Artists Illustrating Boys' Fashions: John Singleton Copley (America/England, 1738-1815)

Figure 1.--This Copley portrait shows Thomas Aston Coffin. The Coffins were a wealthy Boston merchant family. Thomas wears an elaborate blue dress which may have been made of satin. Very fancy for a boy. We think the portrait was painted about 1759.

Most art historians consider Copley to be the most accomplished painter in colonial America. Some have called him America's first great painter. He did both portarits and historical scenes. Copley was born in Boston, but his parents had recently arrived from Ireland. His stepfather was an engraver. He left many wonderful portraits of colonial America. His success in New England, however, did not satisfy him. One the basis of the success of his portrait 'Boy with a Squirrel', Copley moved to England, but achieved only moderate success there.


Mary Singleton and Richard Copley married in Ireland about 1735. They sailed for Ameeica in 1736, settling in Boston. Richard opened a tobacco shop. J


John was born in Boston on July 3, 1738, named after his maternal grandfather. John's father died when he was only 9 years old. His mother remarried in 1748 to Peter Pelham, a widower with 5 children. Pelham, significantly for John, was an engraver and schoolteacher.


I know little about his education. He appaers to have been largely a self-taught portratist. His stepfather was an engraver and did mezzotints and must have helped trained John. His mother's choice of Pelham exposed John at a still young age with art. Pelham died in 1751 after only 3 years with John who was now fatherless again. John was only 13, but decided help supplement the family's income by making art. He used the tools his stepfather left behind. He made some prints and paintings as early as 1753. Boston artist John Smibert was another influence. Smibert was an popular Boston portraitist, who had actual European training. It is likely that at this time John conceived of the idea of making a living from art. Copley about 1755 met the English artist Joseph Blackburn, whose use of rococo lightness and coloring had a great influence. Pelham's library was of assistance to John. He learned that the depiction of historical or mythological scenes were considered the highest forms of art. He was interested in this, but there was no market for it. Colonial Americans wanted portraits.

New England Career

Copley began to paint in about 1753 when he was only about 15 years old. Portraiture was in great demand in the colonies. The economy support a small number of artists. Most were untrained and would be called today naive or primitive artists. All American artists at this time did portraits. Copley was the foremost among these artists. He left many wonderful portraits of colonial America. His Boston portraits demonstrate extensive experience with New England models. He meticulously depicted details. His portrairs were extremely realistiuc and often quite powerful. His portraits show elegance and grace of upper class colonials. Copley was the portraitist of choice for wealthy families in Boston and New York. His portraits include John Hancock, Samuel Adams, and John Adams. Copley used of the rococo device called "portrait d'apparat"--portraying the subject with objects connected with their daily life. Although later a common device in American naive art, this gave his Copley's work in the mid 18th century a destinctive style and he was much admired by contemporaries. He deftly emphasized setting to convey the desired mood.

Gore Family (1755)

John S. Copley painted the four Gore Children about 1755. We know nothing about the family at this time. They clearly was a very affluent family. Note the rich fabrics and elegant clothing. The painting is now at the Winterthur Museum. The painting shows Sammy Gore (on the right) who has not yet been breeched. His hair is combed back from his forehead and he has fashionable side curls worn with a queue. This was how some men wore their hair. His older brother, however, has his hair done differently. I am not sure why the boys have their hair done differently. Notice while Sammy weara a dress, his hair is not done like his sisters' hair. Note the older broter's long coat and long vest. Their father woulkd have worn a very similar outfit. Also notice the sundued colors. The girls and Sammy have bright-colored clothing. Also note Sammy's dress. There does not seem to be any boy's clothing in between the older brother's adult outfit and Sammy's dress.

Thomas Aston Coffin (1759?)

This Copley portrait shows Thomas Aston Coffin (17541810) from a prestigious Boston merchant family. Thomas was the son of William (1723-1803) and Mary Aston Coffin (16991775) and the grandson of William and Anne Holmes Coffin of Boston. There were eight children. Thomas was the oldest and looks to be about 5 years old in te portrait. He wears an elaborate blue dress with a low neckline which may have been made of satin (figure 1). Very fancy for a boy, but the Copleys were a wealthy colonial family. I'm not sure when the portrait was painted, but I would guess 1758-59. His hair style seems similar to that we have noted girls wearing during this period. Thomas graduated from Harvard (1772). His brother William (1756-1804) served as commissary in Cornwallis's army and then as lieutenant in the 1st Bn., K.R.R.N.Y. Sir Thomas was the private secretary to Carleton (1782-83).

