This is a continuation of http://idiscoveredamerica.com/?p=123
Three Copley paintings come to mind. First, is the painting commonly known as Watson and the Shark, (1778) which hangs in the National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.
Here with poor Watson in dire straits, a black man is among those taking aggressive action. Prior to this painting, in the rare case where a black person appeared in a piece of art, it was either as a caricature or a servant. Copley was having none of that. This black man was an equal in the task and a central figure in the work. In addition, like the Dido/Elizabeth work this painting shows both people in action and the more wooden observers. The scarf of the black man blows in the wind emphasizing movement, much the same way as Dido’s lace. Both paintings seem to deemphasize any racial aspect, as if the artist knew that race would be their defining point whether he emphasized it or not. Even today, both paintings are examined as statements of racial politics; I imagine it was more so in the time they were created. Perhaps the clever de-emphasis of race by Copley reflected his Massachusetts egalitarian upbringing in a country that was divided on the issue of race.
In Copley’s The Death of Major Pierson, 6 January 1781 (1783) a black man avenges the death of a great soldier on the battlefield of a skirmish between the British and French on the Isle of Jersey during the American Revolution:
Although not a British regular the black man surely fights like one. Copley has his face stand out against the white background of battle haze. Once again, his race is both significant to the painting and insignificant in his display of bravery and fortitude. Has anyone noticed the blue plume prominently displayed on his headpiece? Yes that is Dido’s plume as well. Perhaps that is a symbol of some kind of equality. Copley’s depiction of one black man bravely fighting on the side of the British speaks volumes about his view of the contradictions of the American Revolution and its notion as a struggle for liberty and equality.
While historical painting was considered the highest form of art at the time, portraiture and conversation pieces were how most artists made their livings. In The Copley Family (1776-1777) Copley depicts the reuniting of his family in England with fantastic joie de vivre. The oldest daughter poses quietly like Lady Elizabeth, while the rest of the family is in a whirlwind conducted by the artist himself, standing in the background:
Copley’s young son, here in his mother’s arms, would go on to become Lord Chancellor of Great Britain. As a chief judge, he was imbued with an egalitarian sense that he must have picked up from both his father and the loving mother and sisters that surrounded him. And there it is again…the blue plume later worn by Dido in her portrait. Here it is lying on the ground with a discarded doll, perhaps here a reminder of the country left behind and the issues that plagued it.
England in the 18th century was not a perfect place, but it was light years ahead of America when it came to race. There was already an established antislavery movement grappling with the horrible fact that much of the world’s economies relied on slavery and the slave trade. We are told that Benjamin West and the expatriate artists that studied under him in London left America because of the lack of artistic opportunities. Yet I find it impossible to fathom that these men with an artistic sentiment did not also find it difficult to live in a land where so many were oppressed solely because of their color. There are traces of their concerns in each of their works. Whether John Singleton Copley or Johann Zoffany or someone else painted Dido/Lady Elizabeth is not really the important question. Yet, to me, it does matter if it was intended to be a light conversation piece painted by a European like Zoffany, or a deeper statement about America, painted by an artist who felt the need to leave his country. I wonder if we will ever know.