Book Reviews - Autumn 2016

Before the Rebellion

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A colonial American artist’s portraits of an age

Copley preferred to paint scenes from British history, like this one depicting a French assault on the island of Jersey in 1781. (Detail from The Death of Major Peirson, 6 January 1781, John Singleton Copley, 1783)

By Meryle Secrest

September 6, 2016


A Revolution in Color: The World of John Singleton Copley by Jane Kamensky; Norton, 544 pp., $35

No greater compliment can go to an artist than when two nations lay claim to him or her. George Frideric Handel (1685–1759) is a famous example. Born in Halle and raised in Hamburg, the composer made such an ineradicable impression on the British that his German origins are usually appended in very tiny writing. Then there is Johann Sebastian Bach’s youngest son, Johann Christian Bach (1735–1782), born in Leipzig but known as the “English Bach,” who was painted by Thomas Gainsborough. Even John Singer Sargent (1856–1925), born in Florence to American parents, was so much at home in London during World War I that he became a British war artist for the Imperial War Museum.

To this list of luminaries we should add John Singleton Copley (1738–1815), perhaps the greatest and most influential painter in colonial America. His 350 works of art—most of them portraits, but including his enormous canvases of “history” paintings—illustrate the rapid rise of a phenomenal young portraitist. Starting as a teenager, Copley moved quickly from the stiff and lifeless genre of portrait painting so typical of his earliest anonymous works to a mastery of delineation that was immediately recognized at home and abroad. His works fill American museums, while the Tate in London, among other museums, labels his works as “British school.”

As Jane Kamensky’s detailed and searching study makes clear, the truth is that Copley belonged to New England in the days when Boston was still a colonial outpost and a predictably provincial one. Even after he moved to London in 1775, his paintings retained a directness and simplicity of manner, along with a freedom of execution, that mark his work as uniquely American.

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Meryle Secrest is the author of many books about art and artists. She received the Presidential National Humanities Medal at the White House in 2006.

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