American figural painting prior to the middle of the 19th century often gets short shrift outside of the United States, for understandable reasons. Certainly those quaint portraits of bourgeois New Englanders in black, or children of indeterminate sex in white christening gowns, may fetch high estimates on Antiques Roadshow. Yet they are often so naive, so poorly modeled, and demonstrate such a lack of basic understanding with regards to light and shadow or perspective, that they resemble European works from the early 13th century, not the early 19th. Charming these works may indeed be, but truthfully there were very few accomplished American artists working during the colonial period that could produce paintings at the same level as their European contemporaries.
There are a few exceptions to this however, and one of the best of them is the 18th century Bostonian artist John Singleton Copley (1738-1815). His work was celebrated by many of his contemporaries, and only improved when he was able to travel to Europe in 1774 and visit museums and private collections in England, France, and Italy. At the time he crossed the Atlantic Copley did not know that he would never return to America, where he had originally made his name as one of the few outstanding American painters of the day, and that he would eventually end his days in poverty in London.
Copley is predominantly well-known today for both his portraits and what we might call “action scenes”, such as his disturbing “Watson and the Shark” of 1778, now in the National Gallery of Art here in Washington. He did however, paint Biblical scenes on occasion, and the first example of this from his oeuvre is a work from about 1775 entitled “The Ascension”, depicting Christ’s return to Heaven as recounted in the Gospels. As today we celebrate the Ascension of the Lord, it seemed appropriate to draw the reader’s attention to this interesting piece, which is not very well-known to the general public.
Copley’s “Ascension” clearly owes something to Raphael’s famous “Transfiguration”, now in the Vatican. Raphael was working on this panel when he died in 1520, and it was finished by his pupil Giulio Romano. The figure of Christ floating in mid-air, accompanied by the prophets Moses and Elijah, was admired by many artists from the time of its execution onwards, and Copley was no exception. In a letter to his wife from Rome, dated November 5, 1774, Copley writes:
A few days ago I visited the church containing “The Transfiguration” by Raphael. This picture has been painted nearly three hundred years, and is in good preservation; it is on wood, and has always been allowed to be the greatest picture in the world…Raphael died at the age of thirty-seven, and this wonderful picture has stood to be admired and studied nearly three hundred years, and if it meets with no extraordinary accident it is probable it will last many ages to come; it is certainly a wonderful work of art.
Though Copley’s “Ascension” may have been inspired in part by Raphael, the first impression the viewer gets from this work is not of the 16th century High Renaissance in Rome, just at the point of transition to Mannerism. Rather it is strikingly reminiscent of the Pictorial Classicism of mid-17th century France, as exemplified in the work of artists such as Nicholas Poussin. Despite the gestures and the distinct emotional reactions which Copley gave to all of the figures in his painting, there is still a kind of detached, draped formality about them, which owes more to 18th century ideas of Neoclassicism than of the emotion which Raphael was so adept at both portraying in his figures and evoking in the hearts and minds of his viewers.
Although this is not what I would consider a great painting of the Ascension, because there is such a scarcity of American religious painting from the 18th century as a result of our Puritan inheritance, it is still a competent and pleasing one, and ought to be better-known by the American public. At the present time, sadly, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston does not currently have this piece on view, so it can only be studied via the internet. Copley himself was not a Catholic, but was definitely inspired by the work of Catholic European artists in his appreciation of this great event in salvation history. I would think that a reproduction of this piece would almost certainly be appropriate to display in historic Catholic churches, rectories, schools and institutions here in the U.S., as opposed to yet another bad copy of Da Vinci’s “Last Supper”.
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston