The Italian Presence in American Art, 1760-1860

By Irma B. Jaffe | Go to book overview

4. Transformations Copley in Italy

ROGERB. STEIN, Columbia University

[ Professor Stein's paper was not ready for publication when this volume went to press. The summary below, by the editor of the volume, is based on the oral version delivered at the symposium and a written draft of that talk. Quotations are drawn from that draft.]

John Singleton Copley's double portrait of Mr. and Mrs. Ralph Izard ( 1775-1776) is the focus for this discussion of the Italian emblematic tradition and its transformation into an expression of American values. The key question is: What did Italy mean to Copley, and how was that meaning given shape and form in the Izard portrait?

Copley arrived in Italy in 1774. His letters express his excitement about the experience of seeing at first hand the works of classical sculpture and of the Italian Renaissance masters, and of visiting the excavations at Pompeii, Herculaneum, and Paestum. On that visit he met, through Ralph Izard, William Hamilton, art connoisseur and the patron of Baron d'Hancarville Antiquités étrusques, grecques, et romaines, times du cabinet de M. Hamilton ( 1766- 1776). With the Izards he returned to Rome, where he worked on their portrait until they left Rome in March 1775, with the painting nearing completion.

American artists had been "loading portraits" with imagery that "would give them the weight of the classical past and more 'universal' meaning." Justus Englehart Kuhn, William Williams, and Charles Willson Peale had included in some of their portraits images of classical sculpture which they had drawn from European sources, usually engravings. Copley, too, had done the same, thereby successfully "elevating" his subjects beyond the narrow provincial limits of colonial America.

In the Izard painting (Plate 32) we see that the Italian experience enabled Copley to "expand his formal skills." It also gave him the opportunity to include objects that he had actually seen. Furthermore, he felt encouraged to undertake a more ambitious composition, a "conversation," as the painting was titled when exhibited in London in 1776 at the Royal Academy. Finally, it provided a political and ideological context for Copley at the time when the colonies had gone to war against Great Britain.

With regard to these "transformations," the differences between the double portrait of Mr. and Mrs. Mifflin, executed just before Copley left Boston for Europe, and the Izard double portrait testify to the greater skill with which the latter is painted: the composition is more complex, space is opened up to a distant view. In the Izard work, the furnishings of the interior are "the high-styled inheritance of the Renaissance." Specific objects are depicted, including the red-figure volute crater (its present location unknown, but widely considered authentic by classical scholars) and the sculptural couple known in 1775 as either Papirius Praetextus and His Mother or Orestes and Electra.

The Izards are looking at a sketch of the sculpture, supposedly done by Mrs. Izard. This highlights further the change in Copley's work in Italy, since it can be compared to several of his American portraits that were based on engravings after Thomas Hudson's portrait of Mary, Viscountess Andover: Lucretia Chandler (Mrs. John) Murray ( 1763); Catherine Greene (Mrs. John) Amory and Mary Greene (Mrs. Daniel) Hubard (both ca. 1764). In these, the classical sculpture is a prop which Copley "imitated" from his mezzotint source. In making his adaptations he included a putto, but omitted a sketch in the hand of the viscountess. In the Izard work, he does a kind of

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