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Video transcript

so imagine wanting to be an artist but you live in a city where there are virtually no artists no art schools no art museums no galleries and no one who wants to buy serious paintings this is precisely the situation that John Singleton Copley found himself in in Boston in the 1760s we're looking at a portrait of Copley his half-brother this is Henry Pelham and the painting is called boy with flying squirrel so for somebody who was largely self-taught the painting is pretty remarkable my gaze goes first to his face that wonderful red curtain were gathers my attention and frames that face so beautifully but when I'm done there my eye runs down his shoulder down his arm to his hand and just look at the precision with which those fingertips are rendered and they so beautifully and loosely hold that gold chain my eye then runs down of course to the squirrel it's wonderfully cute he's nibbling on a little nut which then links up to the area where his dark coat on his back meet with the light coat of his belly wood mirrors the edge of the sitter's cuff and then on the cuff on one side you have the light catching and then on the near side you have that area in shadow it just plays beautifully alternating against itself so while this is a portrait of Copley is half brother it's also a kind of demonstration piece by 1765 when Copley painted this he was a well-regarded professional portrait painter in Boston but he wanted to be more Copley also knew that portrait painting was actually at the bottom of the hierarchy of subjects created by the academies in Europe the highest paintings being paintings of religion and mythology and history portraiture and still life being the lowest but it was portraits that people wanted in the new American cities right so the merchant class in Boston the wealthy elite had begun to really recognize the value of portraying themselves but Copley wanted to push beyond that Copley knew that in Europe painting was more and so this painting was actually made as you said as a demonstration piece to if he could hold his own with the European academies so he had this packed up in someone's luggage he was going off to London and there it was actually pretty well received by Benjamin West and American Pedro's living in London who was very successful and by sir Joshua Reynolds he was president of the Royal Academy in England so the first thing we might notice is that we're not looking at the front of the figures face we're looking at him from the side so II think Copley did this because he wanted to show that he could paint not just portraits but also genre paintings were scenes of everyday life I think Copley was also really showing off what he could do with foreshortening which is really a very difficult thing to do if you look at the sitter's right hand it's just perfectly foreshortened as is the corner of the table when this painting goes to England Sir Joshua Reynolds does praise it but he says before too long you better come to London and get some real training here before your manner and taste are corrupted or fixed by working in this little way in Boston which i think is us a sense of the way that England loomed as this important artistic presence Copley felt that the situation in Boston was so inhospitable to artists that he said that artists were treated like shoemakers so Copley is clearly aware of the limitations of Boston limitations of the colonies he's aware that portraiture which is what he does is a low form of art but he's also an I think in a way very practical he knows that this is what people want and he's able to do it masterfully and beautifully but there is I think a lingering sense that he's not painting the grand history and religious and mythological paintings of the European tradition and maybe can't compete on that level so we have this beautiful ambitious painting that situates John Singleton Copley in this very specific historical moment you