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America's First Old Master: Portraits by John Singleton Copley from The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

May 21 - August 8, 2004


During the two decades preceding the American Revolution, Copley emerged in Boston as the most distinguished of colonial portraitists. In time, he would be universally hailed as the first great painter in the history of American art. Opening this May, the Chrysler Museum of Art is pleased to present America's First Old Master: Portraits by John Singleton Copley from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. The exhibition will run though August and wonderfully complements the Chrysler own American collection. (right: John Singleton Copley (American, 1738-1815), Mary and Elizabeth Royall, ca. 1758, oil on canvas, Julia Knight Fox Fund, Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

Copley's many portraits of influential New Englanders -- merchants, clergymen, lawyers -- were remarkable for their craftsman-like polish and clarity of design. In these works he moved beyond the rococo extravagances of earlier European portraiture to create likenesses that captured the simple strength and moral idealism of the emerging American republic. His talent and fame soon caught the attention of artists in London, where Copley began to exhibit his work in 1766. The lure of London and the Continent eventually proved irresistible for him. In 1774 he embarked on a European tour and the next year settled in London. He remained there for the rest of his life, building a successful European career on the strength of his portraits of the British aristocracy and his ambitious figurative paintings of historical and religious content.

Drawn from the incomparable collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, America's First Old Master features a trio of major American portraits by Copley dating from the late 1750s to 1775. The earliest of the three, the charming double portrait of Mary and Elizabeth Royall, depicts the daughters of Isaac Royall of Medford, Massachusetts, who was one of New England's richest merchants. The family resided in a grand Georgian-style home, and as one writer observed, "No house in the Colony was more open to friends; no gentleman gave better dinners or drank better wine." With extraordinary fluency and verve, Copley's portrait of the Royall sisters captures the elegance and ease of their privileged world. (right: John Singleton Copley (American, 1738-1815), Mr. and Mrs. Izard (Alice Delancey), 1775, oil on canvas, Edward Ingersoll Brown Fund, Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

Another portrait in the exhibition is believed to represent Mrs. Richard Skinner, wife of Captain Richard Skinner of Marblehead, Massachusetts. Dressed in an elaborate formal gown of imported Spitalfields silk, Mrs. Skinner is shown seated at a mahogany gate leg table, gazing wistfully beyond the frame. In her left hand-beautifully reflected in the highly polished table top-she holds a sprig of Canterbury bells.

The latest and most luxurious of the three works in the exhibition is the monumental double portrait of Mr. and Mrs. Ralph Izard. The couple, from Charleston, South Carolina, met Copley in early 1775 while touring in Italy. The artist spent a month in Naples with the Izards and then returned with them to Rome, where he portrayed them as elegant Grand Tourists surrounded by symbols of classical antiquity. Copley was pleased with the portrait, proclaiming it a work that would "support its merit in any Company whatever." Indeed, his lavish depiction of the Izards directly anticipates the kind of grand-manner portraiture he would soon be called upon to produce in London for an aristocratic British clientele. (right: John Singleton Copley (American, 1738-1815), Mrs. Richard Skinner (Dorothy Wendell), 1772, oil on canvas, Bequest of Mr. Martin Brimmer, Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

This special exhibition wonderfully supplements the Chrysler's already comprehensive collection of American painting and sculpture ranging from the 1750s to the present day with works by such distinguished artists as Copley, Charles Willson Peale, Benjamin West, Thomas Cole, Winslow Homer, Childe Hassam, and Edward Hopper, among many others. Also included in America's First Old Master is the Chrysler's own Portrait of Miles Sherbrook, 1771, by Copley.

Sponsored by the Masterpiece Society of the Chrysler Museum of Art, America's First Old Master will remain on view in the Small Changing Gallery until August 15, 2004.

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