Copley's mother in his early boyhood kept a tobacco shop on Long Wharf. The parents, who according to the artist's granddaughter, Martha Babcock Amory, came to Boston in 1736, were "engaged in trade, like almost all the inhabitants of the North American colonies at that time". The father was from Limerick, the mother, of the Singletons of County Clare, a family of Lancashire origin. Letters from John Singleton, Mrs. Copley's father, are in the Copley-Pelham collection. Richard Copley, described as a tobacconist, is said by several biographers to have arrived in Boston in ill health and to have gone, about the time of John's birth, to the West Indies, where he died. William H. Whitmore gives his death as of 1748, the year of Mrs. Copley's remarriage. James Bernard Cullen says: "Richard Copley was in poor health on his arrival in America and went to the West Indies to improve his failing strength. He died there in 1737." Neither of the foregoing dates has been either confirmed or disproved.
Except for a family tradition that speaks of his precocity in drawing, nothing is known of Copley's schooling or of the other activities of his boyhood. His letters, the earliest of which is dated September 30, 1762, reveal a fairly well-educated man. He may have been taught various subjects, it is reasonably conjectured, by his future step-father, who besides painting portraits and cutting engravings eked out a living in Boston by teaching dancing and, beginning September 12, 1743, by conducting an "Evening Writing and Arithmetic School", duly advertised. It is certain that the widow Copley was married to Peter Pelham on May 22, 1748 and that at about that time she transferred her tobacco business to his house in Lindall Street (a quieter, more respectable part of town), at which the evening school also continued its sessions. In such a household young Copley may have learned to use the paintbrush and the engraver's tools. Whitmore says plausibly: "Copley at the age of fifteen was able to engrave in mezzotint, his step-father Pelham, with whom he lived three years, was an excellent engraver and skillful also with the brush."
The artistic opportunities of the home and town in which Copley grew to manhood should be emphasized because he himself, and some of his biographers, taking him too literally, have made much of the bleakness of his early surroundings. His son, Lord Lyndhurst, wrote that "he (Copley) was entirely self taught, and never saw a decent picture, with the exception of his own, until he was nearly thirty years of age." Copley himself complained, in a letter to Benjamin West, written November 12, 1766: "In this Country as You rightly observe there is no examples of Art, except what is to met with in a few prints indifferently exicuted, from which it is not possable to learn much". Variants of this thesis are found almost everywhere in his earlier letters. They suggest that while Copley was industrious and an able executant he was physically unadventurous and temperamentally inclined toward brooding and self-pity. He could have seen at least a few good paintings and many good prints in the Boston of his youth. The excellence of his own portraits was not accidental or miraculous, it had an academic foundation. A book of Copley's studies of the figure, now at the British Museum, proves that before he was twenty, whether with or without help from a teacher, he was making anatomical drawings with much care and precision. It is likely that through the fortunate associations of a home and workshop in a town which had many craftsmen he had already learned his trade at an age when the average art student of a later era was only beginning to draw.
Copley was fourteen or so and his step-father had recently died, when he made the earliest of his portraits now preserved, a likeness of his half-brother Charles Pelham, good in color and characterization though it has in its background accessories which are somewhat out of drawing. It is a remarkable work to have come from so young a hand. The artist was only fifteen when (it is believed) he painted the portrait of the Rev. William Welsteed, minister of the Brick Church in Long Lane, a work which, following Charles Pelham's practise, Copley personally engraved to get the benefit from the sale of prints. No other engraving has been attributed to Copley. A self-portrait, undated, depicting a boy of about seventeen in broken straw hat, and a painting of Mars, Venus and Vulcan, signed and dated 1754, disclose crudities of execution which do not obscure the decorative intent and documentary value of the works. Such painting would obviously advertise itself anywhere. Without going after business, for his letters do not indicate that he was ever aggressive or pushy, Copley was started as a professional portrait-painter long before he was of age. In October 1757, Capt. Thomas Ainslie, collector of the port of Quebec, acknowledged from Halifax the receipt of his portrait, which "gives me great Satisfaction", and advised the artist to visit Nova Scotia "where there are several people who would be glad to employ You." This request to paint in Canada was later repeated from Quebec, Copley replying: "I should receive a singular pleasure in excepting, if my Business was anyways slack, but it is so far otherwise that I have a large Room full of Pictures unfinished, which would ingage me these twelve months if I did not begin any others."
