Dilemmas of Delivery in Copley's Atlantic
John Singleton Copley's Boy with a Flying Squirrel (Henry Pelham) (fig. 1) is best known, indeed almost exclusively known, for its role in a famous transatlantic tale. In 1765, when the picture was made, Copley (1738-1815) was the premier portrait painter to the mercantile elite in the colonial city of Boston. His considerable skills were largely self-taught; although prints and theory books had made him familiar with European art,he had had little formal instruction and few opportunities to study oil paintings in the flesh, and he had never ventured outside New England. Twenty-seven years old, flush with success as a provincial portraitist but determined someday to attain the exalted status of a history painter on the European model, he wanted to know how his work would be received by the arbiters of aesthetics on the other side of the Atlantic. To that end, he painted Boy with a Flying Squirrel, packed it up, and shipped it to London for exhibition at the Society of Artists.1
Months later, he received the welcome news that no less an authority than SirJoshua Reynolds had called the painting a "very wonderfull Performance." Although Reynolds and his colleagues noticed a certain overzealous attention to detail, a certain "over minuteness" in the composition, they recognized Copley's precocious natural talent and encouraged him to come to London for more training as soon as possible.2 Copley, however, remained in Boston for another eight years, sending paintings across the Atlantic for exhibition whenever possible. When political events preceding the Revolution forced his departure from America in 1774, he was welcomed into London art circles, where he went on to become a major figure in late eighteenth-century British art, known particularly for his innovations in modern history painting.
The transatlantic passage of A Boy with a Flying Squirrel has long served as an originary episode in histories of American art. Because the painting's exhibition in London brought Copley's work into direct juxtaposition with more cosmopolitan fare, the tale of its passage has frequently anchored comparative studies attempting to establish essential differences between American and European or British painting. Many of these studies have used the painting to position Copley as a progenitor of a homegrown American empiricism, a uniquely "unspoiled vision" attributable only to painters in America (this despite the patently global implications of the work's transatlantic passage). In more recent Copley scholarship, less beholden to the rhetorical imperatives of the "American Mind" school, the interpretation of the painting's journey has shifted. The painting is now less likely to be cited as evidence of an essentially American aesthetic than to be interpreted as one of many examples of Copley's attempts to perform British patterns of refinement in a busy Atlantic world of consumption and trade.3
In each of these narratives (whatever their ultimate aim), Boy with a Flying Squirrel is rightly seen to derive its historical significance from its transatlantic relay. But in every such narrative, that relay itself has been almost completely elided. In each telling, the painting's passage across the ocean is for all intents and purposes treated synoptically: Copley sends, Reynolds receives, Copley hears back-all in the space of a sentence or two. The massive expanse of the Atlantic Ocean, its peculiar navigational and cultural contours, the long delays it imposed on Copley's aesthetic transaction-none of these obstacles has been considered relevant to the close interpretation of the painting, which remains always unproblematically present, to both the historians and the historical protagonists. Never in the telling does it suffer as unseen cargo, as a painting on hold in the hold while it crosses an uncertain ocean.
Such spatiotemporal compression has the implicit effect of representing the distance between Boston and London as an inert gap, a predictable intermission that remains external to all art-historical concerns and leaves no trace on Copley's painting. I argue here, by contrast, that Boy with a Squirrel cannot be understood without taking into account the protraction and difficulty of its long-distance transit, and indeed that the challenge of transatlantic distance deeply affected all of Copley's work of the 1760s and 1770s. This chapter suggests how the view of Copley's work might change if, in essence, we put the Atlantic back into Copley's Atlantic world.
