Category Archives: Benjamin West

Head of a (Favorite) Negro


Who is the young man painted in John Singleton Copley’s Head of a (Favorite) Negro (1775-1776)? What do we know about him?

Head of a (Favorite) Negro

By Jerry Leibowitz

The portraits of John Singleton Copley (1738-1815) are known to depict the objects that define his sitter in exquisite detail. The included objects often become more important than the face as they reflect on the sitter and help define the personality. This is true from his earliest innocent American works like Boy with a Squirrel and Paul Revere  to his later more complex works in England where his sitters were doled up in their costumes like Lord Mansfield,_1st_Earl_of_Mansfield_by_John_Singleton_Copley.jpg. Although squarely in the tradition of portrait painting, perhaps this focus on objects was a reflection of Copley’s mercantile upbringing in Boston, where he came from a family of shop owners and lived among traders who largely defined their existence by their things. I know of one exception to this rule in all of Copley’s work, a piece so odd that many assume it was a study for another piece. The work is Copley’s Head of a (Favorite) Negro and I submit that not only was it not a study, but that it deserves to be viewed as a masterpiece squarely within the Copley tradition of surrounding a sitter with those objects that reflect on the sitter.

How can this be, you may ask? There are no things. His shirt is but a sack without even a button. He doesn’t even have a body, no arms, no legs. The sitter does not even have a name, at least one that has been associated with the piece since its creation. No things. Nothing.

But look again at what he has. He appears to possess a pleasant disposition under a delightful scruffiness. Under his ragged shirt we see the wisp of a white collar. I see an expression of longing in his sad eyes. His past is summed up by a scar, maybe a few. Painted in 1775 or 1776 we do not know much about this young man, not even his name or his age. We do know now that his life already happened, more than two centuries ago. What kind of life was it? Isn’t he like he is any young man you might see on the street today, full of promise but mostly full of questions. This painting is modern and timeless, a great step forward from the more wooden characters of Copley’s acclaimed American works.

You may see something else, but here is what I see. In 1776, when the portrait was painted, British officers began returning from the War in America bringing with them slave children who ran away from their owners for the promise of freedom in England. By 1775 it was well known in America that in 1772 in the high courts of England, slavery had been declared odious and against natural law and that once a slave set foot on English soil the slave would become free. As a strategy to quell the Revolution, the British urged adult male slaves to escape from their masters and join the British Army and the slaves were promised papers declaring their freedom upon completion of their service.  Some younger slaves who yearned for freedom but who were too young to be trained as soldiers also escaped from their circumstance and hung out with British units hoping to be brought to a free life in England. They were promised nothing else. I see in this young man such a slave child who made it to England. He had nothing except what he had. And while he may have owned no things at least he was owned by no one else; Copley urges us to reckon his existence unbound and untethered.

John Singleton Copley had been America’s foremost portrait painter in the years prior to the American Revolution. He was largely self-trained and although well-paid he felt stifled by the lack of culture if not by the barbarity of Americans and longed for the education and experience that England and the rest of Europe offered to a working artist. Invited to England by the American artist Benjamin West, who had successfully made his transition to England years before, Copley first journeyed to see the great works of art in France and Italy in 1774 before settling in England. His joyous The Copley Family (1777) records the reunion of his family in England. Although considered as a conversation piece, I suggest that it is a self-portrait in the Copley tradition of a sitter being surrounded by his things…in this case his wonderful family. In England, Copley was ready to begin the second phase of his artistic life as a working artist.

In that context, painting Head of a Negro in 1775-6 may seem an odd choice. One would think that Copley would establish himself by doing what he did best, painting portraits of wealthy aristocrats which clearly this young man was not. Or, he would focus on Historical or Religious paintings, as had Benjamin West, as these genres were considered the highest form of art at the time. Perhaps it is for this reason that Head of a Negro has been considered a study, especially since the same character seems to appear as a dominant force in the wonderful Watson and the Shark (1778), produced at around the same time.

What I see is Copley exploring the idea of freedom. Benjamin West was encouraging his students to be free to develop their own styles and no painting suggests the possibilities of freedom more than Head of a Negro. Here was a young man who had been a slave in America, and for Copley that may have been analogous to the constraints he felt as a repressed artist in his native land. Both gave up what they had when they arrived in England. While the young man likely gave up nothing of worth in America and owned nothing more than an idea of freedom, Copley left behind a life, and he brought with him his wonderful family and a trade. Yet, in essence both arrived without a name and without a past as Copley’s success in America was unimpressive in the mother land. If Copley was going to succeed it would be on the basis of his skills. So too with this young man. The young man’s body, which had no doubt been his most important asset in America, was not going to be meaningful now in civilized England. If he was going to succeed it would be through his demeanor shown in that great face, and his style represented by the wisp of fashion peeking through his neck. The scar near his eye shows that his past was never to be far away; it could burden his soul or inspire it. We hope that this young man lived a great life and fulfilled the destiny Copley saw in his face in 1776, oddly the year when all the talk of freedom in his native land ultimately proved to be a ruse to those like himself who stayed behind.

