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John Singleton Copley Self-Portrait

John Singleton Copley1780/1784

Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

John Singleton Copley, proclaimed John Adams, is "the greatest Master, that ever was in America." While still a teenager, Copley was capable of gratifying Bostonians' desire for realistic portraits; by the time he was twenty, the essentially self-taught artist was painting better pictures than he had ever seen. Frustrated by the limitations of his provincial environment, where people, he complained, generally regarded art as "no more than any other useful trade," Copley longed to go to Europe to study. Increased political turmoil in the wake of the Boston Tea Party of December 1773—his father-in-law was one of the merchants who were supposed to receive the tea dumped in the harbor-spurred his departure for England in June 1774. There, in the flush of new success, he painted his own likeness. He never returned to America.

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