In making such suggestions, I follow Pierre Bourdieu and others in insisting on the formative powers of distance and delay. In his Outline of a Theory of Practice, Bourdieu implored scholars looking back on historical exchanges not to "abolish the intervals" that originally separated the actions in question. He argued that the deferral and uncertainty that thoroughly shape all human activity are precisely what the analytical eye of hindsight tends to obliterate, and that historians must "reintroduce time [and by extension space], with its rhythm, its orientation, its irreversibility," into the analysis of cultural production.4 To examine Copley's paintings in transit, and the challenges attending their movement, is one way to reinstate the slow Atlantic voyage as a formative interval in eighteenth-century art and material culture.5
As David Harvey and others have argued, contemporary globalized space (and its attendant "postmodernity") has emerged as techniques of instantaneous communication and information transfer have obliterated experiential distance.6 Synchronization techniques have created modern cartography and global positioning and have allowed contact between distant interlocutors without delay or apparent physical resistance, bringing about the "age of the world picture," to borrow from Heidegger's title for his essay describing a world that seems apprehensible at a glance.7 A persistent challenge facing scholars of the early modern Atlantic world is to avoid projecting this synoptic awareness onto the slower, heavier, and darker field that comprised the eighteenth-century experience of empire and expansion. Historical narratives must avoid replicating, at the level of method, the seemingly frictionless deracinations of contemporary globalization: objects should not leave one side of the Atlantic and bob up immediately on the other as if beamed there by satellite or, what seems the same thing, by the historian's twin powers of hindsight and overview. For even if early modernity is commonly considered the dawn of globalization, the eighteenth-century Anglo-American world was not in fact a simultaneous and co-present field but emerged instead from conditions of belatedness and epistemological fragmentation.
Boy with a Flying Squirrel as "Sea Piece"
To approach Boy with a Flying Squirrel without perpetrating what Alan Sekula has called "the forgetting of the sea," one must think about the painting not only as a portrait or genre painting but also as a marine painting or, to use a contemporary British term, a "sea piece."8 Copley's picture hardly resembles a sea piece by any of the usual criteria-no foundering sloops in choppy harbors here, not even the miniature naval composition sometimes found in the background of the artist's more conventional portraits (see fig. 2). The painting is a sea piece, rather, inasmuch as it addresses the multivalent challenges of the transmarine displacement it was created to endure. In this sense, the painting might itself be said to function like a ship: it is a vehicle that must be properly framed and configured for the successful dispatch, preservation, and delivery of its (pictorial) cargo.9 I do not wish to overdraw the painting-as-ship analogy; I introduce it primarily to trouble the assumption that a painting can refer to the sea only by mimetically representing it. Peregrine Horden and Nicholas Purcell, in their discussion of the "New Thalassology," have argued that transoceanic vehicles embody, in their very formation, the social, technological, and temporal dimensions of the oceans they cross-because they are designed to navigate through particular risk regimes, topographical contours, and "connectivities" (communication networks). The form and configuration of Copley's cargo responded to similar imperatives.10
It is difficult to overestimate the significance that Boy with a Flying Squirrel held for Copley: it was to serve as his calling card for a group of artists whom he idolized and hoped someday to equal, and its success or failure in London would determine the course of his ambitions as a painter. Although its relatively small size (30 fr3/8/fr by 25 fr1/8/fr in.) might initially suggest otherwise, Boy with a Flying Squirrel was by far the most consequential painting Copley had yet produced in America. He was, after all, painting a picture specifically for presentation (as he said) "to the inspection of the first artists in the World."11 Boy with a Flying Squirrel was Copley's first major noncommissioned work, his first exhibition painting, and the first canvas he produced for a transatlantic audience.12 In painting for these purposes, moreover, he departed not only from his own previous work but also from British portrait and genre conventions more broadly. Indeed, looking back on the painting ten years later, in 1775, Copley attributed its success at the Society of Artists exhibition to its departure from expectations. It was "singled out among the others," unique.13
The painting's eccentricities range from seemingly insignificant iconographical irregularities to major structural and generic shifts. For example, in no other image did Copley feature a drinking glass (in period terms, a tumbler). Granted, the ostensible purpose of the glass here is simply to showcase the artist's hard-won technical skills in rendering transparency and reflection. But surely a glass of water is a curiously overdetermined object to include in one's first transatlantic painting, especially since the boy's hand gesture, and with it the delicate suspensional arc of the squirrel's chain, carefully spans the precise diameter of the lip. Whatever else might be said about this humble motif (I return to it below), it undeniably involves the passage of a sensory chain across a body of water and thereby presents in microcosm the plight or task of the painting itself.
