Last week while in Washington, D.C., we were able to visit the National Gallery of Art. We had only a few hours to spend so saw only a small number of rooms. We made a point of seeing Michelangelo's David-Apollo, currently on loan from Italy. And we sought out the French impressionists and the Americans.
One painting that held our attention for a while was this one by John Singleton Copley. (I'm sure our tarrying near it had nothing to do with the fact that there was a nice bench, big enough for all of us, positioned right in front of it.) Copley was a Colonial painter born in Boston who moved to England in 1774 for artistic, not political reasons, and ended up spending the rest of his life there. Copley was known best for his portraits, and the painting below is one he painted of himself and his family. We knew from the label in the museum that this painting was of the Copley family and that it was painted in 1776, but we didn't know anything else and so set about trying to interpret it. After some discussion we decided that the seated gentleman is probably father to either the woman or the man standing behind him and we wondered if perhaps his sour expression reflects some dissatisfaction with his son/son-in-law. Could he be a Royalist and the younger Copley a Patriot? We also noted the older gentleman's disinterest in the little girl on his lap and wondered if his unhappiness is due to the apparent absence of a male heir (all the children looked female to us). We also noted that the little girl in front seems to reflect a seriousness and maturity older than her years--she struck us as almost queen-like. And we thought that there must be some significance to the doll that has been tossed aside. Could that in some way represent the loss of innocence of a young nation?
Most of our conclusions were wrong. (Hey, we are musicians, not artists, remember?) We were right that the seated gentleman is the grandfather of the family. His son, standing behind him, is John Singleton Copley, the artist. But it turns out there is a male heir--the youngest child, sitting in his mother's lap and commanding all of her attention. (We forgot that very young male children of the period typically had long hair and wore long gowns.)
We sincerely enjoyed looking at this painting. It is a very large work, almost life-sized, and there was just so much story in it. We wanted to find out more about it so did a little research when we got home. Here is one article I found that, although it is highly gender-driven in its approach, nevertheless had some interesting and helpful observations.