Date of Award

Winter 1981

Project Type


Program or Major


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy


The American years of John Singleton Copley have been all but ignored by earlier biographers. Rather, Copley's paintings have received the bulk of historical and critical attention. This study examines the artist's life and work within the context of his Colonial education. Education remains central in understanding Copley's American career.

In particular, Copley's education is explored in terms of his family life, boyhood years, and the educational environment of his household. Examination of Boston's public education system and its private schoolmasters suggests additional information contributing to his education.

Copley's education was furthered through his relationship with his step-father, Peter Pelham. Pelham was both a schoolmaster and an artist. In the world of Colonial art, self-education was imperative. Copley's portraits reflect the artist's self-educative skills, as well as the influences of indigenous Colonial technique. In his portraits, Copley transcended a superficial realism through exploring the character and personality of his subjects. His Colonial education appears in these revealing portraits.

His quest for a greater art education distinguished Copley's American years even after he achieved financial and artistic success. Copley's relationship with Henry Pelham, his half-brother and subject of the renowned Boy with Squirrel, can be better understood in the context of his educational aspirations. Copley's study of art history, architecture and philosophy reveal the artist's persevering desire for knowledge.

Colonial America provided John Singleton Copley an educational legacy which served him well.