Tuesday, April 04, 2006

England, Eat Your Heart Out

I'm hanging around the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston again, at least in the Internet sense. Here's a picture that's... ahem... hanging around the museum too. It's called Boy With A Squirrel, or, alternately: Portrait of Henry Pelham, and it was painted by John Singleton Copley, and it's a wonder.

Copley is a fairly well known artist, at least in America, because he had the presence of mind to paint well, and paint famous and influential people, and people who would become so.

Copley was born in 1738 to Irish immigrants in what would become the most Irish of American cities, Boston, Massachusetts. Something untoward must have happened, because ten years later, Copley had a step-father, Peter Pelham, a British born engraver. Pelham taught young Copley about engraving, including a method called mezzotint, an extremely demanding technique that allowed engravers to achieve great subtlety in light and shadow, but that few could master well enough to use. His step-father also exposed Copley to a few painters who influenced him some, but he appears to be almost entirely self taught in oil painting, which as you can see, is a marvel.

He painted this portrait of his half brother, Henry Pelham, in 1765. It uses a method of depicting persons along with items from their daily life, called portrait d'apparat, which was very unusual for its time, especially in America. Portrait painting always had lots of symbolism in the items, dress, and setting of their patrons, but they generally weren't quotidian things from a regular person's life.

Copley painted all sorts of famous and interesting Americans, like John Adams, Paul Revere, John Hancock, Sam Adams, and all sorts of lesser colonial lights whose names ring a bell to anyone who's lived in Boston: Codman; Quincy; Warren; Boylston; Pepperell.

Go back and look at the painting. There's a kind of exactness of likeness that has long fallen out of favor in art. Even the greatest American artist ever, John Singer Sargent, eschewed exactitude and captured his likenesses with brushwork that up close looks like it was done with a housepainting brush. If you look at the studies Copley would do of his portrait subjects, they look almost mechanical, as if he were drawing up plans for the human in question, not painting their portraits.

But go back and look at the painting. The delicacy of effect, the absolute shimmering depth of the minutest detail of the composition, the obvious love of the artist for his medium and his manifest ability to see and convey to the viewer exactly what he sees, and more -- what is important about the subject -- is like a form of necromancy. It's no wonder that some cultures think portraits steal one's soul. Henry Pelham's soul is in that portrait, and Copley's to boot.

Before telegraph, and radio, and television, and all the other methods of telling a stranger what you think and about what you think it, the portrait artist did it. You don't look at that portrait, you live in it for a moment. I've made a thousand tables, and looked at ten thousand more, and I can tell you that's exactly the way the light catches the corner of one. I could look at the picture all day and not run out of things to look at, and marvel over.

There was a problem of course. Copley got married, and his father-in-law was a merchant. A tea merchant. And one of his portrait subjects, Sam Adams, and some of his compatriots, got dressed up in an unconvincing fashion as American Indians, and dumped Copley's father-in-law's tea into Boston Harbor. And like many concerned about their famlily's safety if revolution came, he went to England where he remained for the rest of his life, well regarded, patronized by the rich and the regal, but never again reaching the sublime heights of his American paintings.

No one wants to look at his portrait of George the Fourth when he was the Prince of Wales, after all; not when you can see the young man with the pet squirrel, and know that the marrow of an entire country was in the brush that painted it.

England got him, but they can't have him.


David53 said...

That's one I would like to hang in my living room. What do you think it would cost or is it considered priceless? Do you think he posed for the portrait? I know less about art than I do about theatre, but saying it is very good just doesn't do it justice.

SippicanCottage said...

Hi David-

There's almost no way anything like this ever makes its way into private hands after entering the museum world. If it was still in private hands, it wouldn't fetch as much as a lousy streamrolled Picasso woman with her nose on the side of her face, but it would be worth millions.

I'm sure Pelham posed for the painting. It's Copley's half brother, so he had him available for it. I've seen Copley's sketches for his paintings, and they are painstakingly rendered. They must have had a model.

Sometimes important personages posed only long enough for their face to be painted, and artists used a paid model for the rest of the body. Henry Pelham wasn't anybody, that's probably why Copley used him. He posed free.

Maxine Weiss said...

