Political Fervor and the Art of John Singleton Copley

Prize-winning historian Jane Kaminsky's Revolution in Color paints the era of the American Revolution with beguiling precision; John Singleton Copley, a man who resisted what we regard as the inevitable outcome of the era, emerges sharp and distinct.

A Revolution in Color: The World of John Singleton Copley
Jane Kamensky
W. W. Norton
Oct 2017

The history of painting is, of course, no stranger to politics. Some of the most celebrated works in art history have a political theme. Think of Picasso’s Guernica, Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People, or David’s various depictions of Napoleon. These paintings exude a political fervor that attempts to sweep the viewer up into a heady swirl of patriotism, political fervor, and urgency. David’s Napoleon Crossing the Alps provides an ideal example. Clearly, this is hero worship of the first order, but at the same time there’s the strong suggestion that Napoleon is simply at the head of a dynamic force pushing French society toward the summit of achievement, of self-realization, of historical prominence.

Napoleon’s horse rears back, a crazed look in his eye—not unlike depictions of the conversion of Saint Paul, a cataclysmic confrontation with the ultimate Sublime. And yet Napoleon himself maintains a self-assured composure that borders on the improbable. His ungloved hand points to the summit to be attained but also perhaps to the divine guarantor of his success. Yet, Napoleon, unlike Paul, need not be converted; he is in full cognizance of his divine blessing. His cape billows forward and yet, far from suggesting unbridled movement, it provides a static backdrop for the horse’s crazed visage very similar to the sweeping curtains so typical of 17th century Dutch paintings of elaborate interiors (particularly in the work of the sadly underrated Gerrit Dou). The painting is ultimately a paradox: seeming movement is undergirded by a palpable, yet mysterious stasis; the exterior world of the political (indeed martial) act is framed with the calm assurance of the domestic interior; the military endeavor is depicted as though it were a fait accompli. Motion all around him, Napoleon is strangely unmoved—physically or emotionally.

Meanwhile the French army, seemingly relegated to the background but somehow also an emanation of Napoleon’s active force as a mortal unmoved mover, marches inexorably toward its goal. These soldiers are seen to be on the move, they lean into the mountain’s steep incline, pushing forward to their inevitable (it would appear) victory. The painting may be of Napoleon, but it is about the French people. Napoleon is the emblem of their triumph, the stable force that impels them onward into the glorified unknown. This is art that announces its political intention, its allegiance to a man and a nation, a vision for a blessed future that is assured. This is a picture of a man and a people made monumental, an event made momentous.

Now consider the celebrated portrait of Paul Revere by John Singleton Copley. Here we have a very different kind of painting. There have been, of course, innumerable political readings of this work but if it is political—and, as Jane Kamensky demonstrates in her remarkable monograph A Revolution in Color: The World of John Singleton Copley, that “if” has to be very carefully considered—it is a very different approach to politics than we see in the David, the Delacroix, and the Picasso. Copley’s Paul Revere is a somewhat aberrant work within the painter’s oeuvre. Revere appears in his work clothes (the only portrait in which Copley doesn’t dress his sitter in ostentatious attire) without a wig (another oddity for Copley). His shirt is open at the collar, his waistcoat unbuttoned; he exudes the unhurried immediacy of informality. He sits behind a table that has his engraver’s burins laid out upon it. But this is no workbench. The table is polished to such a refined sheen that we clearly see the reflection of his white linen shirt within its high gloss.

Paul Revere, holding his chin in his right hand, gazes directly at the viewer. His left hand holds a teapot, undoubtedly the product of his labor as a silversmith, supported by a pillow of dark orange—perhaps this is a display pillow to highlight his work for potential patrons. The teapot is, like the table, highly polished and Copley beautifully captures the reflection of Revere’s hand on the sheen of its surface. The painting seems to conflate two aspects of Revere’s occupation. One the one hand, it almost appears as if we have disturbed the silversmith in his work (as the tools seem to suggest but the refined table seems to disavow) and on the other hand, we are witnessing a businessman preparing his wares for display. Private and public, craftsman and merchant, artisan and philosopher—Revere is portrayed as all at once.

And yet this painting was rendered in 1768, mere months after Revere had signed his name to the October 1767 non-importation agreement in protest against and non-compliance with the Townshend Acts, recently passed by the British Parliament, that sought to raise revenue through the imposition of taxes on the colonists for imported goods such as tea. Revere was the first among the signatories and Copley (being directly affected by the taxes on art supplies) also signed. Many commentators have suggested (some even insisted) that tea was fast becoming a political issue and therefore Copley’s portrait of Revere—his philosophical visage ruminating on the political impact of a seemingly harmless social grace (tea was considered a refined British demonstration of class), his gaze challenging us to take a stand on the increasingly urgent question of the proper financial and political relationship between the colonies and the crown—was itself an intentionally political act.

