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T. H. Breen posits that in colonial portraiture the postures and faces of the subjects sometimes were less important, to both painter and sitters, than the clothing, fabrics, and other appurtenances-the consumer goods-with which they were shown. This observation reminds us that Copley lavished equal attention on all parts of his composition, and that his skill at rendering materials played a major role in the way he constructed each painting. As Breen points out, in terms of value the most important British export to America in the eighteenth century was cloth: half of all colonial imports were textiles, and by Copley's era dozens and dozens of fabrics, including every kind and color of satins, velvets, brocades, poplins, cottons, and woolens, had become available. If the portrait was, at least in part, "an object, a thing, an article of commerce, an ornament to be displayed with other possessions" in colonial America, as Breen maintains, then the vast swags of luxuriant fabric that appear in Copley's portraits from the time of his earliest efforts, such as Charles Pelham and Mary and Elizabeth Royall, become understandable as representations of wealth and social position. Curtains had been used in portraits since the Renaissance, both for decorative purposes and to suggest interior spaces adjoining the sitter's space, and English painters of the generation of Thomas Hudson (1701-1779) employed them regularly; but they became nearly ubiquitous in Copley's portraits during the 1760s, joining an array of other materials. He typically placed a curtain on one side of the background or the other in his pictures of both men and women and often included either a draped table or an upholstered chair - all in addition to the fabrics of the rich, complex costumes in which his sitters were dressed. Here as in other details Copley missed the mark in terms of contemporary British usage, for by the 1760s Reynolds, Gainsborough, Allan Ramsay, and the like had long since given up such extensive display of fabrics. Copley's reliance on fabrics was made possible by the settings he utilized, which most often represented either interiors or ambiguous porchlike areas, while the British painters by this time had moved their sitters largely to the out-of-doors.|
Much as Copley attempted to render the "general air of grandeur" that Reynolds recommended, by posing his sitters with great columns and other lavish props, and much as he may have tried to avoid minuteness (which for Reynolds constituted "the most dangerous error"), especially after this quality was criticized in Boy with a Squirrel, in Boston he was unable to paint in a true English style. Yet his work does come close in spirit or manner to the occasional highstyle English painting of the previous generation by a Hudson or a Joseph Highmore, or to a picture of Copley's own time by such London painters as Ramsay and Francis Cotes, or by one of their provincial colleagues, such as Joseph Wright of Derby, Mason Chamberlin the elder, or Tilly Kettle. These analogies have been little explored and warrant a thorough study of the kind that John Kirk has given to American and British furniture and that Morrison Heckscher and Leslie Bowman have applied to the Rococo style. However, enough work has been done to suggest that despite the increasing anglicization of American taste in the pre-Revolutionary years, when consumers, craftsmen, and painters such as Copley were all looking to London for guidance, remarkably enough there emerged in the arts of the colonies what Kirk concludes was "an American aesthetic," an aesthetic that frequently exhibits conservative, elegant, linear characteristics. Copley's American work thus relates to the paintings of Reynolds and Gainsborough in much the same way that American silver and furniture of the period relate to high-style luxury products made in London.
- From Theodore E. Stebbins, Jr., in "John Singleton Copley in America"
John Singleton Copley images
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