John Singleton Copley Term Paper

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Art History

John Singleton Copley: An American Painter in European Clothing

One of the foremost painters of his generation, the American John Singleton Copley brought the experiences of the New World to the traditions of European art. Born in Boston in 1738, Copley grew up in a world that, in his words, regarded painting as, "no more than any other usefull trade, as they sometimes term it, like that of a Carpenter tailor, or shew maker, not as one of the most noble Arts in the World."

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The American colonies were provincial adjuncts of the British Empire. Massachusetts, like the most of the Northern colonies, was commercial in outlook. Boston was a growing center of trade and small crafts, but not much more. Art and artistry were still thought of as something alien to the rough and ready world that was still being carved out of the pristine wilderness. The Puritan ethos dominated. The principles of hard work, simplicity, and frugality were more characteristic than those of creativity for its own sake, and an understanding of art as a necessary prerequisite to the pursuit of a higher civilization. Painting such as it existed in Copley's Boston was intimately linked to general attitudes toward wealth and status. According to the Puritan view, one's material success served as a signpost of one's spiritual well-being; the more one was favored by God, the greater would be one's material success, and all of its outward manifestations. To this end, painting was seen primarily as the art of portraiture - a cataloging of the relative worth of an individual or individuals. Copley would see a considerable amount of portrait art in Boston, though not always of the highest quality. What there was of true "fine art" would be found in the form of engravings in the homes of the wealthy and prominent.

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As a result, the highly talented youngster was forced to fall back on his own devices, studying the copies of European art that came his way, and attempting to make sense of the limner tradition that then represented the American Colonial version of high art. Not true folk painting, which is unchanging, the limners who had dominated American portraiture since the earliest days of the colonies were actually attempting - without any formal training - to copy the styles and techniques they saw reproduced in the European engravings with which Copley was familiar:

The limner, as an untrained artist, presented reality conceptually, as idea, and pinned it down with two-dimensional surface patterns characterized by linear boundedness and equal emphasis of parts.... though generically primitive, was essentially archaic, having within it the potential for change and development.

And so too did Copley who quickly developed his own interpretation of the limner style fused with his attempts to copy the techniques of the formally-trained European masters. What Copley learned from the limners painstaking attempts at delineating the sheen and texture of rich draperies, and their almost microscopic attention to every detail of costume and setting, was the connection between these elements and the mercantile ethos of the land of his birth. From an early date, Copley was interpreting the techniques of European painting within the context of New England life and society. Mars, Venus, and Vulcan: The Forge of Vulcan (1754) is an early attempt to apply an American view to a quintessentially European subject. In this work, it is Copley's choice of subject matter that reveals his aspirations to the European academic tradition. Classical mythology had played a central role in European painting since the Renaissance. Indeed, in the Eighteenth Century, as earlier, contemporary subjects were often presented in Classical garb and settings, as if to say that only an idealized version of the world could properly show the true place of persons and events in the grand sweep of history. Myths are told and re-told down through the ages because they encapsulate some ultimate truth. Their messages resonate with generations utterly unfamiliar with the actual circumstances of the time and place of the original story. The characters in myth, and the actions they undertake, are stand-ins for archetypal individuals and themes. Mars, Venus, and Vulcan can easily be seen as personifications of Copley's America - a new place and culture born of battle and passion, transmuted in the forge, the Old World reborn as the New.

The composition itself centers on the figure of Venus. The viewer's eye is drawn to the image of the beautiful woman in shimmering drapery - an inheritance of the limners. She, the figure representing love or passion, is the primary one in the narrative. Vulcan almost disappears into the background beside her, the coloration of his skin and costume causing him to blend in with the natural rock. He is a thing of nature, unobtrusive, but ever at her side (in myth they husband and wife). In the further use of a European device, Copley sets a cupid or cherub floating above Venus, and one to her side in front of Vulcan. The aerial putti were a common bit of purposeful decoration in European scenic painting, functioning almost as armorial bearings in many a city view or battle scene. They bear the "signs" that identify the scene, and serve in some sense as a bridge between the earthly and heavenly spheres. One in the air, and one on the ground, only enhances this linkage between the temporal and momentary on the one hand, and the sacred or eternal on the other with the third, recumbent, providing a still further grounding. The lowest cupid is, in fact, a fitting herald for the entrance into the scene of Mars in full battle dress. Surely belligerent Mars does not belong in this scene, anymore than does Vulcan on the other side. Venus is strangely torn between two extremes, and fits with neither. Her luxuriant pose; the empty bowl, the arrows she holds nimbly in her hands - she is a voluptuous image in the midst of potential conflict. Copley had to have recognized that in painting Venus he was painting America. But did this image depict America as he, a New Englander saw her, or as she was seen by those across the ocean in the mother country? Copley's Venus can be either a prize that is fought over by two opposing forces - nature on the one hand, and battle-girded civilization, i.e. Europe, on the other. From the perspective of a colonist, she is well-endowed prize with multiple opportunities, and just possibly, too many suitors. The cave-like setting of the forge with the wedge of sky beyond, offers the hope of freedom.

As befits a student of European art, and one who is learning from inferior models, Copley Mars, Venus, and Vulcan is not academically perfect. The composition is somewhat crude and not perfectly balanced. it, like Copley, was crying out for the opportunity to learn more, to be enlightened. The picture can be read as an image of the artist's yearning to belong fully within the European tradition, but still, in America, being bound by the provincialism of the land of his birth and upbringing. Soon enough Copley would receive recognition from England, and begin to receive the exposure he craved and deserved. Concentrating again on actual portraits, his portrayal of his half-brother, Henry Pelham, as the Boy with the Squirrel, won him great acclaim when it was exhibited in England in 1766. Again, the Boy with the Squirrel follows clear European traditions. Persons of rank were often depicted accompanied by small animals. Leonardo painted his Madonnas with small birds, and royal and aristocratic personages were commonly shown with small dogs set ornamentally within the frame of the picture. Here too, the squirrel is minute. In fact, it almost disappears into the woodwork of the tabletop. Perhaps Copley was making a statement about his academic accomplishment to the effect that he knew enough of the grand manner to include a small, peaceful animal, but did not feel it necessary to draw the viewer's eye to this academic trifle. The real attention in this portrait is focused completely on the face of the boy and on his clothing. Everything else merges into a sweep of earthy color, the drapery behind the boy practically dissolving into the desk, and the desk itself being swept up by the drapery. The boy seems intent on something that is going on completely outside of the space occupied by the picture. His expression is difficult to read, not because an emotion is not clear, but because we do not know what he is watching and thinking about. Clearly, something moves him, but whether he is exhaustingly occupied, or bored, is not made known to us. Like the limners with which was familiar, Copley gives clear form to the texture of the boy's clothing and hair. As in their works, these things seem to shine and shimmer in the light. But Copley is far more adept in his use of light. The glow seems to… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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