"A portrait is a picture in which there is just a tiny little something not quite right about the mouth." -- John Singer Sargent

Wednesday, July 15, 2020

John Singleton Copley & Family

This 1776 portrait of the Copley Family by John Singleton Copley hangs in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC.
In June 1774, when he was already thirty-five years old, Copley decided that he must go to Europe. Although he intended to stay abroad just long enough to acquire artistic sophistication, the American Revolution changed his plans. Studying in Rome and stopping in many continental cities, Copley arrived in London in October 1775. There he was joined by his wife, children, and father-in-law, Richard Clarke, one of the Tory merchants whose investments had been dumped overboard at the Boston Tea Party.
In I777 at the Royal Academy, Copley exhibited The Copley Family, which records his delight at being reunited with his family. The artist portrayed himself turning away from a sheaf of his sketches to look at the spectator. His wife, Susanna, leans forward to hug their four-year-old son, John Junior. Mary, who was a year younger than her brother, lies on the sofa, while Betsy, aged six and the eldest of the children, stands with a serious aplomb indicative of her seniority. The baby, Susanna, tries to attract her grandfather's attention with a rattle. The background is fanciful; no carpeted room ever merged so ambiguously into a forest glen. Copley's contemporaries would have understood the idyllic landscape as a reference to the family's natural simplicity and the elaborate furnishings as an indication of their civilized propriety. -- NGA

Copley's father-in-law made his move to London both possible and necessary. It was the Clarke's wealth which gave Copley the freedom to take his educational tour of Europe and his father-in-law's Tory reputation that made it necessary to remove himself and his family to England.

Richard Clarke

At the center of the painting is John Copley's wife Susanna Farnham Clarke Copley, who he called “Sukey” flanked his son John - “Jack Jr.” - and his youngest daughter Mary.

Copley's 1776 sketch for this painting represents this central trio, it too belongs to the National Gallery of Art.

John Singleton Copley, Jr. with his mother.

Jack jr. would grow up to be John Singleton Copley, 1st Baron Lyndhurst, who was three times Lord High Chancellor of Great Britain.  This 1835 watercolor of Lord Lyndhurst  by  Felix Roffe belongs to the British National Gallery in London.

Copley's oldest daughter Elizabeth,  “Betsy” Clarke Copley looks directly at the viewer of the painting.

Elizabeth Copley

Elizabeth would later return to America and become the third wife of cotton planter Gardiner Greene who served as Copley's agent in America.

Gardiner Greene 
by Winthrop Saltonstall Scudder, 1916.)

Mrs. Gardiner Greene (Elizabeth Copley)

A 1965 commemorative 5¢ stamp honoring John Singleton Copley used this detail of Elizabeth Copley Greene:

Youngest daughter Susanna Copley waves a rattle at old Mr. Clark.

Susanna Copley (Oct. 1776-1785)

There is a child missing from this family portrait, Clarke Copley (Jan. 1775-Jan. 1776). When Samuel Curwen visited Copley in April of 1776 he observed the painting, then just beginning, and remarked on the four children in it. But Susanna could not have been the youngest of those children; she had not been born yet. She would arrive in October of that year. Clarke who was born in January of 1775 was not in London at the time of  the painting; he had been left behind in Boston - "he being too delicate to bring.” He died there in January of 1776. Ellen G. Miles, in American Paintings of the 18th Century, remarks that "It is thought that Copley began the group portrait before he learned of his son's death, and he retained the figure of the infant because he knew that his wife was expecting another child." Baby Susanna (Oct. 1776-1785) eventually took the place of her deceased brother in the painting.

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