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Wednesday, July 3, 2019

Boston Artist John S. Copley, Son of Irish Immigrants, Born on July 3, 1738

America's first great portrait artist, John Singleton Copley (1737-1815) was born in Boston on July 3, 1738.  He was  the son of Irish immigrants who emigrated to Boston in the 1730s.

Copley Square Park in Boston's Back Bay was named in his honor in 1883. In 2002, the city of Boston unveiled a statue to John Singleton Copley by artist Lewis Cohen, and it is now on the Boston Irish Heritage Trail.

John's parents, Richard Copley and Mary Singleton from County Clare, were married in Limerick before emigrating. His father died in the West Indies just after their son was born, leaving his mother to raise John by working at a shop in Boston that sold tobacco down by the docks. 

In 1747 Mary S. Copley married Peter Pelham, a colonial artist and an original member of the Charitable Irish Society formed in 1737. Pelham helped to nurture his stepson's talent, and by age twenty Copley had already gained a reputation as a promising artist. His first painting, "A Boy and the Flying Squirrel," was sent to the Royal Academy in London and his reputation began to take shape.

Copley is considered America's first great portrait artist, having painted George Washington, John Hancock, Samuel Adams, Paul Revere and other leading citizens. Other acclaimed works by Copley include A Boy Rescued from a Shark in the Harbor of Havana, and The Red Cross Knight, from Spencer's poem The Fairy Queen. 

Boston's Museum of Fine Arts has over 50 Copley paintings, including the famous Paul Revere portrait. The Massachusetts Historical Society on Boylston Street has the portraits of John Hancock, Mary Otis Gray and several other prominent 18th century Americans.

During the American Revolution and the British occupation of Boston, Copley moved to Italy in 1774 to study Italian art, then the following year moved his family to London, according to MassMoments.  He always wanted to return to Boston, but never did. He died in London in 1815.  

Learn more about Boston's Irish history at

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