This view is (or ought to be) tempered by the fact that tea was, at this stage of the colonial turmoil, far from the primary concern. The Tea Act, which put tea front and center in the maelstrom, was not passed until 1773—long after this painting was executed—and there were many important events in between (including the Boston Massacre, which inspired outrage that Revere bolstered through his famous engraving) that fanned the flames of colonial resentment. (As it turns out, that engraving was a rip-off of a work by Copley’s half-brother!)

That this painting is often read as political propaganda (or at least as political posturing) is perhaps not surprising. John Singleton Copley was one of a mere handful of colonial artists of repute to live and work in the colonies during the convoluted upheaval that led to the American Revolution, colonial independence, and, ultimately, the formation of the United States. This is the era that served as the inception of a nation—forged in a cauldron of discontent, the lofty rhetoric of freedom, and the fervent ideals of self-reliance. In retrospect, the birth story of the nation is often told as the inevitable triumph of liberty against tyranny, right against might, self-determination against an outmoded ideology of divine rule. No wonder we would be tempted to look to this Boston artist for clues to understanding an era we no revere (pun intended).

As Kamensky admirably demonstrates in her well-argued and engaging account of Copley’s life and artistic development, however, the experience of the colonists during those tumultuous times was hardly uniform, far from simple, and cannot be reduced to a simple-minded depiction of a conflict between far-sighted Sons of Liberty and the conservative, self-important Tories who slavishly remained loyal to the indifferent king. In Kamensky’s book, the men we regard as heroes (Revere, Samuel and John Adams, John Hancock) often behaved in less than admirable fashion, resorting far too often to mob violence and political zeal over reason while the men we regard as villains (the so-called Tories, a label Kamensky shows to be bankrupt) often held the higher ethical ground. While offering a fine history of Copley’s formation and development as an artist, the book’s more impressive contribution is the careful depiction of a time of confusion and ever-shifting allegiances, a time in which it was difficult (to say the least) to establish a firm moral footing, a time that is now construed as a release from the chains of monarchy but that then largely looked like the exchange of order for mob rule.

Kamensky suggests that the portrait of Paul Revere was hardly likely to be the political statement it is now taken to be. In that year, Revere still regarded himself as a British citizen; the Liberty Tree, during the third anniversary celebration of the Stamp Act protests, was decorated with the British Union Jack, and Revere (no less than Copley) was unlikely to desire to alienate the elitist patrons that associated themselves with the privilege deriving from the crown (p.141). In short, Revere was far from the firebrand he would become and Boston was not yet in the throes of the revolutionary spirit. One might even suggest that insofar as Copley identifies with his subject it is not in the guise of an emergent revolutionary spirit so much as it is an attempt to ennoble what the colonists saw as artisanship but Copley regarded as a higher calling. Revere, and by extension Copley, is meant to exemplify the fact that the craftsman is also an artist of genius.

By 1768, when Revere sat for him, the ambitious Copley had established himself as one of the foremost portraitists in Boston. The field wasn’t exactly wide, however, and Copley had little competition. This was, obviously, a boon to his career on the one hand but on the other it demonstrated, much to Copley’s chagrin, that the arts lacked the vitality they had recently attained in London. Boston had no art academy, no museums, no access to the major works (present and past) of the European tradition (prints were typically without color and of questionable fidelity), none of the institutional support that nurtured artists in London and the Continent. One of the threads of the first half of Kamensky’s book is Copley’s envious gaze eastward, across the Atlantic, toward Great Britain—which he had never seen, having been born in Massachusetts, and yet, in the manner of many of his fellow colonists, still referred to as “Home”.

In 1765, Copley sent one of his finest paintings of that decade, A Boy with a Flying Squirrel, to London to be shown in the exhibition of the Society of Artists under the protection of Benjamin West, the Philadelphia painter who was then living in London and very much in vogue. Months passed before Copley heard any word regarding his painting’s reception but when he finally did get news it was in the form not only of reports of what the critics had said but also two critiques by two of the most famous artists of the day, Benjamin West and Joshua Reynolds. Both artists claimed to be astounded at what Copley had accomplished with so little institutional support but both also commented on what they regarded as a certain “hardness” of his line, a certain infelicity of manner. West and Reynolds added their voices to the chorus of friends and interlocutors in Copley’s life who encouraged him to sail for Europe immediately before his technique irreversibly hardened into habit and his genius eroded under the lack of proper guidance. Owing to family obligations (Copley supported his twice-widowed mother and his half-brother), the portraitist temporized. A constant refrain of the first half of Kamensky’s biography is the continuous urgings (external and internal) to go to Europe to attain the necessary influence and Copley’s difficulty in taking the trip.

