When Colonial America’s Greatest Painter Took His Brush to Europe

John Singleton Copley left for Europe on the eve of the American Revolution. A historian and her teenage son made the trip to see why

John Singleton Copley
The Forum was among the many sights in Rome that amazed Copley, who said he was “feasting my eyes.” Bryan Schutmaat

In June 10, 1774, nine days after Britain blockaded Boston Harbor, the Thomas set sail for London. On board was the painter John Singleton Copley, known throughout the Colonies for his remarkable lifelike portraits. In recent years, some of Copley’s sitters had become leaders of the rebellion against the Crown. John Hancock, Mercy Otis Warren and Samuel Adams all had sat to him. Many of these canvases have since become iconic, prized now as in the artist’s own day for the way Copley teased out the personality of his patrons and the stuff of their daily lives. Mahogany tables shine, jewels sparkle and silk taffetas rustle. More than two centuries after he painted it, Copley’s Paul Revere, which depicts the silversmith in shirtsleeves holding a luminous teapot, remains one of our most familiar images of revolutionary America.

Portraiture earned the Boston-born Copley a good name and a fine wage. In 1768, the year he turned 30, he estimated his annual income at 300 guineas, a “pretty living in America,” he said. Lawyers and merchants made a good deal more, but Copley’s talent had pulled him far above his parents’ humble station. In 1769, his marriage to Susanna Farnham Clarke, daughter of one of the wealthiest Indies merchants in town, further elevated his fortunes. Raised in a three-room flat above a tobacco shop on the Long Wharf, Copley now lived in a grand estate on Beacon Hill, where his neighbors included John Hancock.

Yet Copley himself was decidedly ambivalent about painting faces and, indeed, about the American uprising. Painting and politics mixed badly, he said. And portraits—which trafficked in mere likeness, not the upper reaches of the imagination—were a lowly genre. Copley yearned to try his hand at histories, biblical scenes and classical allegories: the highest reaches of Art. There were few such commissions to be had in the colonies, and fewer instances to see. A meager diet of black-and-white engravings and painted copies fed the provincial painter’s eye. Since the mid-1760s, he had longed to travel to Europe, where he might study “those fair examples of art that have stood so long the admiration of all the world.” But he was a cautious man in a rash age, not least because he had so much to lose. For nearly a decade he painted and pined, an armchair traveler.

Now his sails lofted. Pulled by the lure of Italy, pushed by the deepening political crisis, Copley left his young family behind. His beloved Susanna—he called her Sukey—was pregnant with the couple’s fourth child. Their time apart must figure as a “blank in life,” Copley said. But the tour would enlarge his skills and his fame, allowing him “to provide for my Dear Children in such a way as to bring them into the great World with reputation.”

A mother and child visit Pompeii. Copley marveled at the haunting, frozen-in-time tableaux of daily life in the ruins there. Bryan Schutmaat
Copley saw the 13th-century Duomo in Florence before the white, green and red marble neo-Gothic facade was added. Bryan Schutmaat
The painter spent his days “in the business of Feasting my eyes” on great works of art (above, tourists at the Campidoglio). Bryan Schutmaat
While in Florence, Copley gorged on Raphaels at the Palazzo Pitti (above, the peaceful Boboli Gardens behind the palazzo). Bryan Schutmaat
After spending a week in Paris, Copley left by coach for Florence (above), the birthplace of the Renaissance. Bryan Schutmaat
Bryan Schutmaat
A view of Vesuvius from a cobblestone street in Pompeii. The volcano has erupted many times since A.D. 79, most recently in 1944. Bryan Schutmaat
The vast Piazza del Plebiscito is the largest plaza in Naples and a popular gathering spot (above, a monument to Charles III of Spain). Bryan Schutmaat
Copley didn’t care for Naples (here lit by the setting sun). The streets “Stink...to that Degree as to make me quite sick,” he said. Bryan Schutmaat
The ancient Greek city of Paestum on the Tyrrhenian Sea was the outermost point of Copley’s travels (above, the remains of a temple). Bryan Schutmaat
In his explorations of Pompeii, Copley discovered houses “as neat as you can immagine” with “Mosaiks...as if finish[ed] yesterday.” Bryan Schutmaat
Copley arrived in Rome just as the city was celebrating the election of a new pope (above, a Sunday crowd in the Vatican square). Bryan Schutmaat
At the Vatican (above, St. Peter’s), Copley admired the Belvedere Apollo and the Laocoön, calling them “Mericles of the Chisel.” Bryan Schutmaat
Copley couldn’t wait to get to Rome, one of the major centers of culture in his day (a view of the city from the Castel Sant’ Angelo). Bryan Schutmaat

