- John Singleton Copley in America
John Singleton Copley (1738–1815) is the most acclaimed of America’s colonial portrait painters, and this welcome publication, along with the accompanying exhibition, brings his career into focus after a considerable hiatus. Although Copley portraits can be found in virtually every major public collection in the United States, the last comprehensive exhibition reviewing his career occurred in 1965–66 at the National Gallery of Art. This earlier exhibition coincided with the publication of a two-volume catalog of Copley’s work by Jules Prown which, despite its black-and-white illustrations, remains the standard reference work on the artist.
This present volume is the catalog for an exhibition of the same title opening at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and showing in New York at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (September 26, 1995-January 7, 1996), Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (February 4-April 28, 1996), and Milwaukee Art Museum (May 22-August 25, 1996). Unlike the exhibition of 1965–66, however, the present show is limited to Copley’s American career. Although this does allow for a more comprehensive look at his American work, it frustrates any attempt to examine how distinctive this work is in light of what came later. Fortunately, however, Emily Neff, curator at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, chose this moment to simultaneously organize John Singleton Copley in England, a parallel exhibition of Copley’s English pictures (National Gallery of Art October 11-January 7, 1996 and Museum of Fine Arts Houston, February 4-April 28, 1996), and both exhibitions will be seen side by side in Houston.
This hefty and exquisitely illustrated catalog follows the current vogue among American museums for publications composed of a series of essays followed by lengthy catalog entries on the exhibited objects (eighty-one in all). The eight essays are divided among seven authors. The first is by Carrie Rebora, one of the primary organizers of the exhibition. Her essay, “Copley and Art History: The Study of America’s First Old master,” is a thoughtful and succinct historiography of Copley literature over the past 170 years. Pointing out that Copley has been the subject of at least one essay, book, or catalog every year for over a century, she nonetheless correctly observes that answers to numerous questions concerning the production, and display of Copley’s work, its market, and the possible political and social meaning, remain elusive. Clearly, the intent of this book and exhibition are to probe possible answers to these and other weighty questions.
Rebora sets the stage for the next three essays, which provide the ideological heart of the publication. The first two, “Accounting for Copley” and “Character and Class,” are by Paul Staiti. The third, “An American Despite Himself,” is by Theodore Stebbins. These essays dramatize the polarization of opinion that presently colors current discussions of colonial painting. Staiti approaches the Boston art world from the standpoint of material consumption. His choice of such terms as “merchant elite,” “culture of consumption,” and “anthropological display” [End Page 334] to describe Copley’s sitters and their paintings echo the polemical stance of scholars such as Timothy H. Breen. Staiti sees Copley’s portraits as “the rhetoric—not the record—of self-representation in eighteenth-century America” (55). To some degree what is put forth in his essay “Character and Class,” such as Copley’s use of print sources and the fact that the background elements of portraits were fictionalized, are examples of vintage wine in new bottles. Much more provocative is his speculation that it was the patron, not the artist, who orchestrated decisions about pose and costume in particular portraits. A telling example is his interpretation of Copley’s 1765 John Hancock (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston), in which he sees an ascetic, disciplined man who has denied the trappings of wealth and class. Staiti speculates that Hancock dictated how...