Copley Essay - Critical Essays

Elizabeth Ripley


Ripley’s purpose in Copley seems less to write a biography of a prominent figure, whose work would help to illuminate his life, than to present a wide array of skilled and delightful paintings, using the artist’s life for chronological structure and interesting background. Her text comes to life in the frequent descriptions of the paintings or the figures in them; the interceding biographical material often seems to be a convenient way of moving from one painting to the next. As such, the text evokes the artist’s evolving sense of himself, as defined through his work.

The tone of Copley underlines this effect. The infrequency of dialogue creates a sense of silence, re-creating the mood that Ripley emphasizes reigned in Copley’s studio and, generally, in his demeanor. At the same time, Ripley’s rich and vivid descriptions of both the paintings and the scenes of Copley’s life draw from the colorful vernacular of an artist. Ripley’s attitude toward her subject is respectful and at times adulatory, and her prose suggests the proper and undramatic formality of British, or revolutionary American, aristocracy. Her portrait of Copley is not psychologically penetrating; while she alludes to conflicts or troubles in his life, such as his refusal to commit himself to the American Revolution or the growing jealousy of his peers at the Academy in London, she does not substantially develop or dramatize them. One exception is a gestural...

(The entire section is 576 words.)