As it happened, Copley’s travels accomplished all that he expected and much that he did not. He would never see Boston again.

The Thomas reached England in 29 days, a swift, easy passage. The world is smaller now. My son Calvin and I make the crossing in eight hours. Much of what Copley saw during his European sojourn remains where he found it, Napoleon and the Nazis notwithstanding. We mean to follow his trail through Florence, Rome, Naples and the ancient ruins beyond. I travel as a historian writing a life of Copley. Calvin, on the cusp of high school, seeks a wider world, even at the price of two weeks with his mother. He is the expedition’s chief navigator and staff photographer, all in all, a pretty good summer job.

Calvin says we mustn’t call our trip a grand tour. Unlike Jean Calvin, his stern 16th-century namesake, my son is no enemy of luxury. He wears Old Navy but he reads GQ. And even to him, “grand tour” sounds obnoxious, a vestige of days when princes traveled the realm while folks like us hoed potatoes in rocky soil. “It’s embarrassing,” Calvin says, with the teenager’s habitual eye roll.

In Copley’s day, the grand tour was something to crow about. A lengthy progress through the European continent was an essential rite of passage for Britain’s would-be worldly. There were many routes, but the ultimate destination was Italy, a motley collection of dukedoms, principalities and papal domains. “A man who has not been in Italy, is always conscious of an inferiority, from his not having seen what it is expected a man should see,” the London literary magnate Samuel Johnson said.

Long the exclusive prerogative of callow nobles and their tutors, the grand tour became in the 18th century somewhat more democratic: the aspiration of merchants, lawyers, doctors and scholars. A trickle of wealthy Americans joined the growing stream of English-speaking grand tourists. In 1760, the Pennsylvania-born Benjamin West became the first painter from Britain’s colonies to make it to Italy. Fourteen years later, Copley followed, largely at West’s prodding. He was only the second. Copley’s tour was no mere caprice, but rather an education whose aims, cost and duration rivaled the investment families today make by sending a child to college.

Now cheap, safe trans-Atlantic air travel allows nearly two million Americans to visit Italy every year. But beneath the shiny facade of mass tourism, the faint shadow of the grand tour lingers. Calvin and I will try to peer through the veil of centuries, to see with something like Copley’s piercing gray eyes.


Copley spent the summer in London. He adored the metropolis and its fashionable people. Those who said “we were Saints & Angels in America compared to those that inhabit this Country” were “greatly mistaken,” he told Sukey. To the contrary: “We Americans seem not halfway remove’d from a state of nature.”

Chief among those who impressed Copley with the “Manly politeness in the English” was Benjamin West, who had emerged as a leader in the British art world—the backwoods prodigy reincarnated as the Raphael of America. A generous mentor, West squired the American visitor around the Royal Academy of Arts and other important places to see and be seen.

West also found Copley a traveling companion: an artist named George Carter. A London cloth seller turned painter, George Carter was 37, about Copley’s age. Their families and fortunes on hold until they returned from the Continent, Copley and Carter needed to spend their time and pennies wisely. It helped that Carter knew French and a little Italian. Copley, with no formal schooling, found English challenge enough. He hoped Carter’s smoother tongue would open the world to them.

Madonnas on postcards in Rome. Bryan Schutmaat
After his grand tour, Copley shed some restraint and developed a looser, more dramatic style, as in this self-portrait he composed in his 40s in London. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution / Art Resource, NY
When you follow in Copley’s footsteps in Italy, you encounter many Madonnas. Above: Madonna of Divine Love, Naples. Capodimonte National Museum - Naples
A family portrait by Copley, painted in 1776, shows him (upper left), his wife, Susanna, their children, and his father-in-law. National Gallery of Art, Washington DC
Raphael’s Madonna of the Chair, Florence. The Pitti Palace, Florence
Copley’s Ascension, completed in 1775, boldly invited comparison to Raphael’s masterpiece, The Transfiguration (above, center), which now hangs in the Vatican Museums. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Entombed in the eruption of Vesuvius in A.D. 79, Pompeii was a highlight of grand tours (a sculpture at a café near the ruins). Bryan Schutmaat
Copley’s Ascension. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Madonna graffiti in Naples. Jane Kamensky

The two men left London in late August, crossing the stormy channel by packet boat. In Normandy they picked up a three-horse chaise—“a Vile Cabriolet,” Carter noted in his journal. Eager to spy the effects of Catholic despotism, Carter contrasted the hungry, abject French to the curious, robust English. Copley, an altogether more earnest sort, loved most everything he saw.

The pair spent a week in Paris. A Yankee in the court of Louis XVI, ­Copley waxed lyrical over the food and the wine and the opera. When he at last beheld the works of the great masters, though, he found “some very fine, some indifferant, some bad.” Yet disappointment seemed only to nourish his growing worldliness. “I do not find those dangers and dificulties, in the exicution of such a Voyage and Journey as this I am now prosicuting from America to Rome so great as people do that sit at home, and paint out frightfull Storys to themselves,” Copley wrote. The path from his front door to Boston’s Long Wharf had been the hardest part of the trip.

Before he left Paris, Copley bought himself a sword, the accoutrement of a nobleman or a soldier. He was neither, of course. But he wore it everywhere. Carter joked that while they slept, Copley swaddled the blade in “various Night Caps...that it might not get tarnished.” He began to sign his letters “adieu.”

It took Copley and Carter five weeks to get from Paris to Florence, traveling by coach, barge and single-masted felucca. Days on the road began at dawn and lasted till nightfall. Horses gave out. Porters wheedled and stole. And still Copley played the starry-eyed Quixote to Carter’s canny Sancho. Carter was “well versed in traveling...a very polite and sensable man, who has seen much of the World,” Copley told his mother. Copley “is perfect dead Wait,” wrote Carter. “Thank God we are not wedded to each other.”

As their weeks together stretched into months, Carter’s litany of complaints grew. Copley was demanding, “not knowing a Syllable of the Language,” yet having “so much to say.” He could be combative and even perverse, yet he brooked disagreement poorly. Carter’s diagnosis: His companion had been too “long the Hero of each little Tale,” allowed to believe “there is Nothing that he is not Master of.” Boston was a small pond. These were deeper waters.

Carter wearied, especially, of Copley’s paeans to the Colonies. American wood burned hotter. American milk tasted sweeter. From Toulon, near the end of September, Carter wrote: “My Companion is solacing himself that if they go on in America for an 100 Years to come as they have for 150 years past, they shall have an independent Government...Art will then be more encouraged there, great Artists would arise and that was the great object that induced him to take this Tour to Roame. I just hinted that it was probabl[e] he might not live to see that Period; and therefore his coming to Rome, if that was the End intended to be answered, would he not be some what mistaken in the Outset?”

About the timing, Carter was wrong. Independence came far sooner than either man could have predicted.

