Aug 13, 2005

Power and Privilege: The Undercurrents Running through John Singleton Copley’s American Portraiture


Left: “Young Lady with a Bird and a Dog,” currently housed at the Toledo Museum of Art

John Singleton Copley’s career in colonial America brought him into an elite circle of privileged citizens: politicians, educators, and the wealthy. Paul Revere, John Adams, and Patrick Henry are some of the more noteworthy subjects who sat for Copley . As one of the most prominent colonial American artists, his work had great influence on his peers; his greater legacy, however, was the effect that his paintings had upon the understanding of colonial America by future generations.

“Young Lady with a Bird and a Dog” is typical of the work Copley developed prior to leaving for Europe in 1774. The portrait is that of a prepubescent girl, perhaps eight years old, who is clothed in a flowing silk gown of a bright pink color. A black-and-white spaniel flanks her; the girl is grasping a ribbon held taut by a knot on the arm of what appears to be a George II or Chippendale library chair. Perched upon the teal ribbon is a small turquoise bird, which is perhaps an Australian Little Lorikeet, whose face is an iridescent red. In the scene, the subject is kneeling on a plum-colored suede pillow with tassels.

Behind the girl is a crimson velvet drapery trimmed with a goldenrod material. The drape nearly conceals an immense pillar, and the existence of a rural landscape behind the drapery perhaps suggests that the column supports some type of manorial portico.

The lighting used by Copley is focused on the young girl; it is clear that he intends for the piece to be centered upon her. The pets, as well, direct their reverential gazes towards the girl, suggesting that this child of privilege commands respect simply by nature of her birth. The lighting also creates an almost three-dimensional effect, as the young girl seems to move out of the painting.

Copley’s brush techniques vary throughout the painting; the silk dress, for example, is composed largely of smooth, even strokes, while the brass studs on the library chair are raised nearly one-quarter inch from the canvas. The thick coat of the spaniel appears to have been constructed of many paint layers, making the dog stand out from the picture.

The overcast setting in the background, though, provides a sharp contrast to the idyllic childhood scene in the foreground. This thematic conflict could represent some coming turmoil in the child’s life; the utilization of stormy weather as a metaphor for crisis travels across cultural and historical borders. It could be argued that this was a subversive effort on the part of Copley to introduce an element of discordant protest into what was nominally just another portrait-for-hire.

The tempest might also represent an attempt on the part of the artist to establish a sense of Gothicism into the scene; perhaps Copley is seeking to create an impression of tragic valor in his young model. It is possible that Copley was simply trying to create an image of nascent nobility in his depiction of this progeny of prosperity.
Clearly the subject is depicted in a manner suggesting considerable wealth; whether this child was indeed the daughter of a family of great means, or one that wished to produce this aristocratic impression remains unknown. A researcher has posited that the girl was Mary Warner, daughter of a wealthy Bostonian. The fine silk clothing worn by the child and the luxurious accoutrements would only be considered archetypal for members of a prosperous segment of society. In addition, ownership of extravagant pets such as tropical birds and specialty dog breeds would be beyond the means of all but the wealthiest members of colonial culture.

The architecture of the scene, whether genuine or contrived, leaves little doubt that Copley intended to create a portrait that evokes a mood of unmistakable affluence. Peasants and the middling sort, if they could even afford portraiture, would not wear the garb of a well-to-do member of society. Furthermore, the scene projects a sense that this particular child has both plenty of idle time and expensive playthings with which to fill this time.

This artwork illustrates one end of the income spectrum in eighteenth-century colonial America; Copley, as one of the preeminent artists of the era, distinguished himself with his portraits of society’s most influential members. One source has calculated that over 60% of his subjects had income ranked as “high” or “very high” (“high” being defined as greater than 300 pounds per year, and “very high” being defined as greater than 500 pounds per year) . His greater influence, however, may be on successive generations, as his works helped define a historical epoch.

By focusing almost exclusively on wealthy subjects, Copley’s portraits and their popularity have inadvertently skewed modern American understanding of colonial America. The common perception among contemporary Americans is that the colonies were populated, in large part, by free Anglo-Saxon persons of considerable material wealth; this romantic notion of a noble American heritage stands in stark contrast with the fact that the great majority of inhabitants were poor, of ethnicity other than English, and likely to be enslaved or in some form of bonded servitude.

The painting, while providing a glimpse into the life of the child of privilege, is also revealing by that which it does not depict: the austere life in colonial America that awaited persons without money or influence. The work has no representatives from lower classes in colonial society; this is most likely due to the wishes of the person who commissioned the work, instead of being a statement on the artist’s class-consciousness. Nonetheless, since works like Copley’s have seemingly cornered the market in American colonial imagery, the net effect is the same: extant images create lasting impressions, while history not recorded in canvas, folklore, or print is relegated to the ash heaps of obscurity.

The young girl in Copley’s painting surely enjoyed a life not removed from the finer comforts of the day; she most likely grew up in a large house with servants in an important colonial city, like Boston or Philadelphia. It is to be expected that her father was an important figure in his chosen field, whether commerce, politics, or law.

The educational opportunities enjoyed by wealthy young women certainly exceeded those of their less well-to-do contemporaries; however, by today’s standards, colonial women received an inferior education in comparison to colonial men. Children were generally separated, with girls attending “dame schools” to learn basic skills like reading and writing.

Our young maiden was subject to many of the epidemic diseases of the period, particularly smallpox , scarlet fever , and yellow fever. There were no miracle medicines to cure the ailments of the eighteenth century; survival was largely a matter of genetics and luck. The likelihood that this child would live to age 20 was not a safe bet; it is not until that age that children typically had been exposed to the most dangerous diseases.

In addition, she shared the same poor sanitary conditions as her contemporaries: no running water, lack of septic systems, and wells that often were contaminated by privies. The elite of the eighteenth century lacked the health and sanitary services that are taken for granted by the poorest modern Americans.

Proper nutrition for Copley’s young girl was also a dubious proposition; nutritional knowledge was in its infancy, and diet-related disorders like rickets, scurvy, and anemia were endemic to colonial America. In addition, such nutritional deficiencies negatively impacted the body’s ability to resist and fight infection, making the sufferer of nutritional disease even more likely to succumb to passing epidemics.
Modern notions of the noble colonial American of English aristocratic extraction may make excellent fodder for a romantic novel or television miniseries, but they bear little resemblance to the harsh realities of colonial life.

While certainly a renowned painter by both colonial and modern standards, John Singleton Copley nonetheless distorted the picture that future generations would have of colonial America by his subject selection. While his motives may have been simply those of the opportunistic entrepreneur, the end result remains unchanged: Copley’s body of work contributed to an inaccurate portrayal of colonial America by future historians.


Lisa Renee said...

Very interesting post mike, having stood for quite some time before that portrait I had wondered some of what you wrote about. Who was she, what happened to her, the Museum is one of my favorite places to get away from it all.

historymike said...

Yes, Lisa, we have an underappreciated (by Toledoans, at least) jewel in the Toledo Museum of Art.

Anonymous said...

I like this painting. Thanks for the info.