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 http://www.johnsingletoncopley.org/Boy-with-a-Squirrel-(or-Henry-Pelham).html and Paul Revere http://www.johnsingletoncopley.org/Paul-Revere-1768-70-large.html to his later more complex works in England where his sitters were doled up in their costumes like Lord Mansfield http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/6/61/William_Murray,_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) http://www.nga.gov/content/ngaweb/Collection/art-object-page.46098.html 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) http://www.nga.gov/content/ngaweb/Collection/art-object-page.46471.html, 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.