Art: JOHN COPLEY: Painter by Necessity

MOST painters, inspired at first by the work of others, find their way by imitating what they have seen on canvas. A remarkable exception was John Singleton Copley (1738-1815). who found his way by himself. Copley was inspired by simple necessity, and imitated nature instead of art. The astonishing result: he painted better pictures than any American before him, and possibly since. Even more extraordinary is the fact that he painted better pictures than he had ever seen.

At 13, Copley became head of his family upon the death of his stepfather, a mediocre mezzotint artist and dancing teacher who had barely...

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