Dec 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.

I needed a break from the neo-Nazi nonsense, so I am reprinting an as-yet unpublished essay.


ajax saith said...

to historymike:

i commend you for giving mention to the greatest generations the united states has ever known: the colonial period generations, for it belongs to these generations that every succeeding generation having the wonderful blessing to be born in the united states or to immigrate therein owes its allegiance to, these fantastically courageous heroic men women and children who braved incredible hardship and early privation laid the first corner stones (original 13 colonies) and established the english common law and set the moral tone and spiritual guidelines that have been the guiding light that helped to form and shape our constitution and moral precepts and civilized cutural protocol to this very day

it is universally aknowledged that in every subject of interest in every field of study in every question researched in every dispute debated the wise always return to the origins of all things in view to attain to an understanding of how what came to be began and in what manner progression developed to the present circumstance

let us all ever remember and never forget that this nation (our united states) was founded by the white race nation people from the heritage homes of the white race nation (western europe) beginning with great britain and in time to include white race nation tribes from the white race nations of germany and france and holland and sweden and many others to come

it was this race (the white race) and this race alone which founded and built the beginning of what would become the united states of america, this colonial period (the great white period dynasty) set the standard for all succeeding generations to come, for it has been every generation that came after which became the inheritors of the blessedness of that very first generation of pilgrims and puritans and their progeny and their posterity, to carry on the one hand the torchlight to guide the steps and on the other hand the book of law and wisdom to govern and rule

the extreme left and its associated agents the multi-culti cultists and diversitists hate with a passion the colonial period and have made a career and an institution to debase and slander and disrespect and dishonor that period and its people, this is because they are waging a war of spiritual extermination against the white race nation people and because the colonial period is the greatest period that the white race people have produced in the united states it must therefore be ignored and trashed at every opportunity

in turn if the white race would return to their historic roots to learn from their white colonial forefathers they would rise to a fresh appreciation of their historic greatness as a race and would be able to stand tall and proud and resist the clarion call to surrender their race identity

Mr. Schwartz said...

Although the rich had it far better than the poor during Colonial times and no real middle class, they still had it rougher than 99 percent of Americans have it today.

Just one visit to any old gravesite will tell a story.

Notice all the gravestones for dead children who died not long after childbirth. The mothers who died during childbirth back then were many. And marked gravestones were only for the rich so just think how bad the peasants and poor had it.

Things that we take for granted today didn't exist back then. Running water, sanitation, no pain killers, no immuizations against disease. No television, radio, or electricity. No refrigerators, prepared foods, soda, or 7-11's. And the dozens of diseases back then that are either eliminated or easily controlled today.

It can also be argued that Colonial generations were the ones that also lead to the elimination and extermination of dozens of Indian nations and cultures in the Americas. I'm not an apologist for that though, it was a different period and a different mindset and we can't change history. Depsite our flaws, I do think America is a great country.

I enjoy reading about history and I like to thank Mike for the article today. A nice change from all the nazi news.

historymike said...

Actually, ajax four out of five people crossing the Atlantic before 1800 were of African descent (for more detailed demographic analysis of the colonial period, see David Eltis: The Rise of African Slavery in the Americas (2000))

This may come as a surprise to you, given your predisposition to glorify northern Europeans, but the real "building" of America was, in the main, the product of neo-African labor.

Mr. Schwartz said...

That's interesting HistoryMike, I knew the majority were of african descent but not 80 percent. Very interesting fact. I know my state of South Carolina was majority black up until 1920 or 1930. During the late 1700s and early 1800s, blacks were 90 percent of South Carolina's population.

I think that 80 percent figure includes all of North America and South America. Please correct me if I am wrong.

Sorry Mike that this is turning out to be another thread about race thanks to Ajax.

And to Ajax, you are aware that there are more whites in the US today than anytime in history? So much for the theory of white people being endangered.

M A F said...

Journalist, social commentator and art critic. When I decided to list you on my blog I had no idea that I was getting so much for so little.


PS. Cudos on the anonymous comments.

historymike said...

I think I am intellectually ADD, Mac. I tend to work for short bursts in a given area and then move on.

It definitely makes for a schizophrenic blog, though.

Hooda Thunkit said...

Sorry Mike, for the on topic comment ;-)

I think that John Singleton Copley was guilty of going where he could find work and get paid for it, more than any conscious attempt on his part to skew the casual art fancier's vision about 18th century life and early America's inhabitants.

Had the average American back then been able to afford John's services, the overall picture would have indeed been more representative than it turned out.

Sadly, they weren't.

Lisa Renee said...

It's still one of my favorite pictures at the Art Museum though....I can stand there for quite some time and see something new every time that I did not notice before.


Mr. Schwartz said...


You bring up a good topic. The average American life back 250 years was never documented and certainly never put into paintings. Only the rich and famous had their history recorded back then.

One side of my family comes from Appalachia in McDowell and Tazewell counties. The furthest back I can trace them is to about 1860 then there is no written record. They were not rich.

I for one would really like to see what an average family was like back then.

Hooda Thunkit said...

Harry Schwartz,

Are you SURE about that?

You could be in for severe culture shock...

Although, if those times were documented better, we would all know and be able to appreciate what our more distant ancestors went through on a daily basis.

ajax saith said...

to historymike:

"Actually, ajax four out of five people crossing the Atlantic before 1800 were of African descent"

"This may come as a surprise to you, given your predisposition to glorify northern Europeans, but the real "building" of America was, in the main, the product of neo-African labor."
i am not sure of the number of black slaves brought in during the colonial period so i am not in a position to dispute your figure

when i use the terms: 'founded' and 'built' i was of course not refering to the use of black slave labor, i was refering to the great white minds which designed the united states constitution and the pre-constitutional governing documents and principles (any blacks there helping out with that?), the great white minds which set about chartering the original 13 american colonies, the great white minds which began the first businesses in the colonial period, the great white work ethic and industrious craftsmanship (consider shaker furniture and the new england ship building industry) great whitemen like benjamin franklin

when great man made structures are designed and formed like the empire state building or the golden gate bridge or the apollo space craft, when great businesses are founded and flourish like ibm or microsoft or general motors, who are they who receive the lion share of credit and recognition? do not the engineers and architects, businessmen and venture capitalists?

so in this manner blacks were brought over to serve their white masters in performing menial tasks, the idea that they had anything to do with 'building' the united states is likened to the automobile assembly plant worker 'building' the automobile industry, while the assembly plant employee works to assemble the automobile it is foolish to think they have any part in building or creating the automobile industry