John Singleton Copley’s Dilemma: Why America’s Leading Painter Fled Boston in 1774

One of the most regrettable consequences of the coming of the American Revolution was the permanent departure from Boston in June of 1774 of the great painter John Singleton Copley. Copley produced hundreds of magnificent portraits of prominent Americans in the 1753 to 1774 period. His departure from America left an artistic void that long remained unfilled.

What factors prompted this great native genius—the preeminent American painter of his day—to abandon the city of his birth on the eve of the American Revolution?

Born in 1738, the son of recently-arrived Irish Protestant immigrants, John Singleton Copley was raised in cramped quarters over the family’s tobacco shop on Boston’ Long Wharf. The future painter’s father, Richard Copley, died when his son was quite young.


C1. Boston's Long Wharf. 1768 engraving by Paul Revere

Boston’s historic Long Wharf dominated the city’s waterfront at a time when Boston was the most populous city as well as the greatest seaport in the British North American colonies. Here, in 1738, John Singleton Copley, the premier painter of Colonial America was born. This representation of Long Wharf was produced in 1768 by another famous Bostonian, silversmith and engraver Paul Revere.

In 1748, when he was ten, Jane Singleton Copley married Peter Pelham, an English-born engraver, whereupon mother and son moved to Pelham’s residence on Lindall Row (just off present-day Congress Street). Here the youth received his first instruction in painting. Pelham was a close associate of the preeminent Boston portraitist of the day, John Smibert, the first academically-trained painter to settle in America. Smibert’s studio and art supply business was at the heart of the local art world. Peter Pelham frequently made engravings of Smibert portraits for sale to the general public. Copley’s exposure to these important Boston artists, while critical to his training, was short-lived, for both died in 1751, when the boy was just thirteen.

Ambitious and highly talented, young Copley continued to hone his natural abilities after the demise of these teachers, drawing upon his late stepfather’s books and engravings and upon the works and plaster casts that were still on exhibit in Smibert’s studio.



Copley’s portrait of Mrs. Joseph Mann, his first significant work, completed when the artist was fifteen years of age.

In 1753, when only fifteen, Copley executed his first recorded commission, a portrait of Mrs. Joseph Mann, a tavernkeeper’s wife. His career was launched at a propitious moment, for Boston’s leading painters, Robert Feke and John Greenwood, had recently left the city. By the time another trained painter, Joseph Blackburn, arrived in 1755, Copley’s skills had developed to a point that he could compete with the more experienced newcomer. When Blackburn left Boston eight years later, Copley moved into the commanding position in the Boston art world that he would occupy until his own departure in 1774.

Copley became the favorite painter of the city’s elite families. No upper class Boston home of the period was regarded as being properly furnished without one or more Copley’s portraits on its walls.

And it little mattered on what side of the developing political divide the sitter stood. Everyone wanted to be painted by Copley and the painter played no favorites. His subjects included the principal patriots leaders of the day, James Otis, Samuel Adams. Paul Revere, John Hancock, Richard Dana, Josiah Quincy, and Joseph Warren, as well as the leading Tories, William Brattle, Isaac Royall, Benjamin Hallowell, Francis Bernard, Thomas Hutchinson, and Andrew Oliver.


C3a. Copley's Samuel Adams (1772)

Copley portrait of Samuel Adams (1722-1806), Boston brewer turned Revolutionary firebrand, completed in 1772


C3b. Copley's William Brattle (1756).jpg

Copley portrait of William Brattle (1706-1776), the wealthiest man in the Massachusetts colony and a Loyalist who died in exile, a work completed in 1756


The popularity of Copley’s paintings stemmed from two factors chiefly: their faithful realism and his extraordinary gifts as a colorist. He was particularly adept at painting the rich backgrounds that celebrated the material well-being of his subjects. The merchants and other men of affairs who commissioned these portraits wanted, above all, to be recognized for their power and prosperity, and Copleys canvasses gave them exactly what they craved.


C4. Copley's Henry Pelham, _Boy with a Squirrel_ (1765)

Copley portrait of his half-brother Henry Pelhan, known as “The Boy With A Squirrel” (1765), the artist’s first work exhibited in London, a canvass that elicited much praise.

