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The painter John Singleton Copley, who lived in New England in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, appears as a character in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s version of the Pygmalion legend. Copley decides that a trip from Boston to Salem to meet the wood carver Drowne is warranted because he is somewhat interested in his work. Copley evaluates Drowne as having “moderate ability” as a carver. When he enters Drowne’s studio, he sees a large quantity of “inflexible images.” He senses a “stolid transformation” that makes it seem as if “a living man had here been changed to wood.” In Copley’s judgment, in the carver’s hands, the wood has not taken in “the ethereal essence of humanity.” The figures he sees merely demonstrate the “mechanical character” of Drowne’s skill.
In a conversation with Drowne, Copley conveys his attitudes toward art as a revelation of creativity as contrasted with technical skill. He stops short of praising Drowne, who immediately realizes that Copley is denigrating his work by saying that one figure, that of General Wolfe, lacks “one other touch” to seem like a genuine human being. Drowne admits to feeling dissatisfied with his works to date, dismissing them as “no better than worthless abortions”; he uses the analogy of painted sign posts compared to Copley’s paintings.
Continuing to look around, Copley sees a work in progress that stands out from all the rest. Astonished, he demands to know whose work it is, as he sees that an “inspired hand is beckoning this wood to arise and live.” Also using the word “divine,” he equates the artist with god-like power to give life. Drowne responds that he knows there is a figure lying within the wooden block and that he must find it. Hearing this insight, Copley declares him “a man of genius!"
As he leaves, Copley introduces the Pygmalion theme, commenting on the passion and warmth he now discerns within the “Yankee mechanic.”