Henry's pet squirrel
Do you have a pet at home or at school? If you do, I'm sure you have fun giving it food and water and making sure it's clean and safe. Two hundred twenty-two years ago, in Boston, a boy we know of kept a squirrel as a pet. He was Henry Pelham, the half brother of the most famous portrait painter in the Colonies, John Singleton Copley, who would paint John Hancock, Paul Revere, and Sam Adams.
In the oil painting pictured on this page, can you feel how the artist values Henry's kindness and strong, peaceful way of enjoying the company of the woodland creature? Copley, too, knew about taking care of others, for he had acted as a father to Henry since Henry was just a year old.
In 1765, a sea captain, R.G. Bruce, asked the painter to let him take this beautiful life-size portrait to England to show to the ``best'' artists in the world. They loved it and enthusiastically exhibited it in 1766, giving the first important European attention to an American painting.
Copley worked very hard to develop his talent, and to support his mother and brother. He read books, studied prints, and learned from British painters in America. For three years he had been taught by his stepfather, Peter Pelham. But most of all, Copley had taught himself by observing nature, and by practice.
Copley seated Henry behind the shiny-surfaced wood table. He cleverly framed the little flying squirrel in the foreground between the corner of the table, the glass of water, and Henry's arms. You can have fun looking to see how many objects are reflected. Don't forget the gold chain and the nut Henry has broken for his pet.
Henry isn't looking at us, but who is? The little squirrel! He sits up on his hind legs, and he turns just enough to keep one large nocturnal eye on us. What do Henry and his pet have in common? They both wear white ``shirts''.
Copley loved the textures of things, too: the glossy hardness of the table, the softness of the squirrel's fur, the sheen of the satin fabric.
For each texture, he used a different brushstroke and a different-size brush. He painted his brother's smooth face and hands with tiny ``invisible'' strokes, blurring the edges of these forms, as if they were moving slightly.
We recognize where the medium-size marks of the brush become the squirrel's whiskers and silky tail. The largest strokes wriggle as highlights in Henry's shirt cuffs, on the rich crimson velvet draped behind him, on the glass of water, and on the edges of the table.
John Singleton Copley could reproduce the most delicate hues of color. For Henry's pink cheeks, his dark blue-green jacket's pink-satin collar, and his lemon-yellow vest, the painter brushed on glowing tones full of light.
The style of Henry's clothes and haircut tells us that he was living in the 18th century. And we know that nowadays most little woodland animals must be returned to the forest (a flying squirrel, like Henry's, is the only type of squirrel it is legal to keep).
But across the centuries, we share Henry's delight in caring for little creatures. And we share Copley's great joy as we peek in with him on Henry and his squirrel's happy time together.