'A Revolution in Color' fills in the cracks in the life of John Singleton Copley

Biographer Jane Kamensky puts to rest the myth of the great portraitist as an untutored savant.

A Revolution in Color: The World of John Singleton Copley By Jane Kamensky Norton 528 pp., 72 illustrations, 16 in color

Historians have to be good with a putty knife. There are always cracks of silence that need filling to make the story cohesive.

Take the life and times of John Singleton Copley, the subject of Jane Kamensky’s sinewy, eagle-eyed, and, at times, rankling A Revolution in Color. Copley’s story has as many cracks as the surface of one of his paintings. But Kamensky wields a keen putty knife in a restoration that strives – rather than for objectivity – for acuity and honesty. Kamensky has that in spades, even when you disagree with her, even when some of her conclusions poke you in the eye.

Copley was born in Boston in 1738. He was, “it seems fair to suppose,” a guarded and watchful youth. Why is it fair? Because Kamensky has drawn the surrounding circumstances into which he was born, which don’t need to be supposed. Boston might have been a cosmopolitan town in those years, but it was also “a parochial place, wary of strangers and aggressively pious ... home to some seventeen thousand souls gathered in sixteen churches, most of them of a stringent Calvinist stripe.”

Though Copley mère and père were landed Anglo-Irish, Copley’s father Richard, as second son, would inherit the wind. He decided to move the family to Boston, where it was the Irish in the Anglo-Irish that ran up against English stereotypes, “which mixed religious animus with cultural prejudice, [and] held that the Irish were prone to drink and violence: uncivilized, untamable.” The Copleys of Boston made no waves, committed no crimes, purchased no property, joined no church. Little wonder then that the young Copley would grow to be a “cautious man in a rash age.”

The painter John Singleton Copley, commonly known as Jack, has more than a touch of the original myth about him: the untutored savant. Kamensky puts this notion to rest early. His mother’s second husband, Peter Pelham, was “a portrait painter and an engraver of mezzotint, a technique of great fineness and subtlety.” To the 10-year-old Copley, already contemplating a trade, and now growing up in a community of artists, Pelham’s “charcoals and brushes, pigments and oils and varnishes ... copper plates and engravers’ burins and inks and nibs,” must have been manna, whether in response to a calling or simply the customary son following in his (step)father’s footsteps.

Thus commences Copley’s painterly career, but much else was happening in Boston at the same time: The town fell into economic slumps – when wars found peace, “Red-coated regiments departed ... taking their purses and patronage with them” – there was the great fire that burned a tenth of the town, and something in the air other than smoke: the prelude to revolution.

Copley, struggling to care for his tender mother and younger brother through his artwork, was not oblivious. Yet, he was cautious politically and ambitious for his art. He had to contend with great lights, such as John Smibert, whose studio “was that rare space, in a world of black and white, where one could think in color,” and other midcentury painters, “making the town ... crowded with genius – the walls of its parlors literally more colorful.” Where Kamensky is going with this metaphor is a mystery hinted at with the comment, “like the paintings Copley produced so painstakingly, the revolutionary world was awash with in a spectrum of color. Allegiance came in many shades.” True, but color as a engine to propel this story forward – so beguiling an image – never comes to pass.

By 1762, Copley, as a portraitist, had become king of the city on a hill. He painted the city’s occupiers; he painted the Sons of Liberty. He paints tax-stamp collectors and merchant princes. He is in demand. London, however, was the arbiter of art quality, and Copley’s contributions to London exhibitions always met criticism. Joshua Reynolds, a friend wrote Copley, “observed a little Hardness in the Drawing, Coldness in the Shades, An over minuteness.” Reynolds “condemns your working either in Crayons or Water Colours.” It took brass for Copley to retort, “why you dis[ap]prove the use of them, for I think my best portraits done that way.” (Makes you think Copley was ripe for the time, a questioner of authority. No, for Copley, political weather just got in the way.)

Then comes a critical point, for Copley and, seemingly, for Kamensky: The painter marries Susanna Farnum Clarke, daughter of Richard Clarke, one of Boston’s wealthiest merchants. “It seems a very fair bet that he married for love as well as money.... Clarke was instrumental: a tool in his pursuit of happiness,” writes Kamensky, applying the putty knife. A tad hard, as Reynolds might say, though likely true.

Around the happy couple, Boston is getting rowdy. A gathering of troublemakers pelt British troops with snowballs, and get shot for their trouble. Kamensky refers to this as “Boston’s so-called massacre.” “General Gage, by contrast, described a ‘Misunderstanding’; the acerbic Peter Oliver remembered a ‘Riot.’” Five dead: The Boston Misunderstanding. (On the other hand, Kamensky tells a great story about Paul Revere pinching Copley’s brother’s print for his famous image of the encounter.)

The Tea Act – and subsequent Tea Party, or perhaps its should be renamed Tea Riot – put an end to the Clarke family’s welcome in Boston. Richard Clarke refused the rebel demand that he refuse a tea shipment. “Such steadfastness was the heart of the merchant’s calling. To men like Clarke, pecuniary obligations were moral obligations.” Kamensky suggests that, “It is hard to imagine that Copley disagreed with his father-in-law’s arguments for probity and moderation. These were a portraitist’s values as well as a merchant’s.” Balderdash. A portraitist never flatters; a merchant never cheats. Kamensky has earlier depicted Copley as uncloaked, impolite, daring. A clear case of The Copley Misunderstanding.

Copley left for Europe, for his hide as well as his art. He craves recognition, but as Kamensky – now back on track – writes: “Fame – like fortune, like love – appeared most deserved when least bidden.” Kamensky is also heroic in making this dreary time in Copley’s life a fascination in the minutiae of the milieu he moves through, but also in the background and evolution of his painting.

She finishes the story on a grace note, a piece of opinionated playfulness. “When he painted Margaret Kimble Gage, Copley told his brother, Harry, that the canvas was ‘beyand Compare the best Lady’s portrait I ever Drew.’ Probably true to that point, though my vote, in the end, goes to Abigael Bromfield Rogers.” This is a clear provocation. Everyone knows the best is Mrs. Richard Skinner.

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