Like all caricatures, Carter’s Copley both resembles and distorts the original. Copley lacked sophistication, and he knew it. “I felt some degree of mortification in not having the Language,” he confessed, a deficit he bemoaned on more than one occasion. He marveled that the French used clean napkins at the table. Having learned his manners from borrowed books at the edge of the British world, Copley strained to project the easy grace so central to politeness. By turns ingratiating and imperious, he kissed up and kicked down. Carter dissected these foibles brilliantly, making Copley a bumbling bumpkin in faded finery with a gleaming, impotent sword.

But Carter failed to sense the aching loneliness concealed by Copley’s too-brave face. Throughout the separation from his family, Copley whipsawed between joy and longing. The tour was wondrous, “like a Dream,” he said. But it was also a “time of Banishment” that could not end quickly enough. Copley measured out his progress in works seen and techniques mastered, and in miles from the moment he would gather his babes in his arms.

All travelers get homesick, even my Calvin, though he’s loath to admit it. But Copley’s melancholy had a particular cast, because home itself was a moving target. Whether Copley returned to Boston depended on whether Boston returned to itself. He was desperate for news of the town, but letters were long in coming. In his first four months on the road, Copley received but one dispatch from Beacon Hill. While he bragged of America’s wonders, home grew so distant, so silent, so small. Were he “suddenly transported to Boston,” he told Sukey when he reached Genoa, “I should think it only a collection of wren boxes.”

“Do you like him?” Calvin asks, when I describe the prickly Copley lampooned by Carter.

I do, especially for his halting ambivalence during what we wrongly imagine as a time of easy certainties.

“Would he have liked you?”

This is a much harder question, one only a teenager could ask.


On October 14, Copley’s carriage rumbled into Florence, where Michelangelo, Leonardo and Raphael had birthed the Renaissance. Calvin and I arrive by high-speed train. But as we leave the modern rail station for the old city, the centuries melt away. We wind through labyrinthine streets to a hotel tucked into a courtyard so tiny that the GPS can’t find it. Our room sits in a tower built in the 11th century, around which the swallows circle at dusk. When a jar of Nutella appears at breakfast, Calvin decides this a pretty grand tour after all. He orders cappuccino—coffee, now as in Copley’s day, marking one’s entry into the world of adults.

Our first stop on the Copley trail is the Uffizi Gallery, which the Medici family had opened to the public a few years before Copley’s journey. We rush past the Botticellis—worshiped in our day, ignored in Copley’s—to find the octagonal Tribuna. There the Medicis displayed their greatest treasures against crimson walls capped by an intricate shell mosaic that evoked their dominion over the seas. Copley knew the Tribuna’s masterpieces secondhand, through prints and plaster casts. One of Copley’s earliest surviving drawings copies an engraving of the ancient statue known as the Venus de’ Medici. The original staggered him. Made “near two Thousand years” before, it remained “as perfect in all its parts, as Clean and fair in its Colour as if it had been finished but a Day,” he told Sukey. Titian’s Venus of Urbino, a luscious reclining nude, likewise amazed him. The copies he had seen in America led Copley to imagine that Titian’s canvases were painted “with great precision, smooth, Glossy and Delicate, somthing like Enamil wrought up with care and great attention to the smallest parts.” (Much like his own work, in other words.) But the reality was far more complex and subtle, especially the flesh tones. Copley told his half-brother Harry, himself a painter: “If you put your hand to the flesh of this Venus you will find it the same Colour.” The effect was miraculous, an illusion that did not seem to come from mere combinations of “white, read, black, blew, etc.” Copley would experiment to discover how it was done.

From the Uffizi we walk across the Ponte Vecchio in search of the Palazzo Pitti, where Copley gorged on Raphael. Engravings after Raphael—considered “the greatest of The Modern Painters,” as Copley said—were popular in the Colonies; a Raphael print once hung over his chimney. But that was about as close as he could get—for Boston, like the other seaports in British North America, had no galleries or museums. At the sprawling Pitti (then the palace of the Grand Dukes of Tuscany), Copley caromed from famine to feast.

