Artist Unknown (Possibly John Singleton Copley), Portrait of Unknown Lady, Oil on canvas, 23 x 18 inches
“Beauty, they say, is only skin deep. Whew, ain’t that a relief.”
— William Michael Schindler, poet
Copley wrote in a letter to Benjamin West in 1767—”In this Country, as you rightly observe, there is no example of art, except what is to (be) met with in a few prints indifferently executed, from which it is not possible to learn much”.
Copley was the first and maybe the best of American painters, in that he formulated the future of American art, a visual pragmatism before William James could come up with the idea in philosophy. With no museums about or otherwise references to any tradition of painting—indeed with absolutely nothing to inspire the nascent artist in the rowdy ruck of this primitive pre-revolutionary culture but a scant sampling of tavern limner art or icons of uptight puritan notables —how else to paint but to concentrate mercilessly on the singularity of high end realistic focus and finish, such as the glint on tabletops or eyeballs, rendered to an almighty faultless Metaphysical T; or myriad fabric folds dispersed in a clutter of architectural probity, all scored in blunt local color; or clutched hands whose fingernails and knuckles usurp the flow of grasping limbs.
Copley’s art is the triumph of the Missouri “Give me the facts, please”, the universality of banality culminating in a transcendental American artistic identity, extending all the way from John Singleton Copley to Thomas Eakins to Philip Pearlstein.
Take for example a portrait by Copley in The Baltimore Museum of Art of Lemuel Cox (1770): a pompous schmuck of Boston privilege, striking a pose full of narcissistic male ego, elbow akimbo, a lordly chin; this is an eighteenth century trust fund lad full of himself and all decked out in the finery of a patrician dark blue waistcoat. Notice how each exact button along his portly vest has precisely four perforated holes, into which are carefully stitched the golden threads attaching it to the cloth. You can count each tiny minuscule thread going into each of the four little holes with neat mathematical precision, as if he used a nostril hair for a brush. What madness of specificity! Much of American Art has this one prevailing dismal characteristic—a profound distrust of subjectivity, which sets vulnerable limits to its power of depiction.
There is a slim chance I have a genuine Copley hanging in my house. Controversy hovers about this painting concerning its authenticity. Inherited from my wife’s family, the question of whether it is truly a John Singleton Copley is still up for grabs: a youthful painting of Rebecca Boylston that my wife’s great granduncle, Laurence Minot, acquired. My wife remembers from her childhood this painting standing out among two genuine Monet’s and a terrific Tarbell interior with a beautiful New England woman discretely immersed in its tenebrous clime. Besides, on the back of this so-called Copley painting is an inscription proclaiming its author and provenance as genuine and that it had been for generations in the same family since probably its very inception.
In spite of the fact that this painting had previously been included in a major Copley Exhibition at The Boston Museum of Art, the world’s leading Copley expert had on two occasions the temerity to explicitly deny its authenticity, a fact that my father-in-law relished in that there was no necessity to insure it at a high premium. The Copley expert probably rejected the painting on the grounds of its lack of finish and inconsistency of style that doesn’t accord with the faultless technique and smug display of factual authority assumed to be the brand of the Copley Opus. According to the record, Rebecca Boylston was forty years old and unmarried the first time Copley painted her in 1767, a much older woman than portrayed in my Copley.
So whence comes this problematic portrait of a much younger Rebecca, a girl in her late teens or early twenties? Copley was born in 1738, and was starting to paint portraits by the time he was fifteen or sixteen, that is, in 1753 on, in which case Rebecca would be twenty six or thereabouts. Since any speculation about the past of so long ago is but a confabulated presumption, let’s entertain this unlikely series of events: suppose somehow this fledging artist, John Singleton Copley, a tobacconist’s son, got to know the wealthy Rebecca Boylston, high on the Boston hierarchal social ladder, well enough to ask her to sit for a portrait. And she somehow acquiesced. And say the adolescent Copley felt, in the twitch of his fingers holding the brush, a certain pubescent attraction on the occasion of painting this young beauty, enough to paint her likeness a bit younger or closer to his age, mildly distorting the distance of age to order to make her more companionable. Is that scenario credible enough for me to stubbornly persist in believing it to be a genuine Copley, albeit, a youthful work, — not merely a teenage attempt to learn his craft, but a budding predilection for the sensual?
The Copley painting now sits in my living room, not far from the TV, and I engage with it most lovingly in the evening between English murder mysteries. Whenever I encounter it, I can’t take my eyes off of its inexplicable charm and provocation, inexplicable because there is no facture of compelling brushwork, color or composition that can explain my endless fascination. Maybe it’s her dark eyes, their focus of ever-present engagement; they seem almost to flirt with me in a gaze of persistent innuendo. The forearm and hand fondling the black ribbon tied in a bow about her neck is stiffly painted, like a puppet’s accoutrement— it is somewhat amateurish and klutzy—yet the loose end of the ribbon itself ambles down her embonpoint to nestle about her modest cleavage. Her shoulders slope down the slender periphery of her body with the flex of feminine grace. A speckle of white fleurs insinuate the last reaches of her lithe silhouette.
Would I still like this painting if I did not think it a Copley? The lure of this painting has a personal reach — indeed stares back at me — exceeding dispassionate connoisseurship. This ostensibly mild portrait of Miss Boylston has meddled with my fantasy life, become completely fetishised in my imagination, and has an attraction that far exceeds its aesthetic reckoning. Whether it’s a Copley or not is of little matter to me now.
Raoul Middleman, Blue Mini, 2012, Oil on canvas, 60 x 50 inches
Raoul Middleman is an artist living in Baltimore, Maryland. He is on the faculty of The Maryland Institute College of Art.