him in the English artistic establishment ended up being the ones to tell his story.  More than anyone, I think, the art diarist, Farington, was responsible for creating the portrait of Copley that the art world has come to know, as someone who was cranky, unreasonable, overly ambitious, and obsessed with money. 

Copley’s inititial glorious entry into the British cultural scene and his ultimate fall from grace and subsequent loss of his powers is actually a much more fascinating story than that legend of the cranky miser would have us believe, as befits an energetic,  perceptive, couragious and talented man.

Was Copley obsessed with money?  I don’t doubt that he was.  He grew up in a humble family in Boston, a family led by a mother who was twice widowed, a family that became at least in part dependent on his craftsmanship and career by the age of something like 15.  Yes, all his life Copley worried about money.

Was Copley cantankerous?  I think that he must have become more so as he aged.  He does not seem to have aged gracefully.  Samuel F. B. Morse, who visited Copley in 1811, wrote: 

His powers of mind have almost entirely left him…

John Singleton Copley in England 1774-1815
Jules David Prown

Yet Morse adds:

He was very pleasant, however, and agreeable in his manners

It must be obvious that an ill mannered lout would never have been able to build up the clientel Copley did, both in the colonies and in England. 

Copley’s career sailed through some of the stormiest political seas in history.  As one would expect a great painter to do, he gave expression to the deeper currents of those times, before succombing to them.  Both within the art world of England at the time, and in the larger political world, he ended up on the losing end of the struggle.

The rollercoaster ride of his life seems to be reflected in a poem Copley wrote just before his death:

Some may the wilder prospects hail,
  Where torrents foam, and mountains rise;
  But Stapleton’s Delightful Vale
  Will charm the pensive and the wise.

John Singleton Copley in England 1774-1815
Jules David Prown

Copley’s last years were quiet and he painted happily. 
In the end, he and West seem to have settled their differences. 
It is fitting, in a way, that their later styles converged.  Their late paintings were overdramatic and overblown, but rarely uninteresting.

Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting

Saul Reproved by Samuel

Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting

  Benjamin West – King Lear (1788)


Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: