Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Center / DeWitt Wallace Gallery

Colonial Williamsburg / Williamsburg, VA



"Almost a Deception ..."John Singleton Copley and Company in Williamsburg


Boston-born painter John Singleton Copley (1738-1815) is widely regarded as the finest painter in colonial America. His portraits, described by American painter Matthew Pratt as filled with "flesh and blood," reflect famed painter Benjamin West's urgings that he manipulate light, shadow and color to make features "appear almost a deception."

In the exhibition "'Almost a Deception ...'John Singleton Copley and Company in Williamsburg," Colonial Williamsburg's DeWitt Wallace Gallery presents a comparative showing of two of Copley's portraits and those of his American contemporaries Rufus Hathaway and Charles Willson Peale, and the English painter Francis Cotes.

The exhibition, on view through December 2000, includes Copley's circa 1767 oil portrait of Josiah Quincy and one of his pastels, "Mrs. Gregory Townsend." It also includes a 1793 oil portrait of Ezra Weston, Jr. by Hathaway; Peale's circa 1772-1775 oil portrait of Warner (?) Lewis Jr. of Gloucester, Va., and Cotes' 1770 oil portrait of Henry Somerset, Duke of Beaufort.

Regarding Copley's Quincy painting, Colonial Williamsburg's Vice President of Collections and Museums Ron Hurst, "This is the first time that Colonial Williamsburg has ever exhibited such a beautiful and important portrait by Copley. By setting it in the context of other colonial artists' works, and of English products of the same time, viewers will be able to get a better sense of the major qualities that make John Singleton Copley so revered and so highly esteemed today."

While English masters advocated de-emphasizing the miscellaneous accoutrements shown in portraits, Copley rendered them in meticulous detail, giving the same attentiveness to a chair or drapery as he would the subject's face and hands. Copley, a self-taught artist, developed an American portrait style that consisted of brilliantly worked paints and glazes. His portraits seemed so lifelike that, in one instance, President John Adams said Copley's portrait of his friend "Josiah Quincy" seemed ready to rise to greet him.

Although pastels were considered a lesser medium by British standards, Copley wrote to West in 1766, "I shall be glad when you write next you will be more explicit on the article of Crayons, and why You dis[ap]prove the use of them, for I think my best portraits done in that way."

Despite his successes as a portraitist in the colonies, Copley lamented the absence of suitable art instructors and lack of the visual stimulus of current British works. He left to study in Italy and England in 1773 and never returned to his homeland.

Copley's contemporary, Hathaway (1770-1822), who worked in the Boston suburbs of Duxbury, Mass., completed portraits for some of the area's wealthiest patrons. His flat linear style is apparent in the portrait (see left) of his neighbor, "Ezra Weston, Jr." Weston was the son of a successful Duxbury shipbuilder and owner.

Peale (1741-1827), of Queen Anne's County, Md., visited Copley in Boston 1765; from 1768 to 1770 he studied at West's studio in England. America's foremost painter after Copley's departure, he wrote in his journal in 1772, "my reputation is greatly increased by [some of my patrons], who have given me the character of being the best painter in America [and] that I paint more certain and hansomer likenesses than Copley. What more could I wish?" His paintings reflect a genuine concern for the sitter's personality as is evident in his (see right) portrait of "Warner (?) Lewis Jr."

Cotes (1726-1770), whose clients included royalty, worked in the studio fashion common in 18th-century England where master painters completed the head and hands and then assistants completed the drapery and costumes. His portrait (see left) of the "Duke of Beaufort" deftly captures the nobility and aristocratic demeanor of his sitter.

See also our articles John Singleton Copley and Margaret Kemble Gage: Turkish Fashion in 18th Century America (6/11/99) and Colonial Portraits by Copley Join DMA Collection.


Read more about the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Center / DeWitt Wallace Gallery in Resource Library Magazine

For further biographical information on selected artists cited above please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists.

rev. 11/22/10

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