John Singleton Copley, Paul Revere, 1768-70
The first American painter of significance was John Singleton Copley, an artist of remarkable talent, who is
even more surprising because he developed his skills without formal training. His portrait of Paul Revere
was painted c. 1770. The sitter’s face and clothing are depicted with unwavering clarity, and he poses
calmly with the tools and product of his silversmith’s trade. Copley set the figure before a dark background,
and his attention to detail makes the face seem masklike. In spite of the similarity between his work and
that of artists like Caravaggio, Copley had little knowledge of European painting. In fact, he tried to remedy
his lack of training by applying to the British academy. His work was initially rejected (“too liney” was Sir
Joshua Reynolds’s verdict), but Copley eventually did go to England where he acquired a much less distinct
style of painting.
The classicizing architecture of sixteenth-century Venetian architect, Palladio, was wildly popular in England
in the eighteenth century; travelers to Italy and Palladio’s own books spread knowledge of his style. Lord
Burlington’s Chiswick House, built in the 1720s, can be easily compared to Palladio’s Villa Rotonda. Lord
Burlington adopted the basic form of the square block with a temple front (although it is only used on the
front of Chiswick House), and the central dome. Lord Burlington’s plan, however, uses a variety of geometric
shapes for the rooms, instead of Palladio’s rectangles. The staircase on the front of Chiswick House is also
more complex, with two spreading cascades of stairs rather than the more purely Roman single flight of
stairs seen in the Villa Rotonda.
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