Sometimes too much exactness can be shocking visually.....I'm thinking of Michaelangelo's David, but also....Rodin' on the toilet, thinking ???? Was that Rodin?

Maybe Singer Sargent is a reaction to that.

Robert Mapplethorpe---A little less exactness, and a little more charm, I say.

I don't know art, though, so these things do tend to shock the untrained eye.

Thomas Kinkade---the Danielle Steel of the art world, and why not?, I say! Don't hate someone because they make money. It's the American way. Give Kinkade his due!

Peace, Maxine

Maxine Weiss said...

You have to read John Updike's "Seek My Face". Updike is a conneseur (sp?) of modern, and classic art. I couldn't get through that novel, but if you start a book club with that novel, and hold my hand, paragraph by paragraph.....I'll attempt it again!

Updike referring to art in his novels and shortstories.

I'm thinking of one in particular. Richard and Joan Maple, recurring characters in many an Updike short story.

Anyway, they are on this nude beach, when the cops raid it and make everyone put back on their clothes and leave the beach at once....Updike equates it with "Adam and Eve's Expulsion from the Garden Of Eden"----Masaccio (I think).

---Rape of the Daughters of Lucipis? or was that Rape of the Lupines.

(Gals always getting raped in Renaissance Art--poor things).

---Caravaggio and Peter Paul Rubens. The whole "Rubenesque" figures.

Some very well-nourished young women, I'd say!

Peace, Maxine

SippicanCottage said...

Hi maxine- Sargent is the greatest ever. I finally went to an exhibition of his work with my older brother, who has a degree in fine arts in painting.

We both just gaped at the canvasses and emitted occasional whoops and oh my gods, like morons, until they threw us out.

I've never seen dead people look at me out of a canvas like that.

tcd said...

Hi sippican,

Half-way thru your post, I was thinking "What about Sargent?" and then I get to your very apt observation about Sargent. As far as American painters go, I'd have to say Sargent is my favorite and then Edward Hopper. What do you think of Hopper? Also, please tell me if I am wrong or not, but is Copley's painting of Paul Revere the one where Revere is holding a silver vessel of some sort? I had this image in my head of the Revere portrait as soon as I saw the portrait of Pelham.

SippicanCottage said...

Hi tcd- You have good taste. Sargent is the greatest painter ever, anywhere. He was part of a coterie of immensely interesting people who hung around where I live in the early 20th century including Sargent, Mark twain, HH Rogers (standard oil tycoon who donated everything worth a fig in Fairhaven Mass)

Sargent did a bunch of murals at the MFA. They're marvelous.

The Revere painting is just as you described it. It's at the MFA Boston too.

Hopper is another favorite here. He lived and painted in Rhode Island, Cape Cod, and near Portland, Maine, all our haunts. Hopper has a connection to Rhode Island School of Design, where my brother was educated.

Over the desk I'm typing at, Seven AM -Hopper. Directly behind me, House at two lights- Hopper. In the living room- Lady Agnew of Lochnaw- Sargent. Next to that- Carnation lily,lily, rose- Sargent. over the mantel- The ground swell- Hopper

In the Back hallway: Nighthawks at the diner-Hopper and Early sunday morning -Hopper.

Front hall: Litho of Hosea from Sargent mural at MFA

Daughters of Edward Boit- Sargent.

Yeah, We like Sargent and Hopper. If they were alive, they'd get a restraining order.

tcd said...

Oh! Carnation, lily, lily, rose is my favorite Sargent painting; it's so ethereal in a pure sense. I've been eyeing a canvas reproduction of it for the longest time but feel like my current decor does not justify such beauty. We are still unpacking and are badly in need of painting bare, builder's grade white walls.

I was lucky enough to be in New York City back in the summer of 1995(?) for the big Hopper exhibit at the Whitney. That was an experience!

Do you do a lot of posts on art? I shall revisit nevertheless.

SippicanCottage said...

Hi TCD- I write about art from time to time, for various reasons. I'm in the furniture business, but I used to be a decorative painter and painted the odd mural.

Here's another post about an interesting painting;

same as it ever was

If you click on my "sippican cottage furniture" link on the right margin of my homepage, you can see my furniture, and if you click on what's new? on that page, you can read another couple hundred thousand words of poorly written stuff.