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John Singleton Copley was born in 1738, probably in Boston, Massachusetts, when the US was still a British colony. His parents were Irish immigrants, and like most colonists, they were engaged in trading, his mother was a tobacco shop owner.
Little is known about Copley’s early education and childhood, except for what was said regarding his precocious drawing skills. It is believed that some of his knowledge came from his future stepfather, Peter Pelham, who married his mother then years after his father’s death in 1737. Pelham was an engraver and skillful painter as well.
His reputation began to rise rather young. About fourteen years old, he was already remarkably skilled for someone that young. The painting The Forge of Vulcan was made when he was only 16. He would become known in England after the exhibition of his painting A Boy with a Squirrel, which depicts his half-brother, Henry Pelham.
Copley developed a more mature and personal style after making acquaintances with the famous British portrait painter Joseph Blackburn, who arrived in Boston by 1755. Copley, who was still in his teenage years, adopted many of Blackburn’s style. The artist executed elaborate fabrics, intense jewel tones, and even gestures of the sitters depicted by Blackburn. However, according to art historians, Copley soon surpassed Blackburn in his art, for the artist began to represent his sitters with more lively, present, and with gentle poses, as well as keen ability to represent opulent materials.
As the artist matured, he developed a feeling of somewhat artistic isolation in the United States, arguing that Americans perceived portrait painting as a mere useful trade like works of tailors as carpenters, and not a noble art form. Said elements were the motives of Copley trying to engage in the British art scene.
Copley’s earliest recognition in Britain was in 1766 when he sent one of his pictures to the Society of Artists Exhibition. On this occasion, his artwork was appreciated by Joshua Reynolds, the distinguished Royal Academy’s first president, although noticing Copley’s lack of classical references, Reynolds reviews the painting positively. The American painter Benjamin West, who was living in England and encouraged Copley to visit Europe to polish his talent. In 1774, Copley decided to leave for Europe, leaving behind his sick mother, wife, and four children.
Although West secured many commissions to Copley, the artist was barely able to provide to his family back in the US. With the tension in the United States rising and the American Revolution drawing near, the artist urged his family to move to England as well, which they only managed in 1775.
The last fifteen years of his later years are described as unhappy, as the artist suffered two strokes, ultimately hindering his movement.
John Singleton Copley died on September 9, 1815.