Interestingly, art historians generally divide Copley’s work by his move to England. There is the American Copley whose portraits spoke to a burgeoning American ethos. And there is the British Copley, whose works display more freedom of purpose but are not universally considered his best works. Freedom is a tricky thing; a yearning deep within the soul. Here is where the analogy ends; we know with certainty that whatever befell this free young man in England was better than his life had he remained a slave in America. Contemplating both the artist and the subject must lead the viewer to contemplate “freedom” itself, what it means today and what it meant as a new country was wrestling with the concept in the late 18th century. New America, itself, should have better contemplated the concept, lest it would not have chosen a path of slavery and oppression. I see that scar visible even today. So look again at the Head of a (Favorite) Negro; there is much to see.

Encouraging American Genius

Encouraging American Genius

                                                                                                                By Jerry Leibowitz

 We are stardust, billion year old carbon We are golden, caught in the devil’s bargain And we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden.

Joni Mitchell

 I have been thinking about what it means to “encourage American Genius” since I wrote my last piece on the Corcoran Gallery of Art (See  ). William Corcoran used the phrase in the deed donating what became the first independent Art Gallery in America in 1869, stating that his gift was:

“…in the execution of a long cherished desire to establish an institution in Washington city, to be “dedicated to Art,” and solely used for the purpose of encouraging American genius, in the production and preservation of works pertaining to the “Fine Arts,” and kindred objects…”

The phrase and the words “Dedicated to Art”, which is displayed on the façade of both the original and the present Corcoran Gallery acquired in 1897, has popped up in the controversy about the future of the present Corcoran Gallery of Art, which seeks to terminate many of its operations. In using the phrase, I see Corcoran as reiterating a strand of American thought that went back at least to 1760, the year that Benjamin West left Pennsylvania to view the great art of Italy, never to return. Despite, or because of, our view of our founding as something inspired by divine intervention, we often fail to see the America that was born of a brutal and barbarous nature, where much of its wealth was extracted from the enslaved to the utter disregard if not the benefit of its founders. Early America was a cultural wasteland which many of the best minds of our early generations chose to leave to pursue their craft. While the civil war did not solve America’s problems, after the war William Corcoran was among those calling for the next America to be better than the last; through art, through culture and through the development and encouragement of American genius.

The cornerstone of the Second America arguably was laid in England in 1791 with a painting by Benjamin West entitled “Expulsion of Adam and Eve from Eden”.  As if by my design, the painting now hangs in the National Gallery of Art in Washington D. C. Obviously, this was a subject that had been covered numerous times before; it is one of the most familiar and iconic images in western thought. Yet, as the NGA website points out…”West’s Expulsion contains two motifs not found in Genesis or any traditional pictures of the theme: an eagle swoops upon a helpless bird, and a lion chases frightened horses. In general terms, such beasts of prey imply the destruction of harmony that resulted from Original Sin.” The eagle became the bird emblem of the United States of America in 1782. Its placement in the work calls to the viewer the America that Benjamin West had left over thirty years before. Perhaps the lion represents the slaveholders and the horses represent their slaves.[i] West, who was a Quaker and was adamantly anti-slavery, had left America as a British citizen and ended up in England where he rose to the highest level of his craft, a friend and Court painter to King George lll. West was not the only American artist who left his native land; he was soon followed by John Singleton Copley, Gilbert Stuart, and John Trumbull all of whom sat out the Revolutionary War in England. They were eventually followed to Europe by virtually every great American artist of the 19th and early 20th century, each of whom studied or lived in Europe for a considerable period of their artistic development. We know a little of why these early American artists left America; Copley called his native country barbarous and limiting to his craft; Trumbull may have been a spy for America, having served as aide-de-camp for George Washington for a short time early in the War; Stuart was a bit scattered and was perhaps looking for some stability abroad. I suggest that Benjamin West invited this community of artists to England to “encourage American genius” in a place removed from America’s original sin, its toleration of slavery. When the smoke from the American Revolution had cleared, Trumbull and Stuart returned to America fully formed as artists giving America its first artistic life, one couched in love for the new country. It was as if Benjamin West sent out these emissaries of art to go forth and multiply and breed American genius. It is likely that Gilbert Stuart, having lived among those who were a part of the antislavery movement while in England[ii], returned to America as an emissary for that movement, often discussing political subjects with those who sat for him. Trumbull went on to document America’s founding, and established the first University Art Gallery at Yale largely to collect his own works. West and Copley stayed in England and continued their artistic pursuits. West’s views against slavery were quite well known and clearly contributed to his historic and religious themed works. Copley explored the humanity of the slavery issue in his works including Watson and the Shark (1778; also at the NGA!, The Head of a Negro (1777-1778;  and The Death of Major Peirson (1783, In retrospect then, Benjamin West put out the first call to “encourage American genius” just at the time that the founding fathers were beginning their experiment with self-government but were unable or unwilling to recognize that the flaws in their work would render America spiritually damaged and eventually hurl the country towards self-destruction and civil war.

