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 statement by Copley upon the colonies’ victory in the war: Copley signals his allegiance by painting an American flag in the background of an American client’s portrait.
Given the visual power of the prose, color plays an important role in Copley, not the least because the illustrations themselves are black and white. Ripley’s attempts to convey through words Copley’s rich use of color are at times quite effective; sometimes, however, they only serve as reminders of the drabness of the included reproductions. In a similar vein, Ripley expresses regret in her acknowledgments for not obtaining permission to reproduce The Boy with the Squirrel, a key work in Copley’s emergence on the London scene.
Nevertheless, the paintings themselves are as powerful as the text, providing insight into Copley’s work as well as a pictorial history of the period. Fashions, adornments, furnishings, crafts, religious beliefs, military scenes, ships, and even political attitudes are all given expression in Copley’s work. Ripley strives to show Copley very much as a man of his time, whose relative silence did not prevent him from expressing through his art the truth of the world around him. In a sense, then, Ripley uses the paintings not only to tell about Copley as an artist but also to convey his identity and his relationship to the complex and exciting world around him.
Copley offers to any student an understanding of the life of an artist during the revolutionary period and glimpses of the aristocracy in Boston and London. It is of special value to the young reader with an interest in and appreciation of art, for Ripley’s lucid and compelling explications guarantee to enhance a student’s developing awareness of the mental and physical processes behind the formation of a major artwork. While using the terminology of the visual arts, Ripley writes in a style that is easily accessible, and the principles of art upon which her discussions are based are applicable to other artistic media as well.