In addition, the disposition of the background drapery is unusual. Whereas Copley's earlier (and later) paintings tend to follow the Van Dyckian convention of arranging drapery on one side of the painting as a threshold opening out to a space behind the figure (compare his Nicholas Boylston, fig. 2), here Copley drapes a flat and relatively symmetrical curtain behind the boy's head, blocking off the background rather than engineering a relation between the sitter and a larger setting. The curtain, then, functions, not as "a stock stage-set" (as James Flexner put it) but as a conspicuous digression from stock portrait conventions.14 The curtain confines the portrait to a relief-like space, supporting Copley's turn to a severe profile format in the painting. Neither the significance nor the strangeness of this choice has been widely acknowledged. Profiles were unprecedented in Copley's work up to that time, and they were unusual in finished oil portraits of the mid-eighteenth century more generally.15
The painting is also the first in which Copley organized his composition around a highly polished table surface. Copley had already begun to experiment with such tables-in his portraits Nathaniel Allen (1763, Honolulu Academy of Arts) and Samuel Phillips Savage (1764)-but only with this painting didhe begin to use the motif as a metapictorial device rather than a discrete studio prop. Here the surface of the table entirely transects the horizontal expanse of the canvas, mediating between the space of the viewer and that of the sitter as well as producing reflections that underpin the structure of the composition and contribute to the internal patterning already noted. Copley returnedto this motif in his most ambitious later American works, but he first deployed it in Boy with a Flying Squirrel.
The squirrel is also worth some preliminary remarks. As Paul Staiti and Roland Fleischer have shown, chained squirrels held daintily by women and children were fairly common in colonial American portraits. As an emblematic device, the squirrel signified diligence and patience as well as the proper Lockean education of the sitter, whose own refinement was indicated by and reflected in his or her successful domestication of the wild creature.16 In 1765 Copley produced two other squirrel paintings: John Bee Holmes (private collection) and Mrs. Theodore Atkinson (fig. 3). These seem experimental when compared with Boy with a Flying Squirrel; neither ofthe other squirrels is as preciselyintegrated into the composition as the one in the Pelham picture. Note, too, that Henry Pelham's pet-not the sitter-is the creature that makes visual contact with the viewer. The London-bound squirrel serves a pivotal structural role and bears exceptional powers of formal condensation that I address more fully as my argument unfolds.
The squirrel in Boy with a Flying Squirrel is not just any squirrel; it is a flying squirrel (hence the delicate ruff of skin along its belly), a species native to North America with thematic resonance in travel and movement. These connotations were acknowledged in the eighteenth century: ships named Squirrel and Flying Squirrel passed frequently through Boston in the 1750s and 1760s.17
Such resonance would not have been lost on Copley, who lived in a historical moment and in a community in which people knew the names of ships; Copley understood the metaphoric and mechanical dimensions of the shipping world to which he would entrust his painting. He was born in Boston when the city was the undisputed center of American maritime commercial activity. He spent the first ten years of his life in his mother's tobacco shop on Long Wharf, an immense pier jutting (then as now) a quarter mile into the center of Boston Harbor (fig. 4). Copley would have awakened each morning to a noisy, smelly, colorful panorama of merchant shipping activity. In his twenties (having relocated a few blocks inland), he built his painting career on commissions from prosperous merchant families like the Hancocks, who ran the largest transatlantic shipping firm in Boston. Four years after painting Boy with a Flying Squirrel he married Susannah Clarke, the daughter of one of the key Boston agents for the British East India Company.18 In short, Copley's life and livelihood depended, in virtually every particular, on the profitable transportation of objects and information across and around the Atlantic Ocean.
