A majestic portrait of the American painter.
Kamensky (History/Harvard Univ.; The Exchange Artist: A Tale of High-Flying Speculation and America’s First Banking Collapse, 2008, etc.) delivers a masterful portrayal of John Singleton Copley (1738-1815), a “cautious man in a rash age,” his story “peculiarly American: hard-edged, uncloaked, impolite.” The author beautifully merges biography with history to tell the story of one of America’s earliest and finest portrait painters. Along the way, she provides insightful profiles of many of Copley’s key contemporaries, including Benjamin West and Joshua Reynolds. Born into a poor Boston household, Copley seemed destined to draw and paint. When his mother married a second time, to a portrait painter, Copley was able to take advantage of his new father’s skills and materials to teach himself to paint. It was his calling, and his business as a supremely gifted portrait painter of local businessmen and British officers took off. In the 1750s, his craft improved, with “fabrics that shimmered, almost rustled; eyes that seemed to have mind, even spirit behind them.” By 1764, he was experimenting with full-scale portraits. He painted the impressive A Boy with a Flying Squirrel in 1765, with his brother as the model. His portrait of John Hancock followed, and in 1768, he painted an iconic masterpiece, Paul Revere. At the time, Britain was relentlessly taxing items, including “painters colours,” and passing repressive acts. As a loyalist, Copley kept his politics quiet, but after the Boston Tea Party in 1773, he feared for his family. He sailed to England in 1774, never to return. He began painting large historical paintings, but, as Kamensky writes, “his insight diminished.” After signing the Treaty of Paris, John Adams sat for Copley in London for a portrait. Shortly after, Copley died “beneath a mountain of debts.” An ocean away, the painter’s halting rebirth began.
There may never be a better biography of Copley than this sumptuous, exquisitely told story of a man and his time.