January 21, 2014

John Singleton Copley and the Primacy of the Object

J. S. Copley, Daniel Crommelin Verplanck, 1771; oil on canvas, 49 1/1 x 40 in.
(all works but the last photographed by me at the Metropolitan Museum of Art)

When I think of my painting antecedents I go back to Italian Quattrocento and early Netherlandish painting, Medieval manuscripts, then jump to 20th century abstraction in its reductive aspects; but what I feel is closest to my painting heart is the American painting which traces its lineage from the limner tradition. This tradition emphasized line, flatness, and a primitive sense of form in that it was tactile rather than visual; the fixed reality of edges did not allow for the shifting nature of perception. John Singleton Copley exemplified a more sophisticated exponent of this way of seeing, in that his forms are volumetric, elucidated by a soft light, sinking into darkness. There is still in his work, however, that insistence on the thingness of things, presented in an abstract way, what Barbara Novak, in her book American Painting of the Nineteenth Century, tellingly called "conceptual realism––idea is amplified to become form". And, there is the erasure of the artist's hand.

J. S. Copley, Mrs. Sylvanus Bourne, 1766; oil on canvas, 50 1/4 x 40 in.

Copley's American portraits of well-to-do New Englanders have an almost uncanny presence, solid and  still. The artist himself is not present, he is a vehicle for delineating the flesh and beautiful "stuffs" of the upper classes, with exactitude but not with flourishes. I have been thinking of Copley because I am reading a more recent book of  Novak's, Voyages of the Self, in which she pairs artists and writers in order to explore the differing attitudes toward the self in American art. In her first chapter, Novak discusses Copley along with the theologian Jonathan Edwards, who died soon after Copley began working. What she sees in both men is a pragmatism, an intense interest in sensation, and "how the mind formulates ideas from sensations", and an interest in close observation of the natural world.

Mrs. Sylvanus Bourne detail

Copley, Novak writes, "is intimately involved in the re-presentation, indeed the re-creation, of things." (my emphasis) 

J. S. Copley, Mrs. John Winthrop, 1773, detail. See the entire painting here

"..we are confronted with the objects, the things themselves. The artist is hard to find, because they have displaced him.....

Mrs. John Winthrop detail

"...this is the enigma of Copley. The self as indicated by the artist's hand, the handwriting of stroke, has been erased from the smooth surface. The anonymous paint surface of the primitive has been transformed by Copley into the surface skin of the objects he depicts..."

J. S. Copley, Mrs. Jerathmael Bowers, ca. 1763; oil on canvas, 49 7/8 x 39 3/4 in. 
See the entire painting here.

Novak imagines that Copley's denial of self in his painting might be associated with the Puritan distrust of self. Edwards wrote that he has "given myself, all that I am, and have, to God; so that I am not, in any respect, my own." I find this absence of self in the work very appealing; for me it is a philosophical  (not religious) approach that mirrors my own.

Ralph Earl, Thomas Tucker, 1790; oil on canvas

Ralph Earl was another painter in the limner tradition. He was a self taught painter, but in 1778 went to London, where he studied with Benjamin West, an expatriate American, whose paintings were painterly and emotional. Seven or eight years later he returned to the US where, curiously, he continued to paint portraits in a linear manner similar to Copley's and not like the more fluid works of West. According to the Met's label for this painting, Earl was "appealing to his client's restrained tastes and pious values".

Ammi Phillips, Mrs. Mayer and Daughter, 1835-40; oil on canvas, 37 7/8 x 34 1/4 in.

The works of Ammi Phillips, although made later than those of Copley, are in a strong folk tradition, using flat form and simplified details. His sensitive portrayal of his subjects and stunning compositions with strong use of color raise his paintings above the rest of America's itinerant portraitists.

Mrs. Mayer and Daughter detail

Phillips too takes himself out of his portraits; he quietly presents his subjects with grace and attention. Here, a delicate gesture from mother to child is quietly eloquent.

Copley, The Death of the Earl of Chatham, 1779-81; oil on canvas, 90 x 121 in.
image courtesy Wikipedia

As a Loyalist, Copley was having an uncomfortable time of it in Boston before the Revolution; he was also anxious to visit Europe to see the paintings there. He left for London in 1774, toured the Continent, then settled in London. His paintings changed irrevocably: the artist had appeared, with brush strokes, drama of light and story, history, movement. It was for me a great loss; the early portraits have a near transcendent beauty and depth of feeling that comes from the artist's close attention to the things in front of him, as he loses himself while paying them homage.


  1. This is such an informative and yet soulful essay Altoon. Bringing these paintings into a context of contemporary conceptualism makes for rich and thoughtful reading. As I have said before, these posts are of great value to artists at any stage in their careers.

    It is interesting that when I read Novak's book "Voyages of the Self" I focused on other chapters more than the Copley/Edwards coupling. Reading this makes me want to revisit that one again. Thank you, thank you, this is superb.

    1. Thanks so much, Deborah. I've found Novak's writing to be of great use to me in my thinking. Her first two chapters, this one on Edwards/Copley and the second on Emerson/Lane, interested me greatly. I have to admit I haven't finished the book yet.

  2. The loss of self in the process of observation is not an uncommon activity. Actually - it is very much like the love of another. This reaching out is indeed very different from expression or the sharing of an impression, abstraction, style --although expression and impression, abstract and style are inevitable and, through an act to truly imagine and understand what is other, there is apt to be an ingenuous truth --truly a gift of self. The artist is also apt to more honestly realize both potential and limitations in the process.

    1. I agree with your thinking, Holly. I know that we carry our personal style with us, who we are, no matter how objective we try to be; there is some art in which the artist sets out to be expressive, a very different approach from that of Copley. All approaches are valuable.

  3. what a fabulous post! I want to read that book you mention...