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The Brief American Pageant , Sixth Edition
David M. Kennedy, Stanford University
Lizabeth Cohen, Harvard University
Thomas A. Bailey
Mel Piehl, Valparaiso University
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Introduction | Questions to Consider | Source | Related Links

The Copley Family
John Singleton Copley

Instructors' Note
Several historians argue convincingly that The Copley Family marks a shift in thinking about the relationships in the family. Clearly, color, light and shadow, and the arrangement of the figures as a whole provide evidence for the centrality of the mother and children. Similarly, the detail - the toddler's rattle and the doll cast off to the side - as well as the direct gaze of the Copley daughter - she looks directly at the viewer - tell us something about a new emphasis on childhood that is absent from Robert Feke's Isaac Royall and Family, for example. That the male figures are on the periphery of the focus and look at the family or out of the frame also argues for an alteration in ideas about the family. Finally, the well-carpeted and richly furnished room merges seamlessly with the natural background, reminding the viewer that, as the text at the National Gallery site indicates, the family benefited both from material and natural wealth.

As a practical matter, be sure that the students are familiar with navigation on the Web. This is a linked site, and students will have to move back and forth from the Houghton Mifflin venue to the National Gallery of Art site. (Simply clicking the "back" button on most standard browsers will move the student from the National Gallery to Houghton Mifflin.) If the computers that the students use are capable of showing thousands of colors, have them set the resolution of their monitors accordingly. The colors will be richer. Even so, a monitor set at 256 colors will do nicely. The thumbnails at the Houghton Mifflin site are for reference only. Students should visit the National Gallery site to appreciate what detail enlargements have to offer. Finally, encourage the students to examine the other details as well as the other paintings displayed at the National Gallery site on their own. It is one of the most elegant and useful sites on the Internet.

The American Revolution not only changed the nation's form of government but also marked alterations in its views on other matters, including architecture, clothing styles, and the family. John Singleton Copley's portrait of his own family limns some of these changes.

Questions to Consider
  1. One art expert has suggested that we can obtain some notion of the social ideas or relationships embodied in a picture by examining who is next to whom, who is how far from or inclining toward or away from or touching whom; whose eyes turn, whose eyes meet, and who is standing or sitting next to what.Many art historians have also pointed out that how the light falls in a picture, where the areas of light and dark are concentrated, and the artist's use of color help in determining social ideas and relationships. With these things in mind, answer the following:
    1. What does the artist wish the viewer to see as the center of attention? What are the reasons for your thinking?
    2. Who is on the periphery of the focus of attention? What might this mean about the importance or role of the figures?
    3. Who is looking at whom? Who is looking at the viewer? What effect do these gazes have?
    4. What social ideas regarding family roles are expressed in the painting? What might have influenced the artist's interpretation of family life?

  2. Further analysis of the Copley portrait involves examining the details.

    Copley Detail 1 a) Who is the subject in this detail? How do you know? What does his position, attitude, and line of vision tell you about the social ideas in the picture?

    Copley Detail 2 b) What is the toddler holding? What does this detail add to your determination of social ideas conveyed by the picture?

    Copley Detail 3 c) What is depicted in the background of the picture? How does it compare with the foreground? What does this add to the artist's message?

    Copley Detail 4 d) What is depicted in this detail? What does this detail add to your determination of the social ideas conveyed by the picture?

  3. Write a paragraph in which you present an analysis of The Copley Family. (You may wish to explore more fully the material associated with the Copley portrait at the National Gallery of Art web site for additional evidence for your interpretation. Remember to footnote or otherwise indicate the source for your materials.)


The Copley Family

Source: John Singleton Copley
American, 1738 - 1815
"The Copley Family", 1776/1777
oil on canvas, 1.841 x 2.292 m (72 1/2 x 90 1/4 in.)


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