Copley desired to be recognized beyond the confines of Boston and the American colonies. As early as 1766 he sent a painting of his half-brother, Henry Pelham, entitled “The Boy with a Squirrel,” to England to be exhibited at the London Society of Artists. This handsome canvass elicited much praise. Sir Joshua Reynolds, the leading British painter of the day, proclaimed it “a very wonderful performance,” and Copley was immediately elected to the Society of Artists of Great Britain. Both Reynolds and the Benjamin West (an American who had already achieved notable success in England) urged Copley to abandon Boston and to settle in London, where his talents would be both better appreciated and more properly developed. Reynolds declared that Copley would be “one of the first painters of the world” provided he came to London before his “manner and taste were fixed by working in [his] little ways in Boston.”

In the meantime, however, Copley had attained the pinnacle of social and economic success here in Boston. Two events of 1769 reflect this rapid rise. First came his marriage to Susannah Farnham Clarke, the daughter of Richard Clarke (a nephew of Royal Governor Thomas Hutchinson), and one of Boston’s great merchants.


C5a. Copley self portrait, 1769

Copley self-portrait, completed in 1769.


C5b. Susannah Farnham Clarke Copley,

Copley portrait of his wife Susannah Farnham Clarke, daughter of a wealthy Boston Merchant and niece of Royal Governor Thomas Hutchinson, whom he married in 1769.

The second indication of success was Copley’s purchase of an eighteen acre estate on Beacon Hill. This property, Mount Pleasant, situated just west of Walnut Street and extending back to the site of present-day Louisburg Square, provided the artist with a pleasant rural setting in which to paint, away from the hustle and bustle of the downtown. The property contained three houses, a barn and an orchard. Copley remodeled one of these houses (on the site of 42 Beacon Street) into a showplace residence. John and Susannah moved into this refurbished mansion in 1772.


C6. The Copley Family (1776)

The Copley Family, a group portrait completed in 1776 following the artist’s removal to London, where he would spend the rest of his life. Copley depicts himself here turning away from a sheaf of his sketches to look at the spectator. His wife, Susanna, leans forward to hug their four-year-old son, John Junior. Mary, who was a year younger than her brother, lies on the sofa, while Betsy, aged six and the eldest of the children, stands in the foreground with a serious aplomb indicative of her seniority. At the center of the painting we see Copley’s father-in-law, Richard Clarke, former wealthy Boston merchant and tea cargo consignee, now also in exile.

Copley’s marriage into the Clarke family marked a major turning point in his career. Until then he had always taken a neutral stance on the issues that divided Boston. Now, he was allied to the House of Clarke—a family of Loyalists that was growing increasingly unpopular with the multitude.

In late 1773, the firm of Richard Clarke & Sons was appointed one of the five consignees for a cargo of British East India Company tea then on its way to Boston —a cargo which the Sons of Liberty were determined to turn back.

An attack on the Clarke Mansion in early November 1773 foreshadowed Copley’s emerging dilemma. A mob hurled sticks and stones at his in-law’s elegant School Street residence for over an hour, shattering every window in the house.

Then, on November 30, Copley made the fateful error of intervening personally in the tea dispute by addressing a Boston town meeting at the Old South Meetinghouse. He urged the people of Boston to allow his in-laws, who had fled to Castle Island in the harbor, an opportunity to explain their position on the tea issue. While the town agreed to hear the Clarkes, Copley was unable to persuade them to leave the safety of Castle Island. He did, however, bring back a pledge from the tea consignees that no immediate attempt would be made to land the offensive commodity, whereupon the townspeople turned away without taking action.

Copley played no further role in the tea controversy, which culminated, of course, in the famous Boston Tea Party of December 16, 1773, leading, in turn, to the Intolerable Acts, and subsequently to the outbreak of the Revolution.


C7. Boston Tea Party, Dec. 16, 1773

The Boston Tea Party, December 16, 1773

There can be little question that Copley’s November 30, 1773 appeal in behalf of his Loyalist in-laws fatally undermined his position in Boston, for he was thereafter widely perceived as a Tory sympathizer. He personally became a target of mob action in April 1774, when angry patriots converged on his Beacon Hill residence demanding that he turn over to them Colonel George Walton, a house guest, who was about to be sworn in as a Royal Commissioner.

Copley’s departure for England in June 1774 was thus the product of a convergence of factors: his mounting concern for the safety of his family, a decline in the demand for his services as a painter (owing partly to his identification with the Loyalist element and partly to the sorry state of the Boston economy), and his long-standing desire to test himself in the broader context of the British art world.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s