- A Revolution in Color: The World of John Singleton Copley by Jane Kamensky
John Singleton Copley, like many people born in the British colonies in North America in the eighteenth century, spent a good part of his life abroad. Commonly known as an American painter, Copley departed [End Page 1013] his native Boston just on the eve of the Revolutionary War and never returned. Copley's dual identity as American and Briton is the central theme of Jane Kamensky's A Revolution in Color: The World of John Singleton Copley. At once a meticulous biography of the artist and a fascinating new approach to the history of the American Revolution, Kamensky's volume about one of the most vaunted painters of the colonial period crafts a dynamic tableau in which familial bonds, political affiliation, and personal ambition crowd together with visual aesthetics. Seen "through Copley's slate-colored eyes, eyes that saw deeply, and revealed many truths," Kamensky writes, the "age of revolutions takes on a prismatic quality" (3).
Kamensky frames Copley's split allegiances as a modern-day curatorial conundrum, bookending her study with discussions of how galleries display the painter's work for visitors. What does it mean for Copley to be exhibited in the most prestigious US galleries under the descriptor "American"? Why have museums of American art fought so hard to acquire the work of a painter whose career was built on portraits of British officers stationed in North America, who moved midway through his life from "Britain's American provinces" to London in part to avoid the aggressions of the Sons of Liberty, and who afterward "never set foot in the United States" (3)? The concerted recovery of Copley's work as American art is the result of the late nineteenth-century mythologizing of the political change in eighteenth-century North America. In 1883, nearly 150 years after Copley was born in the city, the ground in front of Boston's recently opened Museum of Fine Arts was named Copley Square (399–400). Such efforts, as Kamensky points out, have remained largely accepted today, especially in museum labels, even as historians have articulated the complexities of assigning nationality to people who lived their lives on the rim of the British Atlantic. To recover Copley from the curatorial decisions of years past is not only to better understand his life and his art but also to tell the story of the transition from British colonies to United States more comprehensively, to recapture the nuance often lost in identifications based on political geography.
In Kamensky's hands, Copley is dedicated, astonishingly talented, and family oriented, but above all else, driven. His ambivalent relationship to the Revolution was the result not of a closely held love of monarchy, nor of personal ties to Britain, but instead of a deep and overarching commitment to his own ambition. Copley yearned above all else to be a wealthy [End Page 1014] man, and only picked up the pencil because it was at hand and because he had an amazing aptitude for it. Copley learned the trade, as well as the vital information that it could be profitable, from Peter Pelham, John Smibert, Robert Feke, and John Greenwood, all visual artists making their names in Copley's Boston when he was a young teenager. At that moment, the "town was then more crowded with genius—the walls of its parlors literally more colorful" than it had ever been (28). It was from this education that Copley built what might be described as the first of three periods in his aesthetic career. He began to paint the portraits of wealthy Bostonians, unsteadily at first and then with increasing skill and an unparalleled attention to detail, until he became the first choice for those seeking to have their portraits made. Around 1768, he painted not only Paul Revere, the famous image of the famous Revolutionary that now has pride of place in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, but also General Thomas Gage, the commander of British forces...