John Singleton CopleyCredit: Wikimedia Commons/Public DomainHailed as the best portraitist in 1760s America, John Singleton Copley (1738 – 1815) found acclaim a double-edged sword. While Copley loved to paint, and made a secure living from his talent thanks to the wealthy patrons of New England, he knew the praise meant little in a country with such meager competition, and with no standing in world art, which in Copley's time, meant Western Europe. The artist yearned to expand his repertoire, but portraits, one of the must-have status symbols of the time, provided his only possible revenue in the parochial colony. Despite their excellence, Copley knew he could achieve more. But what could he do, an ocean away from the art world?

The stepson of a Boston plateSir Joshua ReynoldsCredit: Wikimedia Commons/Colin Smith engraver, Copley developed his childhood talent by copying his stepfather’s mezzotints, illustrations in encyclopedias, and by visiting the gallery run by late John Smibert’s family, the only one of its kind in America. It is also possible Copley studied the pictures contained in Linnaeus’s Systema Naturae, the source of the scientific names for flora and fauna we still use today. This led to a detailed, and at times, uncompromising eye for the natural features of his subjects, an approach unfashionable in the world of art, as Copley later discovered. Copley set up as a professional painter with a studio by age twenty and Copley soon found success, but by 1765 wished to show he could match the artists of Europe and find international acclaim. To do this meant sending a painting to London, and placing it before the scrutiny of critics such as the great Sir Joshua Reynolds, soon to set up the Royal Academy of Arts.

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.

Boy with a SquirrelCredit: Wikimedia Commons/Public DomainBoy with a Squirrel is not a portrait in the ordinary sense, as the boy is in profile, and not face-on, with the boy is looking away to one side, lost in thought, as his little pet squirrel sits upon the table nearby. The boy is daydreaming, on a mental journey, and the viewer undertakes a journey of sorts as we look at the painting, starting at the lower left corner, where the mahogany table, rich in depth, breaks into our space. Copley leads us across the table, towards the right, until the boy’s folded left arm diverts us upward to the head and then along the gaze of his eyes, one of the diagonals at work in the upper half of the picture.

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 Paul RevereCredit: Wikimedia Commons/Public Domainthe trip and with two years wasted on nothing more than glorified sightseeing; some believe Copley imagined the roads of Europe rife with bandits and cut-throats, just as a modern traveler might avoid Australia or Africa for fear of poisonous snakes or tropical diseases. For a few years, Copley remained in America and the field of portraiture, eventually creating perhaps his most renowned portrait, that of Paul Revere (then noted only as a silversmith) in 1769. The Boston Tea Party of December 1773 however, led to unrest, political disturbances and insecurity for Copley. The threat – or promise – of revolution made up Copley’s mind and in 1774, he left Boston for Europe, settling in London the following year. Copley never returned to America and many years passed before an American artist could prosper in his home country without needing to live elsewhere; while the artisans Benjamin Franklin appealed for in his Information to those who Would Remove to America (1782) left Europe for a new life, the artists still headed in the opposite direction study the classics of the Old World.

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.