Besides painting portraits in oil, doubtless after a formula learned from Charles Pelham, Copley was a pioneer American pastellist. He wrote, on September 30, 1762, to the Swiss painter Jean-Etienne Liotard, asking him for "a sett of the best Swiss Crayons for drawing of Portraits." The young American anticipated Liotard's surprise "that so remote a corner of the Globe as New England should have any demand for the necessary eutensils for practiceing the fine Arts" by assuring him that "America which has been the seat of war and desolation, I would fain hope will one Day become the School of fine Arts." The requested pastels were duly received and used by Copley in making many portraits in a medium suited to his talent. By this time he had begun to demonstrate his genius for rendering surface textures and capturing emotional immediacy.
It was known to earlier biographers that Copley at one time painted portraits in New York City. The circumstances of this visit, which was supplemented by a few days in Philadelphia, were first disclosed through Prof. Guernsey Jones's discovery of many previously unpublished Copley and Pelham documents in the Public Record Office, London. From these letters and papers, published by the Massachusetts Historical Society in 1914, it appears that in 1768 Copley painted in Boston a portrait of Myles Cooper, president of King's College, who then urged his visiting New York. Accepting the invitation later, Copley, between June 1771 and January 1772, painted thirty-seven portraits in New York, setting up his easel "in Broadway, on the west side, in a house which was burned in the great conflagration on the night the British army entered the city as enemies." Copley's letters to Henry Pelham, whom he left in charge of his affairs in Boston, describe minutely the journey across New England, his first impressions of New York, which "has more Grand Buildings than Boston, the streets much cleaner and some much broader," and the successful search for suitable lodgings and a painting-room, thereafter they give detailed accounts of sitters and social happenings. The correspondence also contains Copley's careful instructions to Pelham concerning the features of a new house then being built on his Beacon Hill "farm," giving elevations and specifications of the addition of "peazas" which the artist saw for the first time in New York. Copley at the time had a lawsuit respecting title to some of his lands. His letters reveal a man who allowed such disputes to worry him considerably.
In September 1771, Mr. and Mrs. Copley visited Philadelphia, where, at the home of Chief Justice William Allen, they "saw a fine Coppy of the Titian Venus and Holy Family at whole length as large as life from Coregio". On their return journey they viewed at New Brunswick, New Jersey several pictures attributed to van Dyck.. "The date is 1628 on one of them," wrote Copley, "it is without dout I think Vandyck did them before he came to England." Back in New York Copley wrote, on October 17, requesting that a certain black dress of Mrs. Copley's be sent over at once. "As we are much in company," he said, "we think it necessary Sukey [his wife] should have it, as her other Cloaths are mostly improper for her to wear". On December 15 Copley informed Pelham that "this Week finishes all my Business, no less than 37 Busts, so the weather permitting by Christmas we hope to be on the road." Thus ended Copley's only American tour away from Boston. Accounts of his having painted in the South are without foundation. Most of the Southern portraits that have been popularly attributed to him were made by Henry Benbridge.
On September 2, 1774, Copley chronicled his arrival at Paris (the beginning of a nine-month European tour), where he saw and painstakingly described many paintings and sculptures. His journey toward Rome was made in company of an artist named Carter, described as "a captious, cross-grained and self conceited person who kept a regular journal of his tour in which he set down the smallest trifle that could bear a construction unfavorable to the American's character." Carter was undoubtedly an uncongenial companion. Copley, however, may at times have been both depressing and bumptious. He found fault, according to Carter, with the French firewood because it gave out less heat than American wood, and he bragged of the art which America would produce when "they shall have an independent government." Copley's personal appearance was thus described by his uncharitable comrade: "Very thin, a little pock-marked, prominent eyebrows, small eyes, which after fatigue seemed a day's march in his head." Copley afterward wrote of Carter: "He was a sort of snail which crawled over a man in his sleep and left its slime, and no more." Mrs. Amory relates that "both parties were undoubtedly glad to separate on their arrival at their destination." October 8, 1774 found Copley at Genoa, where he wrote to his wife describing, among other things, the cheapness of the silks: "The velvet and satin for which I gave seven guineas would have cost fourteen in London." He reached Rome on October 26. "I am very fortunate," he wrote, "in my time of being here, as I shall see the magnificance of the rejoicing on the election of the Pope, it is also the year of jubilee, or Holy Year."
