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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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 “ 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 “ 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.”


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