With so many ties to the British “homeland” and imbued with a preternatural reticence in all matters political, Copley found himself in a rather precarious position as the colonies shifted toward ever more bellicose measures. Matters were made worse by the fact that he had married Sukey Clarke, the daughter of one of the wealthiest merchants in Boston, Richard Clarke, one of the main importers and consignees of the East India Company’s supplies of tea. The 1773 Tea Act was actually more lenient than previous taxation measures Parliament attempted to impose on the colonies. In fact, it was designed to assist the East India Company in working its way back to profitability. Their tea would become cheaper than the smuggled tea that many colonists enjoyed at that time. By any financial measure (except, of course, from the point of view of the smugglers), the Tea Act should have been a relief. Many of the colonists, however, still emboldened by the repeal of the Stamp Act and zealously wary of any further taxation, found it to be an irritant.

Clarke was soon besieged by his fellow citizens. Unruly mobs came to his home, insisting that he refuse the shipment of tea once it arrived, sending it back to England. He denied their request on the logical grounds that his neighbors didn’t seem to understand that the Tea Act would be no imposition upon them and on the ethical grounds that he had pledged to take receipt of the product and therefore his honor was at stake. One particularly outraged group broke into his home, assaulted his family, and destroyed the first floor of his house, including the furnishings. Clarke soon had to go into hiding while the Sons of Liberty fumed and Copley, uncomfortable in politics and rhetoric, was forced to serve as the go-between. The chapter in Kamensky’s book detailing these events, “The Tyranny of Liberty”, is perhaps the most compelling of the entire narrative and serves as the pivot point, catapulting Copley out of the colonies and on to England.

Kamensky does an admirable job of guiding the reader through the changes in Copley’s approach to painting. She is far from blind to Copley’s various failings in certain works, calling attention, for instance, to the clumsy rendering of hands (a particular difficulty for Copley as it was for several artists) in his early works, the awkward disposition of the bodies, the occasional lapses in taste. On the other hand, she is particularly capable of drawing out the points of interest in even the more modest of Copley’s works. She seems to have a genuine affection for her subject while maintaining critical distance (perhaps not unlike what we see in Copley’s work as a portraitist).

There is another, even more striking, parallel between Kamensky’s writing and Copley’s painting. Copley was often criticized, particularly by Joshua Reynolds, for rendering his backgrounds with as much care and imbuing them with as much interest as the foregrounded subjects of his paintings. This can clearly be seen in Copley’s second exhibition piece for London, Young Lady with a Bird and Dog (1767). Not only do the dog and bird of the title attempt to wrest the attention away from the ostensible subject—a girl that the London audiences found terribly repulsive—but Copley crowds the surroundings with material in a manner designed, according to Kamensky, to “overawe the critics” (p.120). Elements of masculine symbolism (a Doric column, the fringed vermillion drapery) combat the genre scene that serves as the subject. Reynolds found particular fault with the painting, claiming that each part was equal in strength, each part refused to subordinate itself to the whole, and thus every detail sought to be a painting in its own right. A glance at nearly any portrait by Reynolds will elucidate the invidious comparison implicit in Reynold’s remonstrance. For Reynolds, the background is rendered with far less precision, it becomes in some works a mere hazy mist surrounding the subject. When background features are recognizable they all point forward to the main figure by receding into an unremarkable vagueness.

But what Reynolds regards as a failing, one might see as a strength. Copley, at his best, renders a world of endless involvement, a world wherein the details refuse to submit to the whole but insist upon their own integrity, a world where placidity is undergirded by conflict and conflicting demands upon our attention; that is, a world very much in accordance with Copley’s experience of the Revolutionary period. When it works, one doesn’t lose sight of the subject of the painting but rather that subject is seen as embedded in a world of sensuous excess. This is a world that doesn’t simply guarantee the prominence of the foreground figure. Rather that figure must vie for our attention. This doesn’t cause fatigue in the viewer so much as it incites an inquiry into the conditions that allow for the figure to exist, to warrant our attention. The world teems with possibilities, with objects that withdraw into their own existences, not as supporting acts for the subject. Copley lived that kind of life. As a prominent painter in a town that didn’t consider painters to be worthy of much prominence, Copley occupied an intriguing liminal space. He was widely recognized yet always on the precipice of disappearing into relative anonymity.

Kamensky pulls off something of the same balancing act that Copley achieves in his finest paintings. She is able to render Copley’s development as an artist so that we bear witness to his trials and achievements, his failures and successes. And yet the social and political background to that development is never blurred, never reduced to the mere stage upon which Copley acts. A reader totally uninterested in art would still encounter a fascinating account of a largely misunderstood but central moment in history: the inception of the United States. Here it is rendered with all of the ugliness that masked itself as noble ideals, all of the mob violence that disguised itself as patriotic necessity. And yet, despite the beguiling precision with which Kamensky paints that background, Copley emerges sharp and distinct, man very much of his times that resisted what we regard as the inevitable outcome of the era. Kamensky refuses to simplify either Copley’s character or the tenor of the times and in that refusal offers us a penetrating insight into what, for many of us, has been reduced to mere legend.