In the eighteenth century the British Empire constituted, in Joseph Roach's phrase, an "oceanic interculture."19 It was a culture whose very survival, as well as its habits of thought and expression, was bound up in the effects of oceanic transport on objects, communication, and community. Those effects derived largely from the heterosynchronies that determined all transoceanic communication. Even without pirate attacks, navigational errors, or bad weather, it took at least a month to cross the Atlantic. This delay was hardly predictable or rational (hence the inadvisability of treating it as an abstract intermission). Passage was asymmetrical. The distance between Boston and London was roughly twenty-nine hundred miles. Crossing it eastward toward London took about four weeks, but traveling toward Boston, against the westerly currents, took on average almost twice as long, seven and a half weeks. The trip to Boston was thus regarded as "uphill" whereas the trip to London was "downhill." The Atlantic also served as a temporal scrambling agent, frustrating the linear sequencing and coordination of events. Five ships launched from London in a particular order, for example, did not necessarily arrive at Boston in that same sequence. As Ian K. Steele has shown, the effects of this discontinuity could be seen in early eighteenth-century colonial newspapers, whose editors had to devise elaborate mechanisms to contend with irregular shiploads of information and news that "resolutely refused to come in order."20
These long, uncertain intervals meant that concerns about decay, delay, and miscarriage affected the very form of transatlantic communication, including Copley's, and that the ambient threats of shipping applied to his cargo as much as to any other. Copley was painfully aware of the risks he took in shipping a painting across the Atlantic. His papers and those of his family are full of correspondence about lost and delayed transatlantic messages and gifts, and also include many discussions of damage and potential damage to paintings in shipment. Copley was sometimes asked to repair pictures by other artists, including one sent to John Hurd from England, which "by some bad Stowage in the Vessell [had] taken considerable Damage."21 A letter from Copley's wife to his daughter Elizabeth talks about what to do if a painting should "contract a fog" in consequence of "being shut up, or by the dampness of the sea."22 Copley's letters pertaining specifically to Boy with a Flying Squirrel demonstrate his keen awareness of the painting's organic delicacy: he worried about a "changing of the colours" of the paint during the long sea passage to London. Wanting to get the work to London in time for the Society of Artists exhibition, he appears to have sent it before the paint was fully set and dry but felt it better to "risque the picture" than to risk waiting another year for the opportunity to exhibit.23 Other letters announce the outright loss of his works in transit. In the spring of 1765, probably just as he was beginning work on Boy with a Flying Squirrel, a group of his pastels was lost in a wreck en route to Halifax: "I am sorry to have the Mortification to tell You," says the letter breaking the news, that "the Vessel ... was lost about 30 leagues to the westward of this port, and your drawings, together with several other things, have become the prey of the barbarous Inhabitants."24
To ship any cargo successfully required, in addition to safe passage across the water, a network of flexible intelligence that could guide it through the unpredictable real-time conditions it would encounter on and after its journey. Because information at the time moved no faster than freight, transatlantic merchants could not gain current knowledge of the market conditions on the other side of the ocean, and the anticipated exchange rate for a shipload of goods often needed to be renegotiated when the materials reached their destination. Commodities could not negotiate for themselves, so cargo had to be accompanied by human agents. In the English Atlantic during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, these were the so-called supercargoes, sent across the ocean along with the cargo to oversee its stowage, manage its marketing on the other side, and report the results back to the sender. For large shipping outfits, the supercargo system was often augmented by a group of trusted agents resident in various ports who would receive and handle the arriving goods.25
In conveying Boy with a Flying Squirrel to London, Copley assembled his own team of mercantile aesthetic negotiators, who were partly successful in delivering the painting to the Society of Artists. He first gave the painting (which was almost certainly shipped stretched, in a box) to a Mr. Roger Hale, who included it with his baggage on the ship to London and served therefore as a kind of supercargo.26 Once across the Atlantic, Hale delivered it to Captain R.G. Bruce, a merchant navy friend of Copley's then living in London.27 Bruce conveyed it to a certain Lord Buchan (also known as Lord Cardross), who, fancying himself a familiar of Reynolds's because he had sat for a portrait a year earlier, took it to Reynolds's studio.28 What transpired next remains unclear. In 1948 James Flexner filled in the scene in Reynolds's studio with unsubstantiated details, claiming that Buchan forgot the name of the painter whose work he had conveyed to Reynolds. Benjamin West, who was living in London, stopped by to have a look and identified the wood used to construct the frame as American pine. Buchan was then sent out again to fetch Bruce ("a large, seafaring American," according to Flexner), who revealed the identity of the painter, but Reynolds "was so excited that he forgot to write down" Copley's name.29 Whatever the actual contours of the confusion in Reynolds's studio, it is true that when the painting was shown at the Society of Artists in 1766, it was mislabeled as having been painted by "William Copeley."30
If nothing else, the transatlantic adventure of Boy with a Flying Squirrel confirmed the fragility of the link between cargo and information during this period and the difficulty of ensuring that any object sent across the ocean would be advantageously conveyed, marketed, or translated. It also helps explain the extent of the painting's reliance on maritime networks and naval intermediaries for its own criticism and interpretation. Consider that Captain Bruce not only did the work of collecting Copley's painting when it reached London but also, once it was exhibited, eavesdropped on the conversations of viewers, interviewed Reynolds about the merits of the work, and reported back to Copley what he had learned. Everything we know today about Reynolds's analysis of Boy with a Flying Squirrel-all the piquant period statements about the picture's "wonderfull" qualities-comes from the pen of a merchant captain rather than directly from Reynolds himself. One of the key documents in early criticism of American art is, in more ways than one, a form of maritime art criticism.