Calvin and I wander the Pitti till our feet give out, checking off Madonnas on our Copley’s grand tour spreadsheet. “Too. Many. Marys,” Calvin says. We use postcards as flashcards, drilling Raphaels: Madonna of the Goldfinch, Madonna of the Curtain, Madonna of the Grand Duke. “He saw a copy of Madonna of the Chair back in Boston, right?” A perfect score on the IDs earns molto gelato at the famed Vivoli. Calvin samples enough flavors to declare hazelnut—nocciola—the winner. Daily gelato (“at least daily”) is deemed a right, not a privilege, for all staff photographers.

“Why is Mary always wearing that blue?” Calvin asks. He’s onto something: As rendered by the Renaissance masters, Mary’s raiment is vibrant, almost pulsing—a blue as different from the palette of New England painters as a Tuscan June is from a Boston January. We do a little research and learn that the Queen of Heaven was often robed in ultramarine, the most intense, durable and luxurious pigment of the era. Made from ground lapis, ultramarine cost thousands of times more than other blue powders. Very little crossed the Atlantic. Copley must have marveled at the lavish expanses of ultramarine that enlivened so many altarpieces and frescoes.

Calvin decides that we need to buy some. Beneath the intricate carved archways of the Studio Fiorentino (est. 1348), we find the venerable Zecchi color shop. We purchase a small hexagonal jar of blue powder labeled Oltremare Scuro, a cheaper artificial pigment, but still a vivid souvenir: a Proustian madeleine for the eye.


“I grow more and more impatient to reach Rome,” Copley told Sukey. If Italy was the grand tourist’s favored destination, Rome was the heart of Italy, a synecdoche for all that humanity had wrought. Rome bore witness to the fate of republics and empires, faiths and fortunes. For every rise, a fall: Time conquered conquerors.

After racing through Florence and Tuscany, Copley and Carter entered Rome on October 23, a Sunday. Bells pealed from the steeples of more than 300 churches. With little of the disdain that marked many Protestant travelers’ descriptions of Catholic ritual, Copley counted the timing lucky. He would witness “the Magnificience of the Rejoicings in the Election of the Pope” selected to replace Clement XIV, who had died the month before.

Seventeen popes later, shortly after the investiture of Francis, Calvin and I follow Copley to the Vatican on a sweltering Sunday morning. As we meander down the cobblestoned Via Giulia toward the Tiber, we join other pilgrims kitted out with water bottles and sunscreen. By the time we reach St. Peter’s Square, the crowd has swollen into the tens of thousands, many of them leather-clad. Harley-Davidson’s 110th anniversary celebration has brought an estimated half-million motorcyclists to Rome; a papal blessing of the bikes will follow the Latin Mass. Anti-abortion activists from around the world have flocked to the same service to commemorate John Paul II’s 1995 encyclical on the sanctity of human life. To call the assembly diverse is an understatement. Yet when the popemobile passes we all scream, “like sixth-grade girls at a One Direction concert,” Calvin says. (Eye roll.)

Rome’s pleasures continue thick and strange. Calvin and I debate the top ten things we’ve seen, done, tasted. Is the light raking through the ancient dome of the Pantheon—where Raphael is buried—more ethereal than Bernini’s sinuous marble Apollo and Daphne at the Borghese Gallery? Which gelateria sells the most perfect tiny scoop? Did pappardelle with truffles trump the humble cacio e pepe? There’s a too muchness to it all, from the scale of the Vatican to the exquisiteness of dinners that stretch late into the night. Calvin has graduated from cappuccino to the occasional sip of wine. Why not a full glass? one waiter asks. E’ solo un bambino, I explain. The waiter raises an eyebrow as if to say, not really, Signora. Not for long.

