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Process and Paradox: The Historical Pictures of John Singleton Copley


The Fogg Art Museum has one of the nation's most distinguished collections of the work of John Singleton Copley (1738-1815). Though Copley is best-known in Boston for his colonial portraits, a new exhibition opening in May will focus on history paintings from his later career in England, bringing several preparatory works together for the first time. Process and Paradox: The Historical Pictures of John Singleton Copley highlights two rarely seen works, the Boston Public Library's Charles I Demanding the Five Impeached Members of the House of Commons (1782-95) and the Fogg's Monmouth Before James II (c. 1795). The exhibition, which includes 21 significant pieces from the Harvard collection as well as the important Library loan, opens at the Fogg on May 8 and continues through August 29, 2004.

Charles I Demanding the Five Impeached Members of the House of Commons was sent to Harvard's Straus Center for Conservation to be treated and cleaned, and its presence there inspired curators and conservators to examine the Fogg's own Copley paintings from the same period. These included an oil sketch for Charles I as well as a drawing, an oil sketch, and the nearly finished canvas for Monmouth . Bringing the Library's painting together with the Fogg's pictures gave curators and conservators the opportunity to study Copley's development, from his early American portraits to the large-scale compositions of his English career. Though their studies are ongoing, their findings to date provide clues about his creative process and illuminate the paradoxes in both his chosen genre of history painting and his political loyalties.

"We are pleased that the recently formed department of American art is bringing renewed attention to the Museum's distinguished collection," said Thomas Lentz, Elizabeth and John Moors Cabot Director of the Harvard University Art Museums." We are fortunate to have constant collaboration between our curators and the talented staff at the Straus Center for Conservation, which allows for the discoveries presented in exhibitions like Process and Paradox."

Copley's large-scale British paintings often deal with recent political events or the latest military victory. However, for Charles I, Copley focused on an event that occurred more than a century earlier, in 1641 or 1642, when King Charles I accused five members of the House of Commons of treason and demanded their surrender. The House refused, considering this a breach of their rights, and the event proved to be the foundation for the civil war that led to the king's execution. Not surprisingly, Copley's choice of subject raised royal ire. At a private viewing, Queen Charlotte after a long and ominous silence, said to the artist, "You have chosen, Mr. Copley, a most unfortunate subject for the exercise of your pencil." The painting was highly esteemed however, by Americans of a later period: President John Quincy Adams and the Boston painter Washington Allston both considered it one of his finest works.

At roughly the same time as he was working on Charles I, Copley assayed another historical theme, Monmouth Before James II, for which the Fogg owns a drawing, an oil sketch, and a large, unfinished canvas. Its recent treatment at the Straus Center for Conservation involved removing heavy grime layers and discolored varnish, as well as inpainting hundreds of small losses. In 1685 the Duke of Monmouth, illegitimate son of Charles II, plotted to overthrow his Catholic uncle King James II with Protestant support. He was captured and sentenced to death, but was given a final interview with James, who hoped to coerce him into naming his accomplices. Monmouth refused, and was led away to execution. Two versions of the events that were available in Copley's time related differing accounts, one in which Monmouth refused the King with nobility and courage, and one in which he groveled at James's feet. Copley chose the former, and glorified antimonarchist rebellion. Both Charles I and Monmouth heroize men who rebelled against monarchy, a surprising choice for a painter who still hoped to win favor with the public and the royal family.

"Process and Paradox follows Copley's career from Boston portraitist to London history painter, and shows the difficulties and contradictions inherent in creating these large-scale works," said Kimberly Orcutt, assistant curator of American art." This has been a wonderful opportunity for closer study of Copley's English career, a part of his oeuvre that we in the United States don't often see, and our conservation staff has been able to learn more about how Copley created these paintings by studying the Fogg's preparatory works."

Among the important portraits to be included are two of Copley's monumental early works, Thomas Hancock (1764-66) and Thomas Hollis (1765-66), which have not been on public view in several decades, and the magnificent John Adams, painted in London in 1783.


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