Copley, John Singleton (kŏpˈlē) [key], 1738–1815, American portrait painter, b. Boston. Copley is considered the greatest of the American old masters. He studied with his stepfather, Peter Pelham, and undoubtedly frequented the studios of Smibert and Feke. At 20 he was already a successful portrait painter with a mature style remarkable for its brilliance, clarity, and forthright characterization. In 1766 his Boy with the Squirrel was exhibited in London and won the admiration of Benjamin West, who urged him to come to England. However, he remained in America for eight years longer and worked in New York City and Philadelphia as well as in Boston.
In 1774 Copley visited Italy and then settled in London, where he spent the remainder of his life, enjoying many honors and the patronage of a distinguished clientele. In England his style gained in subtlety and polish but lost most of the vigor and individuality of his early work. He continued to paint portraits but enlarged his repertoire to include the enormous historical paintings that constituted the chief basis of his fame abroad. His large historical painting The Death of Lord Chatham (Tate Gall., London) gained him admittance to the Royal Academy. His rendering of a contemporary disaster, Brook Watson and the Shark (Mus. of Fine Arts, Boston), stands as a unique forerunner of romantic horror painting.
Today Copley's reputation rests largely upon his early American portraits, which are treasured not only for their splendid pictorial qualities but also as the most powerful graphic record of their time and place. Portraits such as those of Nicholas Boylston and Mrs. Thomas Boylston (Harvard), Daniel Hubbard (Art Inst., Chicago), Governor Mifflin and Mrs. Mifflin (Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia), and Paul Revere (Mus. of Fine Arts, Boston) are priceless documents in which the life of a whole society seems mirrored. Among his finest later portraits are the curiously distorted image of Samuel Adams (Mus. of Fine Arts, Boston) and the group portrait of the Copley family (privately owned). The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, has an excellent collection of his works. Copley's son was Baron Lyndhurst.
See catalog with biography by J. D. Prown (1966); biographies by J. T. Flexner (rev. ed. 1948) and A. V. Frankenstein (1970); John Singleton Copley in America (1995) by C. Rebora, P. Staiti, T. E. Stebbins, Jr., and E. E. Hirshler.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.