Friends of Artspace, have you recovered from July 4th, yet? We hope you enjoyed some much needed time off to adequately celebrate America, land of prosperity, processed sugar, and easily accessible Walmart firearms. In honor of our country’s hard-won Independence, it was our civil duty to band together in an effort to deepthroat an uncomfortable amount of hot dogs and revisit the parts of our nation’s history not covered in the plot of musical documentary Hamilton. Still, we're on the other side, now, and it's time to apply some critical thinking. What better way to reflect on the United States' centuries of racism and deep-fried meat than to mine our visual archives for gold? Given the quality of much colonial portraiture, however, some of our founding father’s glory feels a little... specious at best.
Gentleman in a Black Cravat by Ammi Philllips, 1835 via Crystal Bridges
Emma Homan by John Bradely , 1844 via Wikipedia
What police detail do I call if my eyes were assaulted?
Portrait of Daniel Clarke by Jacob Frymire, 1791
In that vein, there’s no more pertinent artist to discuss than John Singleton Copley, the legendary painter who established himself early on as a sought-after portraitist of colonial New England elites. Born in 1738, he is most famous for his ultra-smooth portrayal of Paul Revere, who... looked exactly like Jack Black, apparently. Neither here nor there. What is definitely here AND there, though, is Copley’s truly shocking relationship to proportions, which seems... fugitive? Experimental? Insouciant? Accidental? Avant-garde? Look, who even knows what a body is? Live your life. Be best, as Melania would say. (Sigh).
Was John Copley the first Surrealist? We'll save that for another essay, but here's an inarguable claim: he had absolutely zero idea how bodies worked. Maybe he needed glasses? Maybe folks just looked super jacked up in pre-Facetune America? Maybe he was a really slow painter and had to cut corners or else he’d lose out on the check?
Let's take a closer look. For science.
And no, you kumbaya-ass jokers, this isn't bullying. He’s dead.
In honor of taxation WITH representation (kind of) and, like, tea parties or something, here are seven times Copley totally forgot how people were shaped. Enjoy!
1. Paul Revere's Non-Existent Elbow
So, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow completely failed to mention that Jack Black 's storied midnight ride to alert the colonial militia in 1775 was predicated upon his anthropomorphic fusion with a T -Rex. The history books are withholding the TRUTH, you guys.
Paul Revere, 1768 via Smart History
..Are you seeing this?
Where did the rest of his arm go? Did the British abscond with it? Was it somehow misplaced on the set of School of Rock?
2. Sam Adams’ Arms And Also Wrists And Little Legume Body
Architect of American republicanism and famed political philosopher, statesman, and orator Sam Adams appeared to resemble a dusty bean-bag chair in his heyday, it seems, but it's hard to prioritize the most worrying aspects of his physique, here. Is it the hilariously short arms? The disquietingly bulbous right hand? The, uh, utter lack of resistance in the slope from his neck to his elbow?
At least he looks... green.
Samuel Adams, 1772, via Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
See? No? Look again.
3. Eleazer Tyng's Unbelievably Big Head
In this installment of "Great Name, Rough Painting," we meet the somewhat shrunken Mr. Eleazer Tyng. A justice of the peace, colonel, and prominent cultural figurehead in... Tyngsborough, Massachussetts, the little fellow died at the ripe old age of 92, hopefully with that hair piece in tow. But readers, what do you think? Hot or not? Do you prefer your men with Cindy-Lou Who proportions?
His head must be so enormous because it's full of brains. What a catch!
4. Robert Graham’s Unbelievably Small Head
So, Baron Graham, who favored a cartoon poodle with impunity, is a far cry from Bachelor #3. This man, a noble Brit (fun fact, Copley skipped town after the Revolution got underway and moved to England, where his attempts to make a living as a Neoclassisist landed him in huge amounts of debt and drove him to a premature death—fie to colonizers!) appears to have been painted at a drastically upward angle. Maybe it's just the hair? Whatever it is, that boy has an unbelievably small head. He probably had other great qualities, though!
Maybe he was a good listener, or a Virgo.
5. This Little Boy's Ear Is So Damn Confusing
This early masterpiece, Boy with a Squirrel, is a portrait of the artist's half-brother, Henry Pelham. The piece was designed as a showcase for Copley's painterly facilities, and the result is a panoply of texture, shadow, and sumptuous tactility. The painting eventually traveled to London for the 1766 exhibition of the Society of Artists, where Sir Joshya Reynolds and expatriate Benjamin West provided him with positive feedback, despite the "disadvantages he labored under" (read: being an untrained kid operating along the empire's fringes).
So, quick question:
Also... the mouth/ear ratio?
Can someone do some reconnaissance, here?
6. Whomst Is Even A Shark?
Copley's dramatic 1778 rendering of a shark attacking 14-year old Brook Watson in Havana Harbor caused quite the stir at London's Royal Academy, garnering wide swathe of reactions to his Saint Michael-inflected panorama. This harbinger of Romanticism is still considered one of Copley's greatest contributions to the canon, and for good reasons! But, uh... does that shark have lips?
Watson and the Shark, 1778, via National Gallery of Art
That shark definitely has lips. Also clearly wearing the Fenty gloss bomb. Who is she?
7. Daniel Crommelin Verplanck's Neck, His Back, His Pet Squirrel and Strange Slacks
What's with Copley and squirrels? Any ideas?
Also, a free burrito to anyone who can correctly identify what this boy's skeleton is made out of. Pipe cleaners? Paper clips? Pool noodles? A bucket of lukewarm angel hair pasta?
Daniel Crommelin Verplanck, 1771, via Met Museum
Thank you, Copley, for capturing the United States in all of its rodent-inflected pomposity. We owe you a great service.