Celebrating the Birth of John Singleton Copley

This week on July 3rd John Singleton Copley’s birthday passed. He is the namesake of the Copley Society of Art, and was a revered portraitist and historical painter. Born in Boston in 1738, he painted American revolutionaries including Paul Revere, Samuel Adams, John Hancock and John Quincy Adams.

His portraits were innovative because he often depicted his subjects with artifacts relating to their individual lives. For example, in his portrait of Samuel Adams, shown below, he depicts Adams pointing at the Massachusetts Charter. As a Founding Father and political philosopher, Adams viewed the charter as a constitution that protected the peoples' rights.

Samuel Adams, oil on canvas, about 1772

John Hancock, another important American Patriot commissioned Copley to paint Samuel Adams, who served as Hancock’s early political mentor. Hancock commissioned many other portraits from Copley, including several of himself and his family. The most notable of these is John Hancock. Again Copley depicts his subject with a personal object –- his account book. It demonstrated the importance of Hancock’s economic empire and expressed his Calvinistic virtues, especially the idea that monetary rewards were tangible proof of God’s divine blessing.

John Hancock, oil on canvas, 1765

Copley moved to London in June 1774, where he would live for the remainder of his life to escape the tumultuous American revolutionary landscape. Whilst there, he began to paint more historical pieces. His first foray into this genre was Watson and the Shark. The subject of this renowned work is based on an incident in which the artist, Brook Watson, was attacked and severely injured by a shark while he was swimming in the Havana harbor in Cuba at age fourteen. However, Watson survived his severe injuries and went on to a become a successful artist. It was speculated that the painting was commissioned as a lesson to others--that they could overcome adversity as he had.

Watson and the Shark, oil on canvas, 1778

Moreover, Copley painted The Death of Major Pierson, which shows a scene from the Battle of Jersey, which took place on January 6th, 1781 during the American Revolutionary War. In it, Major Francis Peirson is struck down at the center of the painting under the large Union Flag. Peirson, a 24-year-old commander in the British garrison, refused to surrender to the French victors. As he organized a counter-attack, a French soldier shot and killed him. Copley’s depiction of Pierson’s death leading the final charge gave him recognition as a heroic British officer. This follows Copley’s popular patriotic theme, but in this case his work espouses British patriotism.

The Death of Major Peirson, oil on canvas, 1781

John Singleton Copley painted significant historical figures and events during the American Revolution. His legacy has contributed to institutions across Boston, including the Museum of Fine Arts, and the Copley Society of Art. 

Authored by intern, Gabrielle Lamont-Dobbin