Pictorial Mobility: The Numismatic Profile
As he prepared for the project of sending a painting to London for exhibition, Copley faced aesthetic risks as well as shipping risks. He needed not only to secure the smooth delivery of the painting as an object, but also to ensure the portability of the painting's illusionary content. Meeting these requirements meant reconsidering his usual approach to portraiture. His eager reading of European art theory texts had taught him that straight portraiture could not produce the abstract generalizations that characterized the grand manner, which he longed someday to practice. ("An History-painter paints man in general," Reynolds later said, "a Portrait-Painter, a particular man, and consequently a defective model.")31
In reality, the Society of Artists exhibitions held thus far in London had shown plenty of portraits, but most of these had been "elevated" by dressing the sitters as allegorical figures or by focusing on illustrious or celebrity sitters.32 Copley's knowledge of contemporary portraiture in England would have been largely restricted to this kind of portrait, because the information he had about the current state of portraiture was embodied almost entirely in the imported engravings that he frequently adapted for his own portraits. Such engravings featured noble or celebrated sitters by definition, for a portrait would be engraved only when the sitter was illustrious (or notorious) enough to inspire a wide market for the reproductions.33 Portable heads, in other words, were by definition "illustrious heads"; pictorial portability was equated with generality. Note that this correlation served to equate universality, mobility, and commercial potential. In the long-distance transatlantic transport of these images, the values of elevated universality and the values of commodity marketability become impossible to separate.
Thus Copley knew that his typical portraits of colonial merchants, to speak metaphorically, would not travel well (see fig. 2). They would be dragged down in an aesthetic sense by their specificity and singularity, qualities that would lash them to the particular time and place of their production. Indeed, as Margaretta Lovell has argued, the function of privately commissioned portraiture in eighteenth-century New England was to be illiquid in precisely this manner. Once painted, portraits had a negligible exchange value and were unlikely to be sold. They were, to use an anthropological term, terminal commodities. Unlike other possessions (such as silver) whose increasing fungibility in a market economy threatened their suitability as heritable objects, portraits, characterized by singularity and specificity, were likely to stay in families from one generation to the next, reinforcing familial-particularly patrilineal-ties.34 Portraits in eighteenth-century America, in a sense, had an adhesive function. Copley, when painting Boy with a Flying Squirrel, had to devise ways to overcome the fundamental intransitivity of his oil portraits of colonial merchants and provincial ecclesiastics. He had to work to make his painting move.
The imperative to generalize his portraits for transatlantic transit helps account for many of Copley's choices as he produced his exhibition piece. He chose to paint Pelham as a boy of about ten rather than as the young man of sixteen or seventeen that he actually was in 1765.35 In exaggerating Pelham's youth, Copley steered the painting toward the generic and away from the specific. Eighteenth-century paintings of children in both France and England had connotations of generality. The Lockean interest in education at the time turned such paintings into typological explorations of human development; they were also infused with a synthetic, generalized temporality, inasmuch as the image of youth was not meant solely to convey the character of the child at the moment of depiction but was also understood to imply or foresee the future character of the adult.36
Copley's decision to paint Pelham in strict profile was an even more important generalizing strategy, however. Boy with a Flying Squirrel is the only single-sitter profile painting Copley produced in America.37 Although profile portraits became fashionable with the spread of neoclassical aesthetics in the later eighteenth century, they were less common in Europe and, in 1765, exceedingly rare in America. Precedents for Copley's treatment existed: the artist had almost certainly seen, in engravings, Jean-Siméon Chardin's genre paintings of boys at tables from earlier in the century (fig. 5).38 But even though Chardin's example undeniably operates here (I return to it in more detail below), it does not fully explain the resonance of the profile in Boy with a Squirrel, which also draws on other conventional associations of the profile view in eighteenth-century England.
In British art of the mid-eighteenth century, profiles were associated with commemorative or honorific modes of representation. This association derived from the relation of the profile format to ancient profile medallions or coins. Profiles often featured distinct allusions to ancient numismatic imagery, and many were deliberately rendered to look like ancient portrait medals. This connection is so important to the transatlantic relay of Boy with a Flying Squirrel that it is appropriate to call the painting a numismatic profile.39 The eighteenth-century art treatises Copley had read usually grouped portrait medals with ancient sculpture as ideal classical forms the modern artist should emulate to improve his compositions. Jonathan Richardson, explaining how portraits might best be injected with an air of dignified generality and classical authority, wrote: "Painters should take a Face, and make an Antique Medal, or Bas-Relief of it."40 Copley's deployment of the profile format thus lends the painting an air of ancient detachment, distancing and generalizing it and helping to rid it of its particularist ballast.