I have written previously of the bequest of James Smithson, and how that gift was intended to propel America out of its barbarous nature (See Follow the Money- the Legacy Perhaps of James Smithson, Under Smithson’s will of 1826, his money was given “to the united states of America to found at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an Establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men.” Arguably, as I suggest in Legacy, it was the knowledge diffused by that institution that made the end of slavery inevitable, since knowledge is the ultimate cure for ignorance and indifference. While the cure for America turned out to be unbelievably painful, it must be recognized that by 1860 the disease was quite severe. All of the compromises which let slavery continue and expand in America, going back to compromises made in 1775, had rendered the country spiritually depraved. Despite all the progress being made in the Arts and the Sciences, the use of forced labor to create wealth had rendered the country unholy, and that evil was a limiting restraint on the creation of true American genius. The end of slavery through the civil war gave America a new chance, and men with foresight were not about to let the moment slip by doing nothing.

William Corcoran was intimately familiar with the Smithson bequest, having worked with Congress on establishing the Smithsonian Institution. He provided expertise on the building of the Castle which housed the entire Institution. As a Southern sympathizer who helped foster the compromises in the 1840’s and 1850’s that made the civil war inevitable, Corcoran had some fault to bear in the ugly matter. His fortune had been made in banking largely by funding the Mexican American War in 1846, which provided for the expansion of the country deemed necessary for the continuation of slavery.  While many in the south were devastated by their loss of autonomy through the Civil War, Corcoran came to recognize that without the burden of the slavery issue which could only divide America, the great days of America lay ahead. In 1869, he found himself on the other side of the civil war with a ton of money, a passion for art, and a new blank canvas to create the Second America as a far better place than the first. His gift of the Corcoran Gallery of Art reflects that hope. Where Smithson used the word “knowledge”, a word which connotes something quantifiable and exact, Corcoran’s vision was for “Art” and for “Genius”, concepts which are exquisite and unquantifiable. The Civil War provided redemption from America’s original sin and perhaps Corcoran’s own sins, and now it was time for grace and return to the garden.

It is with all this in mind that I contemplate again the status of the present Corcoran Gallery of Art and specifically what it means to “encourage American Genius”. As I noted in my last piece, I am quite certain that the art from the Gallery will be fine under the care of the National Gallery of Art. The building which houses the Gallery is of no moment here, since it was constructed after the death of William Corcoran and could not have been a part of his vision. But the concept of “Encouraging American Genius” remains to me as important and elusive as ever. We still live in the Second America. We have had our share of genius yet we remain far from the garden. So how do we now encourage American genius?  Arguably “genius” is not developed at all it just happens from time to time. Maybe the MacArthur Foundation has it right…wait for someone to do something great…call it “genius” and throw money at it. But I am not sure that works either, since if I won a MacArthur grant I would probably change the name of my website to and never be heard from again. (Note to MacArthur Trustees: That last comment was just literary license. If I were to receive a grant I would churn out the genius stuff like you wouldn’t believe!). William Corcoran may have had a reasonable notion as to what it meant to “Encourage American Genius“ as shown by his help establishing artists of the Hudson River School, but it is also true that much of what he collected were secondary works. That is not a knock on his talent or ideals, but more a statement on the elusive nature of encouraging genius.

An Art School, a Museum, a studio…whatever. The chance of anyone finding and encouraging true American artistic genius remains slim. The job of the artist is to turn out the work; whether it is genius or not is usually judged by posterity which sometimes takes an awfully long time to answer. For every Michelangelo there is a Van Gogh. William Corcoran must have known all this when he gave his gift. Perhaps with his gift he was trying to follow the mold set by Benjamin West in the 1770’s. The modest building he gave may have been well suited to the task of encouraging American genius in 1869. Perhaps the biggest mistake made by the Trustees of the Corcoran Gallery of Art was when they moved to larger quarters in the late 19th century and are now burdened by something large and unwieldy. But then again, the late 19th century was a time of big ideas, and Corcoran liked living large and probably would have blessed the expansion. But 19th century ideas may not be relevant to our times and our William Corcorans should not be tied to them. How we encourage our 21st century American geniuses is a mystery to me. Still, like the accurate compass which gives direction to this website, William Corcoran pointed the country in the right direction. Hopefully his legacy will continue to lead us back to the Garden.


[i] In the Zong decision (1783) slaves were thrown off a ship in peril and later claimed as a loss under an insurance policy. Lord Mansfield was called to decide if the jury was correct in ruling for the slaveholders… “that the Case of Slaves was the same as if horses had been thrown overboard.” Lord Mansfield reversed, ruling against the slave holders. History has (incorrectly, in my opinion) somehow attributed the analogy of slaves to horses to Lord Mansfield, which is unlikely given his ruling in Somersett’s case (1772) declaring slavery to be odious and therefore unsupportable on English soil. See my piece on Lord Mansfield at and the recent biography by Professor Norman Poser entitled Lord Mansfield, Justice in the Age of Reason (McGill-Queen’s University Press, Canada 2013). The facts of the Zong Case were so horrible that the analogy resonated throughout the antislavery movement in England, leading to British withdrawal from the slave trade in 1807. In 1780, John Trumbull painted George Washington with his slave on a horse, equating the two as servants to their master,

[ii] See Follow the Money- The Legacy Perhaps of James Smithson,