Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Paul Staiti's "Of Arms and Artists"

Paul Staiti, Alumnae Foundation Professor of Fine Arts at Mount Holyoke College, is the author of books and essays on John Singleton Copley, Gilbert Stuart, Samuel F. B. Morse, William Michael Harnett, and Winslow Homer.

He has lectured at the Louvre, the Museum of Fine Arts Boston, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and has been the recipient of senior fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities three times.

Staiti applied the “Page 99 Test” to his latest book, Of Arms and Artists: The American Revolution through Painters' Eyes, and reported the following:
Ninety-nine is an interesting page. I’m in the midst of trying to explain the career of John Singleton Copley, the great artist of Colonial America, who moves to London in 1774, where he becomes famous for his blockbuster paintings Watson and the Shark (1778) and Death of the Earl of Chatham (1781). Two questions are on my mind: Why does Copley leave America on the eve of the Revolution? And, why, in 1782, after years of trying to avoid politics, does he start painting portraits of three American revolutionaries who are passing through London?

Regarding the first question, I go back to 1760s Boston. Copley is a masterful artist feeling confined in a provincial town. Bursting with ambition to be—and be recognized as—an artist in the mold of Raphael or Rubens, he dreams of breaking the “schackels” of America. Copley sends some paintings to London for critique from Joshua Reynolds and Benjamin West, two lions of the British school. In what amounted to a correspondence course, he hears lots of praise from them, but also the kinds of criticism that tell him what Boston is lacking. Move to London now, they advise, before “the Force of your Genius is weakened, and it may be too late for much Improvement.”

While that was transpiring, Boston is rupturing, the result of protests over the Stamp Act and Townshend Acts, followed by the Boston Massacre of 1770. In such a maelstrom, Copley craves peace, wishing life could go back to the way it was in 1760. He adopts a non-partisan stance in the growing contest between British government and American radicals, which becomes a high-wire act when he marries Susanna Clarke, the daughter of a Tory consignee for the British East India Company, the colossus of English commodities trade that ships a half million pounds of tea to America. In late 1773, after Bostonians hear the exhortations of Samuel Adams, about a hundred board Clarke’s tea ships and dump 342 casks into the harbor. Haunted by politics, exhausted by the turbulence, and tired of living in artistic isolation, the apolitical Copley boards ship for England in the summer of 1774, never to return.

Copley’s story is markedly different from the experiences of Charles Willson Peale of Philadelphia and John Trumbull of Connecticut, two contemporary artists (the subjects of five chapters) energized by the Revolution, both throwing themselves into war as military men as well as painters. Copley firmly feels art incompatible with war. But nonetheless he harbors political sentiments, however much he tries to disguise them. When warfare starts, Copley privately assures his wife that America will “conquer” Britain. He predicts that “all the power of Great Britain will not reduce Americans to obedience” and he further imagines that one day America will “emerge from her present Callamity and become a Mighty Empire.”

At the end of the war, Copley momentarily throws off his self-imposed restraint and paints three portraits of prominent American patriots: Henry Laurens, former president of the Continental Congress, just released from the Tower of London where he was a political prisoner; Elkanah Watson, an American merchant who ferried communiqu├ęs between the American congress and Benjamin Franklin in Paris; and John Adams, fresh from the successful conclusion of the Treaty of Paris. The departure was striking but does not last long. Copley is tempted to return to America in the 1790s, but in the end decides to finishes out his career in London.
Visit Paul Staiti's website.

--Marshal Zeringue