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Copley, Boy with a Squirrel

John Singleton Copley, A Boy with a Flying Squirrel (Henry Pelham), 1765, 77.15 x 63.82 cm / 30-3/8 x 25-1/8 inches (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston). Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(piano playing) Beth: 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 1760's. Steven: We're looking at a portrait of Copley's 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 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. Which 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. Beth: So while this is a portrait of Copley's 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. Steven: 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 see if he could hold his own with the European academies. Beth: So he had this packed up in someone's luggage who was going off to London and there it was actually pretty well received by Benjamin West, an American painter who was living in London who was very successful, and by Sir Joshua Reynolds who 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 figure's face, we're looking at him from the side. So we think Copley did this because he wanted to show that he could paint not just portraits but also genre paintings or 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 gives 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, "Artists were treated like shoemakers." Steven: So Copley's clearly aware of the limitations of Boston, limitations of the colonies. Beth: He's aware that portraiture, which is what he does, is a low form of art but he's also 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. Steven: So we have this beautiful, ambitious painting that situates John Singleton Copley in this very specific historical moment. (piano playing)