A Revolution in Color
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Jane Kamensky’s, “A Revolution in Color: The World of John Singleton Copley,” paints a vivid portrait of the artist during the Revolutionary period. Best known for his portraits of Paul Revere, John Hancock and Samuel Adams, John Singleton Copley did not share their revolutionary zeal.In the aftermath of the Boston Tea Party, Copley left Massachusetts for Europe and continued his prolific art career until his death in 1815.
–Courtesy of the Museum of the American Revolution, Philadelphia
A Revolution in Color“A cautious man in a rash age, John Singleton Copley feared the onrush of the colonial rebellion against Great Britain. Like many people of his place and time, he called the rebels’ revolution a civil war. And like many people who had lived through civil wars before him, and who have endured them since, he thought the safest side was no side at all.
Copley painted John Hancock, whom he knew well and grew to despise. But by the time Hancock signed the Declaration, the painter was long gone. In the spring of 1774, before the outbreak of fighting in Lexington and Concord, Copley sailed to London, leaving behind the second-tier British port city in which he had spent nearly four decades.
“British museums, which own the greatest of his works, classify him differently. ‘John Singleton Copley, R.A. . . . British School,’ runs the text inscribed on the frame of The Death of Major Peirson, my very favorite of all his paintings, which hangs in the Tate. The heroic canvas depicts a passage in Britain’s American War that falls outside the standard narrative of the American Revolution: a battle that took place in an obscure corner of Europe, and that featured no North American combatants, and that ended in British victory.”
A Revolution in Color“To explore Copley’s American Revolution is to treat that war with fresh eyes. In the United States, we tend toward histories peopled by Patriots and Tories, victors and villains, right and wrong. Such tales, for all their drama, are ultimately flat.
“These morality plays are etched in black and white, as if by engravers who have only ink and paper to depict all the shades of a subject. But like the paintings Copley produced so painstakingly, the revolutionary world was awash in an almost infinite spectrum of color. Allegiance came in many shades. Copley revealed many truths, not all of which we now hold to be self-evident.
“A preposterously ambitious poor boy from a preposterously ambitious place, Copley glimpsed that ladder early and climbed it relentlessly He was never resting, never satisfied. Like many stories of striving, Copley’s is also a story of ever-increasing scale, both on and off the canvas. Boston was a place to paint small, to paint faces. His art was destined to hang in little clapboard houses as pictures that spoke to families.
“Paul Revere is a bit more than two feet wide, and a hair less than three feet high. In London, Copley’s compass grew, and with it his works. The pictures got big, many times the size of Revere. His largest and most complex paintings—sometimes, though not always, his best—were meant to rivet exhibition-goers, to hold a palace wall, to fill a tent.”
A Revolution in Color“Copley’s is a story of profound and crippling disappointment, agonies born of both self and circumstance. Though his work could be daring and innovative, he was a man of indecision.  The age of revolutions was an urgently forward-facing moment. Copley, by contrast, had what the people of his day called a bivious gaze. He was forever alternating between glancing over his shoulder and peering at what was ahead of him. It was a painful way to be in a go-ahead world, though by no means a singular one.”
“And then, of course, there are the pictures, hundreds of them, painted on both sides of the ocean. They defined the outer limits of his imagination. On the page and on canvas, Copley worked out his life in plain sight, in ways that, almost miraculously, remain visible still, some two centuries after his death.”

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