Even if Copley had never seen a profile portrait medallion, he would have had opportunities to see engraved profile portraits that mimicked the medallion format. Copley's friend the Boston engraver Nathaniel Hurd, whose portrait Copley was painting about the time he was working on Boy with a Flying Squirrel, had produced at least one such image. The curator Ellen Miles has identified this composition, dated 1762, as the first produced in the American colonies that incorporated profile portraits (fig. 6). Hurd makes no attempt to integrate the spatial world of the carefully framed medal-like profiles with an existing composition on the page. He represents them in clipeus, which, as Marcia Pointon has explained, is the nested framing of an image in a cartouche, as if it had been transposed or "clipped" from one place and inserted into another. Hurd confirmed this clipeus function in the advertisement for the engraving, noting that if cut along the circular borders, the portraits could be made "fit for Gentlemen and Ladies to put in their Watches."41
The imago clipeata tradition dates from antiquity and most likely derives from the practice of soldiers who bore the emperor's portrait on a circular shield before them as they moved. The format was then used in Early Christian art to provide a cartouche around the figure of Christ so that his body could be represented without implying that it was fully present in the scene along with the other figures. Pointon argues that mid-eighteenth-century profiles were so closely associated with the clipeus form that they adopted its inherent structural significance as a "bearing-forth" of a detached or distant image. The profile, in other words, was understood as a transported vision that made absence present without fully integrating it into the space of the viewer: "The clipeus is used to indicate absence: the device draws together those absent and those present."42 It was structurally identified as an image from elsewhere, a moving and mobile picture, detached from any coherent relation to a specific ground.
These implications of displacement were also reinforced by the Plinian connotations of profile portraiture in the eighteenth century. Pliny's account of the origin of painting in his Natural History describes how a Corinthian maiden, whose lover was about to depart for war, traced the outline of his profile on the wall (fig. 7). This anecdote was common currency in European cultural discourse of the 1760s; it became a frequent subject of British painters by the 1770s and an animating idea behind the popularity of silhouettes and silhouette cutting later in the century.43 In each case, the profile became a token of loss and departure.
It seems logical to suggest that Copley used the profile in Boy with a Flying Squirrel to borrow its portability as well as its prestige. The profile serves as pictorial packaging-a way of preparing a portrait for geographic and temporal displacement. James Bunn, in his article "The Aesthetics of British Mercantilism," argues that the profusion of transported objects arriving in England from the ever-expanding reaches of the global empire required that these objects be cut off from the local and specific contexts that defined their original meaning.44 Copley's profile serves as a pictorial version of that globalizing commodity operation: inasmuch as its deployment of the profile was inseparable from themes of displacement, it was itself a form of excised portraiture. The profile permits the painting to enter an abstract space of transmission and exchange.
The profile also draws the painting into the associational orbit of what was perhaps the most mobile and circulatory of all eighteenth-century objects: the coin (fig. 8).45 During the eighteenth century, as British culture continued to grapple with the advent of modern finance, the money economy, and the attendant volatility of value, the semiotic function of coins and other currency was a topic of intense debate.46 A common subject of discussion was the purported capacity of coinage to serve as a stable, unimpeachable, and universal form of transmission. As David Alvarez has argued, Whig theorists like Joseph Addison showed "a great deal of interest in how information can be transmitted without the risk of interpretation" and turned to the numismatic image as a superior method of communication that could provide a direct connection to antiquity by virtue of its compelling aesthetic force. Ancient coins were understood to have bridged space and time in sprawling empires. And this numismatic transport function had been neatly reinforced for moderns by John Locke, who, in his second treatise on government, argued that specie money circumvents the limitations of time and space because it is portable and does not decay.47It serves as a reliable medium for the storage and transportation of value.
