Rome Top Destinations

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

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


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