Daniel Crommelin Verplanck (1771)

Copley painted three portrairs for the Verplanck family, like mant New Yorkers at the time--of Dutch ancestry. The portrait of 9-year old Daniel is the most most ambitious undertaking of the set. The portraits Copley painted of Daniel's father, Samuel, and his uncle Gulian are much more simple and rather stark. Daniel on the other hand is depicted in a glorious setting complete with classical pillers and luxurious landscape. The Verplancknfamily was one iof the most prominent in New York at the time. I am not sure why Daniel's portrait was more elaborate. Was this requested by the family? That seeems more likely than Copley's own idea as it took longer to paint and thius must have been more expensive. Daniel attended the city's best schools and his parents passed on to him their taste for the finest of everything. Perhaps his portrait exceeds theirs in grandeur, representing their high expectations for him. Daniel wears a stylish orange-red suit and matching knee breaches with an expensive brocaded vest. Nore there is no hint of skeleton suit and open collar styling which had begun to influence boys' dress in Europe. Daniel has done a remarkable job of taming a pet squirrel.

Figure 2.--Coply was 37 years old painter when he painted his family in England in 1777. Their three daughters look on, while Susanna hugs their son. Note that all the children are wearing long dresses. Richard Clarke, Susana's father is in the scene. It was his tea that had been thrown overboard at the Boston Tea Party.

Move to England

Copley's success in New England, however, did not satisfy him. He felt that painting in Boston was valued only as a useful craft and complained that the Boston public was "entirely destitute of all just ideas of the arts." He also had family concerns. His father-in-law was an important businessman in Boston, but his Tory politics made it difficult for him to continue living there. Copley himself did not have strong political feelings, but the situation of his father-in-law was very difficult. (It had been his tea that the Sons of Liberty dumped in Boston Harbor.) In addition, Copley's commissions were drying up as the Colonies moved toward a break with Britain. This all affected his decission to leave America. On the basis of the success of his portrait "Boy with a Squirrel", Copley left Boston, in 1774 just as the Revolutionary War was beginning. He toured Italy to view some of the great masterpieces before settling in England. "Boy with a Squirrel", was praised by both Sir Joshua Reynolds, one of the great English portratists. It was also praised by fellow American artist Benjamin West. Once in England, however, he achieved only moderate success. He continued painting portraits, but at last was able to also work on historical paintings. His first important work in England was "Watson and the Shark" (1778), perhaps his most famous work. He increasingly specialized in narrative, often historical scenes. These works are thought to be some of the earliest romanticizing contemporary history. While these paintings werecwell received, they were not as lucrative as painting portraits. He joined the Royal Academy of Art. He remained in England the rest of his life.

Clothing Depicted

Copley shows Thomas Aston Coffin in an elaborate blue dress which may have been made of satin (figure 1). Very fancy for a boy. "Boy with a Squirrel" is one of Copley's most notable American portraits (figure 2). The boy is only 9 years old, but he seems extremely self-assured, dressed in adult clothing, as was the custom, and gazing directly at the viewer with the same bright, sharp eyes as those of the squirrel. The long dresses wo\rn by both little voys and girls arecshown in the 1777 family portrait (figure 3).

Family Life

Copley in 1769 married Susanna Clark, the daughter of Richard Clark. John and Susanna, who he called "called Sukey" had a long and happy marriage and resulted in six children. The marriage united Copley who came from a family of modest circumstances with one of the most prominent and politically active merchant families in Boston. Clark was a Tory businessman--in fact a tea mercahant. It was Clark's tea that had been thrown into Boston harbor by the Sons of Liberty at the Boston Tea Party. In England, Copley painted a portrait of his family whivh included three daughters and a son.


Most art historians consider Copley to be the most accomplished painter in colonial America. Some have called him America's first great painter. He did both portarits and historical scenes. He was a very talented draftsman and colorist. His Boston portraits are generally regarded as more important than the historical works he concentrated on in England. Copley after leaving America was able to improve some of his techniques and composition, but historians believe that he lost some pf the power and immediacy of his early New Ebngland portraits.


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Created: May 18, 2002
Last updated: 1:16 AM 2/25/2007