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The Cover
May 12, 1999

The Copley Family

JAMA. 1999;281(18):1674. doi:10.1001/jama.281.18.1674

By the time he had reached his mid-thirties, John Singleton Copley (1738-1815) had become not only the best, but the most successful painter in the American colonies. Self-taught, ambitious, and hard-working, the twice-fatherless son of a tobacco seller on the Boston wharves had begun painting portraits at the age of 14 in order to help support his family. Two decades later his portraits included nearly 300 of the Boston notables, including Paul Revere and Dr Joseph Warren (JAMA covers, July 3, 1996, and June 14, 1976), and his income and property holdings easily made him a member of Boston's elite. He had also married the daughter of Richard Clarke, a wealthy merchant of the East India Company (it was his tea consignment that was dumped into Boston Harbor on the night of December 16, 1773) and was the father of three children with a fourth on the way. His work was known (and praised) in London; fellow countryman Benjamin West urged him to come to England. Copley hesitated, however, being fearful of sea voyages (JAMA covers, November 24, 1989, and February 28, 1996); he was also concerned about the safety of his family in the increasingly troubled situation in Boston. Equally troubling, however, was his own sense of inferiority born of the limited opportunities in the colonies for studying the masters. Finally, in June 1774, he apparently quieted these fears sufficiently to sail for London. His intent was to remain a year or so in Italy studying the masters and several months traveling and studying in the rest of Europe and in England.