Rome’s bounty tied Copley’s tongue. But despite its otherworldliness, it was an easy place to be British. By 1774, generations of grand tourists had built an elaborate infrastructure for travelers. Scholars offered courses in antiquities. Painters and sculptors crafted souvenir portraits and busts. (Calvin declares the grand tour portrait the analog ancestor of the digital selfie. He posts scores to Facebook. Now as then, it is vital to be seen seeing.) British travelers gathered by the dozen at the English Coffee House, near the Spanish Steps. “I Need not be alone but from Choice,” Copley told Sukey.

The density of this expatriate network allowed Copley and Carter to part. After their break—a bitter one, Carter said—Copley found lodgings near the Piazza di Spagna, in an enclave of British travelers, artists and antiquaries. The graceful four-story buildings that today line these narrow side streets would have been new in the 1770s. Their muted palette—stucco in shades ranging from mustard to russet—cries out for a painter’s eye.

Copley fell into a routine. In the mornings he walked up the hill to the French Academy (now the Villa Medici) or strolled down the Via del Corso to the Capitol (now the Capitoline Museums) to sketch ancient statuary. It “takes a great deal of time to see the Works of Art in this place,” he told Harry. What Copley called the “business of Feasting my eyes” might sound like leisure, but it was work. Calvin, who has visited more museums in the past week than in the previous 14 years, agrees. We brave the throngs at the Vatican Museums, lined up 20 deep to view the Belvedere Apollo and the Laocoön, ancient Roman copies of still more ancient Greek sculptures that Copley pronounced “Mericles of the Chisel.” Eighteenth-century connoisseurs—and generations of art history survey courses since—adore the restrained classicism of these statues. Calvin and I decide we vastly prefer the baroque excesses of Bernini.

“We’re seeing what Copley saw, but are we seeing how he saw?” Calvin asks. Sometimes—the crowds and the audio guides and the ubiquitous iPads notwithstanding—we come close. At the Palazzo Pallavacini-Rospigliosi, a splendid residence still in private hands four centuries after it was built, we arrange a private viewing of Guido Reni’s fresco L’Aurora, one of the most frequently copied works in the 18th century. We present our credentials to the owners, much as Cop­ley might have done, if quills were email. For €36.30, we buy 30 minutes alone with Reni’s masterwork, lying on the loggia’s cool marble floor, watching Aurora and Apollo haul a goldenrod sun through an amethyst sky toward an ultramarine sea.

Yet even this does not fully capture Copley’s way of looking. “I would have you keep in your Pocket a book and a Porto Crayon—as I now do—and where ever you see a butifull form Sketch it in your Book,” he counseled Harry. Copley drew in sketchbooks, on loose sheets, in the margins of letters. Calvin’s digital camera boasts molto megapixels, but we lack the talent to feel the Renaissance beneath our fingertips.


In January, Copley headed south, threading through orange groves heavy with “fruit so pleasing to the Eye that it would tempt a Second Eve to sin.” His rhapsody would have offered cold comfort to Sukey, who had recently delivered her baby in Boston, where Redcoats drilled on the frozen Common.

Naples itself was filthy, Copley said. The streets “Stink often to that Degree as to make me quite sick; and the People are as Dirty as the Streets.” Modern travel guides likewise play up the city’s dirt and danger, and Calvin deems the environs of our hotel, on the northern edge of the centro storico, “un po sketchy.” But we wind up adoring the tattered magnificence of Naples, where laundry flutters above alleyways covered in gorgeous, trenchant graffiti. A stenciled statuary Madonna reaches imploringly from a crumbling stucco wall: a street art fresco. The pizza approaches the sublimity of Vesuvius, and the bittersweet caffè alla nocciola allows Calvin to combine his newfound passions for coffee and hazelnuts. Compared with Florence and Rome, Naples comes to us unmediated—pristine in its splendid decay. Cruise ships crowd the bay, but beyond the quayside we encounter few tourists and not much English. The city feels private, mysterious. Florence and Rome preened for us, but we have to earn Naples, and we love the challenge.