The profile view, then, whether derived from medallion, coin, or other clipeus format, embodied not only "distance" in the honorific sense but also distance in the geographical sense. David Hume explicitly equated ancient portrait medals with world travelers. Explaining why "a very great distance encreases our esteem and admiration for an object," he wrote: "A great traveller, though in the same chamber, will pass for a very extraordinary person; as a Greek medal, even in our cabinet, is always esteemed a valuable curiosity. Here the object, by a natural transition, conveys our views to the distance."48 This idea that medals and coins bear information from afar was also widely explored in new literary formats that drew upon the fluency and mobility of currency in order to imagine narratives of global connection. Consider Joseph Addison's well-known essay "Adventures of a Shilling" (1710), which describes a shilling heaving up onto its edge and speaking, in a "soft Silver Sound," an account of its adventures.49 The shilling describes its birth in a Peruvian silver mine and then proceeds through a narrative of its various owners and the objects for which it was exchanged.
Addison's tale is an early example of the so-called circulation narratives or It-narratives popular throughout Britain and the American colonies in the eighteenth century. In these narratives adventures are related from the perspective of an inanimate object (often a piece of currency) that is exchanged between disparate individuals. Other examples include The Adventures of a Rupee, the Adventures of a Bank Note, the Adventures of a Pincushion, The Genuine Memoirs and Most Surprizing Adventures of a Very Unfortunate Goose-Quill, and so forth. As Liz Bellamy has argued, these narratives emerged as attempts to gain symbolic perspective on the global market economy-a growing network of exchange, influence, and agency that remained too complex to be perceived by any one individual. If circulation narratives granted coins and other commodity objects a voice, it was because in the new global exchange networks, to which no individual could have anything but a fragmentary access, these objects themselves were the only witnesses to the comprehensive sum of their own movements. It-narratives attest to the emergence of Boy with a Flying Squirrel from a cultural moment that was actively exploring the agency of circulating objects in the process of binding together a far-flung empire.50
From Clipeus to Conversation
Copley turned to the profile because it provided a pictorial model of honorific generalization and efficacious long-distance transmission. Yet Boy with a Flying Squirrel is not simply a profile. Other elements of the painting seem to contradict or at least to temper its governing clipeus effect. The polished tabletop, in particular, brokers a complex transformation between the background and the foreground of the painting, shifting the primary surface of illusionary articulation from the vertical, parallel plane of the profile to the orthogonal tabletop and transforming the primary rhetorical mode of the painting from the detached or distracted air of the clipeus to the pointed address of the table corner as it thrusts toward the viewer. It is as if Copley felt that he had to deliver his honorific, generic profile portrait to the viewer in a more intimate, particularizing, and sociable fashion.
Here we might return briefly to Addison's "Adventures of a Shilling" and note that his perambulatory coin undergoes a similar social and spatial transformation. Addison's narrative, after all, is not simply demonstrative. It does not simply show the reader a coin but enlivens the coin as a conversational partner. Addison dramatizes this transformation spatially toward the beginning of the narrative: from its position lying flat on the table, the shilling "reared it self on its Edge, and turning the Face towards me, opened its Mouth, and in a soft Silver Sound gave me the following Account of his Life and Adventures."51 By an act of convivial rotation, heaving itself up from the flat surface to engage the three-dimensional space of the narrator's chamber, the shilling turns itself from an inanimate, reified object-from-afar, a mute specimen of exchange, into a speaking object in a real-time interaction. The shilling turns from a profile into a talking head.
If Addison achieved this fantastical transformation by literary means, Copley did something similar by grafting together two otherwise incompatible conventions of painting: the profile and the conversation piece. The profile portion of Boy with a Flying Squirrel evoked transit and generalization, but the tabletop and its attendant structure of spatial address belonged more securely to genres designed to evoke intimate contact and familiarity. The tabletop echoes the frontal sill that projected illusionistically toward the viewer in Renaissance portraiture, as well as a variety of threshold devices in Dutch and French genre painting. But it evokes most directly (in spirit if not precisely in configuration) the portrait convention of the "conversation piece" that emerged in eighteenth-century Britain as performance and exemplification of a newly urgent form of polite sociality in the public sphere. Evolving from seventeenth-century courtly portraiture, Dutch group portraiture, and Godfrey Kneller's kit-kat portraits of Whig politicians, the conversation piece presumed equivalence and familiarity between sitters in the painting and between the sitters and the viewer.
