The stepson of a Boston plate
Breaking away from his professional commitments, Copley set to work on a portrait entirely of his own devising. Henry Pelham, Copley’s stepbrother, provided the subject for Copley’s most important painting yet, which we now know as Boy with a Squirrel (1765), one of Copley’s finest works and almost the hoped-for breakthrough. Almost, as Copley possessed limitations away from the canvas, which his painting explores.
The picture divides between the lush red of the soft curtains in the top half, and the hard, but reflective browns of the table. The boy acts as a kind of diffuse meeting point, with his soft pale skin and pink collar, the paleness of the shirt a tonal bridge between the two halves of the picture. The materialism of the time is in evidence, not only in the fulsome colors of the foreground and background, but in small details like the golden chain with which the boy holds the squirrel. Tellingly, the furthest end of the chain hangs loose, while the end nearest the squirrel and the viewer is held slightly tighter. The boy is toying with chain in his contemplation, but could the tightly held end, nearer to us, signify something?
The mood of the boy is the mood of the picture, relaxed, balanced, reflective both figuratively and literally – note the beautifully rendered reflection of the glass of water on the table, and the tiny area of ‘double reflection’ with the boy’s right-hand cuff seen through the furthermost side of the glass. The doubling brings in the viewer, in the sense that the thoughtful the boy makes the viewer think, ‘what could the boy be thinking about?’ The picture makes us reflect on the nature of the boy’s reflections, visualized by the literal reflections of the glass and the boy’s body.
Perhaps the squirrel can give us a clue to his master’s thoughts. We might expect a painting featuring an animal on a chain to make some point on man enslaving nature for his own ends, or on holding a wild animal captive. But the squirrel (actually a Northern Flying Squirrel, native to the north-eastern US) seems quite content, nibbling on an acorn, with water on hand should he thirst. The chain is not taut, but loose, and in any case, we cannot imagine such a thoughtful boy would be cruel to his pet. No, it is not the squirrel who wants away, it is the boy himself. The squirrel has all it wants – food, water, shelter, even someone to care for its needs. The boy has these things too of course, but a boy, like an artist, needs more than the mere basics of survival to thrive.
In looking away from the squirrel, and toward some unknown point we cannot see (and perhaps the boy cannot see, apart from in his mind’s eye), the boy is looking at somewhere in his mind’s eye, where he feels a calling, away from the comforts of the present and yet, yearn as he might, the boy remains attached to the safety of home.
And so it was for Copley. An artist of his ambition could not live out life just by painting portraits of Boston society. The future lay in distant Europe, first in taking the tour of the great masters in Italy, just as Smibert had done, and then by living in London, center of the commercial art world. Furthering his ambitions meant leaving everything Copley knew behind, for an enterprise with no guarantee of success. Such an adventure was not unheard of; Benjamin West, who appraised Boy with a Squirrel on its arrival in London, left America for Europe in 1760. Before planning anything however, Copley needed to hear what West, Reynolds and fashionable London had made of his exhibit.
The ship from England, when it finally came, brought good news. West and Reynolds praised the painting, although not without reservation; if anything, the sheer depth of detail, such as the boy’s cauliflower ear, worked against Copley’s favor, with the idealized ‘general effect’, taught by Reynolds, still the preferred method; 1765 was not the time for a ‘warts and all approach’ to art. To improve upon his undoubted talents, Reynolds and West felt Copley must do just as he’d feared – leave Boston for Italy and then England, perhaps for good.
Copley prevaricated, worried he might return to American none the better for the expense of
Once established in England, Copley turned his talents to a genre almost unheard of in America - history painting. With America still so young, no demand, or indeed source material, existed for works of art involving great battles or the deaths of noted politicians. Yet now free of such constraints, Copley painted some of his most famous works, such as The Copley Family (1776), Watson and the Shark (1778) and The Death of Major Pierson (1784). Later life saw Copley in decline, mired in debts and ill-health, but for a time, America’s greatest painter become one of the most celebrated in the artistic world, and it all owed to a painting of an ordinary boy, with extraordinary dreams, and his pet squirrel.
Boy with a Squirrel (1765) is available to view at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.