One afternoon we trek into the hills above the city, to the Museo di Capodimonte, which Copley encountered as the palace of the King of Naples. The vast museum, with its horde of Michelangelo, Titian and Raphael, is nearly empty. Calvin, who can now spot a Raphael from 50 paces, agrees with Copley that the Madonna of Divine Love is especially luscious: tender mother, delicious baby, acres of ultramarine. Near the Capodimonte, we descend into the Catacombs of San Genarro, where the oldest tombs and murals date from the second century A.D. Copley went there, with a cicerone who lit his way with a torch.

The remote past draws still closer in nearby Herculaneum and Pompeii, entombed by the eruption of Vesuvius in A.D. 79. Excavations of both cities began during Copley’s youth and continue today. We walk streets of stone, marveling, as Copley did, at “the Marks of the Carriages...deeply worn” millennia ago. He discovered houses “as neat as you can immagine,” their walls “plaister’d as smooth as Glass,” and floors covered with “Mosaiks, all as perfect as if finish[ed] yesterday.” Here were the remains of “a people of great Society,” he told Sukey—a people much like themselves, consigned, overnight, to the ash heap of history.

Paestum, 40 miles down the Tyrrhenian Coast from Herculaneum, marked the outermost point of Copley’s wanderings. “The extreeme part of my Tour,” he called it. Paestum’s fame was only beginning to spread. Copley was among the first Americans to visit the Greek ruins, some of which date to the sixth century B.C., nearly seven centuries before Pompeii succumbed.

Where Pompeii and Herculaneum were suddenly destroyed, Paestum was used up and plowed under gradually, over centuries. Villagers carted their daily lives elsewhere, leaving massive ceremonial structures behind. Spectacular temples tower over fields of wildflowers. Calvin and I spy more lizards than people. These are comforting ruins: a noble past sleeping peacefully, archaeology without the messiness of history. The silent majesty of Paestum can only have salved Copley as he worried about America’s future, and his own.


Copley returned to Rome in February feeling lonely but lucky. “I have made a great sacrafice in depriveing myself of the Infinite pleasure of your company & that of our Dear Children,” he told Sukey. “But when I consider the unhappy state of Boston I think it one of those occurences that Providence has blessed me in, for what should I do in that unhappy place but share largely in it[s] misery”? What indeed.

Eager to make the best of his good fortune, he began painting a religious scene, one of only two works he completed during his tour. The Ascension sought to capture the moment the resurrected Jesus rose into heaven. A study in contrasts, Copley’s Ascension divides horizontally: earth below and heaven above, fallen man beneath rising God. The bust-size canvas pays homage—and gives chase—to Raphael’s monumental Transfiguration, which, Copley said, had “always been allowed to be the greatest picture in the world.” Placed at the head of Raphael’s coffin when he died, The Transfiguration had the aura of a saintly relic. Raphael perished at 37—Copley’s age—but the painting had endured, “an Immortal Monument,” Copley told Sukey. To attempt the same subject was to recognize the fleeting nature of life while bidding for eternal fame.

Copley described the weeks he spent making The Ascension in a letter to Harry that runs to 12 densely written pages. Tiny sketches illustrate the finer points of composition. “I should have been happy to have had such a plain account of the process when I was in America,” he said. But in the end, only one thing mattered: “Is it good for anything?” Copley’s world did not much cotton to bragging, but he hoped Harry would forgive him his indecorous honesty. The Ascension, Copley said, was good, very good indeed. “I believe it will support its merrit in any Cumpany whatever.”

This was where it led, then, this business of feasting one’s eyes: Copley’s easel beside Raphael’s. The ascension of Jesus—a more dynamic figure in Copley’s compact version than in Raphael’s outsized masterpiece—marked Copley’s ascension too.


