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.
John's parents, Richard Copley and Mary Singleton from County Clare, were married in County Limerick before emigrating to Boston. Right after their son John was born, Richard Copley traveled to the West Indies and died shortly thereafter, leaving John’s mother to raise him as a widow. She worked at a shop in Boston that sold tobacco close to Boston Harbor.
In 1747 Mary S. Copley married Peter Pelham, a colonial artist and an original member of the Charitable Irish Society formed in 1737. It was Pelham who helped to nurture his stepson John's talent, and by age twenty Copley had 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 seized the opportunity to paint portraits of some of the leading colonists of the 18th century, including George Washington, John Hancock, Samuel Adams and Paul Revere. 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.
His half-brother Henry Pelham was also a gifted artist.
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.
A loyalist by persuasion, Copley’s life in Boston was disrupted by the growing unrest between the colonists and the British. As a result, Copley moved to Italy in 1774 to study Italian art, then the following year moved his family to London, according to MassMoments.
Copley always wanted to return to Boston, but never did. He died in London in 1815.
His name lives on in Boston. 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. Also, Copley’s original home on Beacon Street has a plaque in his honor.
Learn more about Boston's Irish history at IrishHeritageTrail.com