Arts Everyday Living: In Honor of 4th of July —A Classic American Portrait

A previously published blog.




John Singleton Copley, The Copley Family, 1776/77, oil on canvas, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.


Few artists have offered the viewer such a detailed and complete portrayal of his family as American John Singleton Copley (1738-1815).  Created shortly after the painter’s move to Great Britain from his native Boston on the eve of the Revolutionary War, The Copley Family now hangs in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.  Although rebel leaders John Hancock and Paul Revere were once Copley’s clients, his father-in-law Tory Richard Clarke (one of the figures depicted above) supported King George III. In fact, it was Clarke’s shipment thrown overboard at the Boston Tea Party.

Of the 4 children, whom do you notice first?  Is it oldest daughter Elizabeth who occupies the center space? Calm and composed in the midst of the activity behind her, she seems like a miniature adult, reinforced by her lady-like white dress with its pink sash.  Yet, isn’t that her doll similarly attired tossed in the corner, perhaps in a moment of carelessness by its 6 year old owner?

Or does her brother John Singleton Copley, Jr., looking adoringly up at his stylish mother, attract your attention?  He, as the first born son, is certainly the focus of Mrs. Coplely’s world.  But could even she have predicted that John, Jr. would someday be Lord Chancellor of England?

Then again how can you ignore his younger sister Mary nearby, smiling charmingly at us?  Plus baby Susanna on the opposite side, struggling to crawl closer to her grim faced grandfather, perhaps still dwelling on his exile from the American colonies.

Copley, too, connects with us from his vantage point in the background.  Holding onto to the tools of his trade, he invites us to survey his masterpiece brought alive with a combination of artistic skill and familial love .


Main source for this blog is National Gallery of Art, Washington by the museum staff, publisher, Thames and Hudson, New York, 1992.


The above image is used solely for educational purposes.


Choose Georgia O’Keeffe and Andy Warhol as your artistic companions in Through an Artist’s Eyes: Learning to Live Creatively.


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