After he finished The Ascension, Cop­ley prepared for the end of his grand tour. He bought plaster casts of the most prized ancient statues so that he could continue to improve himself. He packed up his sketches and his sword. And he began to take stock of what he had learned.

Copley’s black-and-white world had burst into full, glorious color. “I know the Extent of the Arts to what length they have been carried,” he told Sukey. “I feel more confidence in What I do myself than I did before I saw them.” He had seen the very pinnacle of human achievement, and he had discovered that even the great Raphael had feet of clay. “You are to remember that the works of the great Masters are but Pictures,” he told Harry, “and when a man can go but a very little beyond his co[n]temporarys he becomes a great Man.”

Copley would gamble on greatness. He had grown a bit bigger, and the globe had come to seem both smaller and friendlier than he could have imagined when he left Boston. “I have been surprized to find myself so known in places so distant,” he told Sukey. “I find myself happy in being less a stranger to the world than I had thought.”

He had sailed from Boston Harbor as a Briton from the provinces. In the spring of 1775, as he readied to leave Rome, some of those provinces began the violent, protracted process of breaking from that empire. “My hand trembles while I inform you that [the] Sword of Civil War is now unsheathd,” Harry wrote on May 16.

Copley heard the news weeks later, when letters reached him in Parma, the last long stop along his journey home. “I have seen a letter from Rome” in which “menshon is made of a Skirmish having been at Lexington, and that numbers were killed on boath sides,” Copley wrote to his mother in late June. “I am exceeding uneasy not knowing to what you may be exposed in a Country that is now become the seat of War.” The American rebels, resolute to the point of fanaticism, would in time prevail: of this Copley had no doubt. But along the way, the country would be “torn in peices, first by the quarrel with Great Briton till it is a distinct Government, and than with Civil discord” among the new polity. As to what “permanant form of Government” would emerge from this new America, “no Man Can tell.” Whether it would be “free or Dispotick” was “beyand the reach of human wisdom to deside.” Best to watch and wait, Copley cautioned. “In the mean time we must pursue that which is our Duty”—our calling, our Art.

Grand tours were circuits, but John Singleton Copley’s did not end where it began. He and his family remained British; London would be home for the rest of his life. There he would find a more crowded ladder of success than the one he had scaled so handily in Boston. In London his climb would be halting, one step down for every two steps up. But when he soared—when his modern-dress history paintings drew crowds numbering in the thousands and found critical acclaim—he did so in a way that would have been utterly impossible in the Colonies. “I hope I shall be enabled to make such a use of my Tour as will better my fortune,” Copley had written to Sukey. Make use of it he did: in looser more painterly brushwork, in more finely mottled flesh tones that mimicked Titian’s, in huge compositions teeming with scores of figures, paintings designed to hold a wall in a palace rather than a mantel in a Boston parlor.

In 1776, as the Continental Congress inched toward independence in Philadelphia, Copley was hard at work in London’s West End, finishing a painting he hoped might cement his newfound reputation. Today the enormous canvas—far larger than anything he had attempted before, though smaller than much of what he would paint in England—hangs in the National Gallery of Art in Washington. The group portrait celebrates the reunion of the Copley family after the tour and during the war. An ocean away from the homespun Paul Revere, Sukey sports the latest English fashions while two of her babes gambol on her lap. The painter stands behind, leaning on a plinth that wouldn’t be out of place in Paestum. A landscape resembling the Tuscan hills recedes in the distance. Copley had brought Italy home to Leicester Square.

Copley said he would always “enjoy a sattisfaction from this Tour I never should have had if I had not made it.” I feel the same, all the more since Calvin started high school, his own grand tour, no parents allowed. The light of June has faded, and I miss our strolls along the Arno, the Tiber and the Tyrrhenian Coast. But a jar of ultramarine sits beside my computer, filled with the Italian summer sky at dusk, queen of heavens.

Get the latest Travel & Culture stories in your inbox.