Welcome to Day 3 of 5 Days of American Art! Today we’ll be looking at the art and lives of John Singleton Copley and Paul Revere. I know you’re familiar with Paul Revere, but have you ever heard of John Singleton Copley?
Copley was born in Boston to Irish immigrants in 1738. He lived with his widowed mother, who ran a tobacco shop on the wharves of the Boston harbor. Even as a child, he hated the rough area he lived in, where there was constant noise, fighting, violence, and public intoxication among those who wandered the area. Copley avoided these by staying indoors as much as possible. While he was still young, his mother married Peter Pelham, a teacher and artist. They were able to move to a better and quieter part of town. Copley’s talent for drawing must have blossomed and grown under the direction of his stepfather, although he may have developed his skill on his own as well. He developed an incredible ability to portray his subjects as they truly appeared, and he enjoyed adding clues to their personalities by the way they were dressed or the accessories and objects he included in the portraits. Copley’s style is a remarkable departure from the portraits commonly seen in this era, which often seemed very flat and two-dimensional. With Copley’s work, you almost feel that you can reach into the painting and touch the rich velvet, a gold chain, the feather on a pen, the fuzzy skin of a peach.
Let’s look at some of Copley’s other paintings, before we examine his “Paul Revere.” Click on the following links to Copley’s works of art:
“Mrs. Ezekiel Goldthwaite” at the Boston Museum of Fine Art
“John Hancock” at the Boston Museum of Fine Art
“Mrs. Timothy Rogers (Lucy Boylston)” at the Boston Museum of Fine Art
What do you notice about how Copley paints fabrics? faces? hands? fruit? furniture? What is he trying to communicate to you, the viewer, about each of these people? What can you tell about the personalities, likes and dislikes of his subjects, based on the way they are painted here? Do you think these are weathly people? What about their clothing, hands, and surroundings tells you this? Notice John Hancock’s clothing in particular. In life, Hancock was known for his very flamboyant manner of dressing, yet here he’s wearing very sober and serious clothing. Why do you think so? Were Copley and Hancock trying to communicate something a little different here?
Now, let’s look at Copley’s “Paul Revere.” Copley painted Revere’s portrait in 1768. Tensions are simmering in colonial America over the inequities and taxes heaped upon the residents of the new land by Great Britain. The costly French and Indian War is over (1763) and George III is crowned King of England (1760). Britain begins a series of taxes, or Acts, designed to recoup funds spent on the colonies, the recent wars and other crown expenses, and the colonists, as you know, are extremely unhappy as a result. Against this background, but before the Boston Tea Party and the battles of Lexington and Concord, a successful businessman sits for his portrait with a fellow artisan with whom he’s done business a time or two.
Go to Picturing America again, and click to enter the gallery. Now, click on the portrait of Paul Revere, the third picture from the left. Have your children look silently for a few moments at the painting, then ask them the following questions:
- What do you see?
- What do you know about this man from what you see?
- What do you think he does for a living?
- Do you think this is his workshop?
- What is he holding? Where do you think he got it?
- Do you think he is right-handed, or left-handed?
- What is he about to do?
- What is he thinking about?
- What else do you see?
Paul Revere’s portrait is another one that shows the unusual talent of John Singleton Copley. Notice the shine on the table, and the reflections on the table, the teapot, and his forehead from our left. Although Revere was successful at a number of professions (engraver, dentist, goldsmith and silversmith, and later, produced cannon balls and copper sheathing for warships), he and Copley chose to picture his work as a silversmith. His tools are laid to the side on the table, ready for him to pick up as he prepares to engrave or decorate the silver teapot. Is this his workshop, and are these the clothes he’d normally wear for his work? Probably not; the white shirt is extremely clean and there are no other evidences of work (such as gouges or scrapes) on the finely polished table. In addition, the protective garments Revere would likely wear to protect himself from hot metal are missing.
What expression is Revere wearing? Is he simply pondering the decoration he’s about to engrave into the silver, or is he gazing off into the distance at his unknown (yet certainly exciting but turbulent) future, at the war that’s not yet begun? He looks firm, steady, dependable. What does he see?
Here are a couple of fun extras for you to do with your children:
- Watch Khan Academy’s wonderful short video on Copley and one of my favorite works of his, “Boy with a Squirrel”
- Have each family member draw a family portrait, like Copley did in “The Copley Family.” Draw each adult, child or pet with an object (like Copley’s art tools, their spaniel or the children’s toys) that they use or play with on a regular basis.
Thank you for joining me today! We’ll be back tomorrow with more American art and more of the 5-Day Blog Hop! And don’t forget to enter my Schoolhouse Expo giveaway here!
**Parents, again, please remember to visit all the linked websites with your children. At the time of publication, they are family-friendly…..but since they are not under my control I can’t verify that they will be tomorrow!
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