Copley's plan of study and mode of living at Rome are described in several letters. He found time for excursions. He visited Naples in January 1775, writing to his wife: "The city is very large and delightfully situated but you have no idea of the dirt, . . . and the people are as dirty as the streets,-indeed, they are offensive to such a degree as to make me ill". The excavations at Pompeii greatly interested him and in company with Ralph Izard of South Carolina (whose family portrait he later painted) he extended his journey to Paestum. At Rome early in 1775 he copied Correggio's St. Jerome on commission from Lord Grosvenor, and other works for Mr. and Mrs. Izard. About May 20 he started on a tour northward through Florence, Parma, Mantua, Venice, Trieste, Stuttgart, Mainz, Cologne, and the Low Countries. From Parma he wrote to Henry Pelham urging that the whole family leave America at once since, "if the Frost should be severe and the Harbour frozen, the Town of Boston will be exposed to an attack, and if it should be taken all that have remained in the town will be considered as enimys to the Country and ill treated or exposed to great distress." This anxiety was groundless, for Mrs. Copley and the children had already sailed on May 27, 1775 from Marblehead in a ship crowded with refugees. She arrived in London some weeks before Copley returned from the Continent, making her home with her brother-in-law, Henry Bromfield. Her father, Richard Clarke, and her brothers came soon after. Copley happily rejoined his family and set up his easel, at first in Leicester Fields and later at 25 George St., Hanover Square, in a house built by a wealthy Italian and admirably adapted to an artist's requirements. Here Mr. and Mrs. Copley and their son Lord Lyndhurst lived and died.
As an English painter Copley began in 1775 a career promising at the outset and destined from personal and political causes to end in gloom and adversity. His technique was so well established, his habits of industry so well confirmed, and the reputation that had preceded him from America was so extraordinary, that he could hardly fail to make a place for himself among British artists. He himself, however, "often said, after his arrival in England, that he could not surpass some of his early works". The deterioration of his talent was gradual, however, so some of the "English Copleys" are superb paintings.
Following a fashion set by Benjamin West and others, Copley began to paint historical pieces as well as portraits. His first foray into this genre was A Youth Rescued from a Shark, its subject based on an incident related to the artist by Brook Watson, who had been attacked by a shark while swimming in Havana harbour as a 14-year-old boy. It is likely that Watson, who went on to a successful career despite the attack and the loss of his leg below the knee, commissioned the painting as a lesson for other unfortunates, including orphans like himself, in the fact that even the severest adversity can be overcome. Engravings from this work achieved an enduring popularity.
Copley's adventures in historical painting were the more successful because of his painstaking efforts to obtain good likenesses of personages and correct accessories of their periods. He traveled much in England to make studies of old portraits and actual localities. At intervals came from his studio such pieces as The Red Cross Knight, Abraham Offering up Isaac, Hagar and Ishmael in the Wilderness, The Death of Major Pierson, The Arrest of Five Members of the Commons by Charles the First, The Siege of Gibraltar, The Surrender of Admiral DeWindt to Lord Camperdown, The Offer of the Crown to Lady Jane Grey by the Dukes of Northumberland and Suffolk, The Resurrection, and others. He continued to paint portraits, among them those of several members of the royal family and numerous British and American celebrities. Between 1776 and 1815 he sent forty-three paintings to exhibitions of the Royal Academy, of which he was elected an associate member in the former year. His election to full membership occurred in 1783.
The effort with which Copley labored over his compositions was exemplary, but at times it may have injured his health and disposition. "He has been represented to me by some," wrote Cunningham, "as a peevish and peremptory man while others describe him as mild and unassuming." Both descriptions probably fitted Copley depending on his mood: he might be nervous from overwork and worry or in a normal condition. His granddaughter, Mrs. Amory, recalls that he usually painted continuously from early morning until twilight. In the evening his wife or a daughter read English literature for his benefit. He took but little exercise-probably not enough for health.
How deep into debt Copley had fallen in his latest years was hinted at in Mrs. Copley's letter of February 1, 1816, to Gardiner Greene in which she gave details of his assets and borrowings and predicted: "When the whole property is disposed of and applied toward the discharge of the debts a large deficiency must, it is feared, remain." The estate was settled by Copley's son, later Lord Lyndhurst, who maintained the establishment in George St., supported his mother down to her death in 1836, and kept the ownership of many of the artist's unsold pictures until March 5, 1864, when they were sold at auction in London. Several of the works then dispersed are now in American collections.
Copley was the greatest and most influential painter in colonial America, producing about 350 works of art. With his startling likenesses of persons and things, he came to define a realist art tradition in America. His visual legacy extended throughout the nineteenth century in the American taste for the work of artists as diverse as realist Fitz Henry Lane and William Harnett. In Britain, while he continued to paint portraits for the elite, his great achievement was the development of contemporary history painting, which was a combination of reportage, idealism, and theatre. He was also one of the pioneers of the private exhibition, orchestrating shows and marketing prints of his own work to mass audiences that might otherwise attend exhibitions only at the Royal Academy, or who previously had not gone to exhibitions at all.
Boston's Copley Square, Copley Square Hotel and Copley Plaza bear his name, as does Copley Township, Summit County, Ohio.