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John Singleton Copley (1738-1815)
John Singleton Copley was an American artist of the colonial period, famous for his portraits of important figures in colonial New England. Born in Boston, Massachusetts, his portraits were innovative in that they tended to portray their subjects with artifacts that were indicative of their lives. Copley demonstrated a genius for rendering surface textures and capturing emotional immediacy.
Daniel Rea
Colonel George Lewis
Head of a Negro
Hugh Hall
Nathaniel Allen
Samuel Adams


Mrs. Daniel Rea and Child, 1757
Oil on canvas, 49 X 39" (124.50 x 99. 10 cm.)
Butler Museum purchase, 947-0-103

Along with his friend and some-time rival L Benjamin West, John Singleton Copley was the first native-born American painter to achieve fame at home and abroad. Born on Boston's Long Wharf, Copley was instructed in art by his stepfather Peter Pelham, a mezzotint engraver and portrait painter.

Copley also learned from the paintings of Joseph Blackburn and Robert Feke, but he was, to an extraordinary degree, self-taught. Like West, Copley aspired from the start to be a history painter, but was forced to find his principal livelihood in portraits. Copley's likenesses perfected a style that gave special attention to technical dexterity in surfaces-the sparkling sheen of fabric and the detailed reflections of polished furniture, rendered with strong chiaroscuro-yet still probed the inner personalities of the prosperous sitters who commissioned them.

Emboldened by the favorable reception in England of Boy with a Squirrel (1765, private collection) and by the encouraging words of West, Copley sailed on June 10, 1774 to England, where he would remain for the rest of his life. There he became extremely successful, loosening his brushwork in the bravura Rococo manner favored in Europe. He painted many individual and group portraits and some remarkable, large-scale epic narratives, which introduced modern dress into history painting.

Mrs. Daniel Rea and Child is one of two portraits bought by the Butler Institute from the great-greatgreat-great grandson of Mr. and Mrs. Rea. The picture of Daniel Rea was done by Joseph Badger. The painting of Mrs. Rea, n6e Miss Sarah Salter, can be dated to around 1757, since her daughter Elizabeth, who looks little more than a year old, was born in 1756. Whereas Badger was near the end of his artistic life, Copley, at age nineteen, was just beginning his. Thus this portrait becomes a significant document of his remarkable early development.

From the start of his precocious career, Copley demonstrated an aptitude for depicting children. Prior to Mrs. Daniel Rea and Child, he had painted Jonathan Mouqrbrt (1753, Detroit Institute of Art) and The Brothers and Sisters of Christopher Gore (1755, Henry Francis Du Pont Winterthur Museum). A distant but significant precedent for the grouping of Mrs. Rea and Elizabeth can be found in the figures of Bishop Berkeley's wife and child in John Smibert's famous painting of The Bermuda Group (1728-29, Yale University Art Gallery), which Copley must have seen in Smibert's Boston studio. In Smibert's composition, the infant is held closer, but the affectionate interaction established between child and mother, repeated in Mrs. Daniel Rea and Child, is a quality few other colonial artists managed to capture. Cople's infant is further enlivened by having her delighted gaze aimed towards her mother and her tiny hand playfully grasping her mother's thumb.

This painting evidences the provincial stiffness as well as the strong, stark patterning of the limner tradition from which Copley evolved, coming quite close to the hardness of outline and flatness of modeling seen in the portraits of Joseph Blackburn. Copley went to some pains to demonstrate his youthful virtuosity, particularly in the silvery sheen of Mrs. Rea's white satin dress and the pale pink scarf swaddling her daughter. He was also concerned with capturing his subject; Burroughs called this picture, "a subordination of grace to the necessity for catching the likeness." Documenting the point at which Copley's youthful promise began to evolve into his mature achievement, Mrs. Daniel Rea and Child provides a significant early stepping-stone to the masterworks of Coplev's long and distinguished career.

Comments about Copley sorted by author.

Author Date Subject
John Singleton CopleyNov 06, 2005 17:30Royal Academy of Art

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