John Singleton Copley was was an American painter, born presumably in Boston, Massachusetts and a son of Richard and Mary Singleton Copley, both Irish. He is famous for his portrait paintings of important figures in colonial New England, depicting in particular middle-class subjects.
He was born to Irish immigrant Richard Copley and his wife Mary Singleton Copley. Copleies owned and ran a tobacco shop in Boston. By 1748, Richard Copley had died 1748, Mary Copley married Peter Pelham, an engraver and teacher, and moved with her son to a quieter and more respectable part of Boston. John Singleton Copley was only about 13 years old in 1751 when his stepfather, Peter Pelham, died.
John Singleton Copley began painting portraits in his teens in his native Boston. Although self-taught, he was familiar with European art through the study of prints in the collection of his stepfather, the engraver Peter Pelham.
Copley was married to Susanna Farnham Clarke, whose father, Richard, was one of Boston’s richest merchants and local agent for the British East India Company. The couple had six children during their 45-year marriage. In 1774, Copley migrated to England with his family to continue painting there. He moved on to Paris, Genoa and Rome before returning to London nine months later.
In 1776 he visited Italy where he worked on devotional pictures. Later in the same year he settled in London with his family. In London he continued as a portrait painter, but his fine style lost its originality: he followed fashion rather then conviction. With demand for history subjects much greater in England than America, he pursued this genre seeking new modes of expression and using modern costume for historical characters.
He began to specialize in historical narrative scenes which are sometimes dismissed by critics as lacking the vibrancy of his earlier portraits. Copley demonstrated a genius, in both his American and British periods, for rendering surface textures and capturing emotional immediacy.
Copley became a member of the Royal Academy in 1779. He soon engaged in bitter, artistic and financial rivalries with fellow Academicians, some related to his innovative showmanship in displaying his major works independently for profit, such as the huge ‘Siege of Gibraltar’ completed in 1794 (Guildhall Art Gallery, London).
He fell out of fashion and died forgotten and bankrupt in London in 1815. John Singleton Copley is considered to be the foremost artist of colonial America.