This rhetoric of familiarity in the conversation piece was partly secured by tables across which the sitters gazed, approximating live contact. In these pictures, the older side table or pedestal table standard in seventeenth-century portraiture, used to support a sitter leaning on it with diffident courtly nonchalance, rotates to the front of the painting, as if to set a place for the viewer and translate the picture plane from a voyeuristic threshold into one of companionable exchange (fig. 9).52 And as Stephen Copley has argued, the ideal sociality of the conversational mode that was reenacted pictorially in the subject matter of the conversation piece was also deployed as the governing metaphor for its reception: "The process of appreciation itself is figured as a species of conversational exchange in terms that at times blur the distinctions between the material and social associations of the term."53 Looking at art presumes, on this model, direct interlocution, ease, and familiarity.
Copley, in painting Boy with a Flying Squirrel, was in a bind: he needed to produce an adequately distanced and generalized painting, but he also wanted to begin an intimate conversation-to join, by proxy, the community of painters in London that he admired. His painting needed to cross two distances: twenty-nine hundred miles of Atlantic ocean and a space in many respects more difficult to navigate successfully: the thirty-six inches or so representing the conversational span between itself and its future viewer in London. The incompatibility of these aims and the awkwardness of Copley's absentee position (thousands of miles from the nearest English tavern or coffeehouse, Copley was automatically excluded from this sort of intimate conversation), help account for the painting's strained and bifurcated spatial configuration.54 Boy with a Flying Squirrel balances contradictory modes: the distant ideality of the portable profile and the intimacy and exclusivity of the conversation piece. One mode accepts its belatedness; the other disavows it to claim the viewer as a direct interlocutor. The painting performs an internal transformation from profile medallion to conversation piece, from an aesthetics of distance, estrangement, and exteriority to one of intimacy, liveliness, and embodiment.
In this sense, Boy with a Flying Squirrel performs and reflects the challenges to the social body posed by a transatlantic interculture. The production of transatlantic community requires the mobilization of generalized tokens of communication and exchange like coins and profiles. But because those same tokens produce fragmentation and detachment, they must be incorporated or reembodied upon disembarkation. Universalizing projects of transport and communication in the eighteenth century (empires, encyclopedias, economies) had to manage the coding of the particular into the general and to prepare for its re-particularization at the other end. Portable generalizations had to be properly reintegrated into specific material situations. For Boy with a Flying Squirrel to overcome the social fragmentation of Copley's relationship to the art community in London, the temporal detachment embodied in the profile needed to be transformed into immediate intimacy. Pelham's generalized head needed to be grafted back into a living matrix of reception.
Copley attempts this in Boy with a Squirrel, not (as in Addison) by having the profile itself turn to face the viewer, but by an analogous spatial torque and projective funneling of compositional elements. Progressing from the curtain in the background to the sharp table corner jutting into the viewer's space in the foreground, the painting shifts from a planar image to an evocative projection of a fully rounded world. Simultaneously, along the same axis, it leads the viewer through a process of sensory concentration, from disconnected, heterogeneous sensation in the curtain and profile to a synthesized sensorium in the body of the squirrel. That Copley means viewers to read these planes in deliberate progression is evident in the congruent forms he pulls through the depth axis of the painting. To begin with, there are strange markings spread across the background drapery that function like premonitory echoes of the boy's head (fig. 10).The fold in the curtain to the left of the face reiterates precisely the shape of the boy's eye.55 The shape to the right of the head suggests a similar displacement, mirroring the folds of the ear but also, in its angle and hinging, the boy's mouth. It is as if Copley were attempting to show a transition, in the move from curtain to profile, from precursory graphic signs to an evocation of bodily plenitude.
But Pelham's profile is still quite flat, and Copley evokes the boy as a sensory being so that he seems to retain some of the scattered or diffracted qualities of the markings in the drapery behind him. As in any profile rendering, his eye is cleaved from his ear, the two organs on perpendicular trajectories separated by an expanse of cheek. In other words, Pelham looks in one direction and listens in another. This sensory dispersion, along with the seemingly distracted way in which his hand fiddles with the squirrel's chain, helps explain why his attitude in this picture has often been described as that of a daydream or reverie. Pelham's head may be pinned to the canvas, but his mind, Copley suggests, is elsewhere. Such effects reinforce, at a narrative level, the detachment and discontinuity inherent in the profile format. They also differentiate Copley's painting from Chardin's, in which the boy's absorbed attention to his task helps unify and concentrate the composition overall (see fig. 5).56
Indeed, Copley's deviation from Chardin's model here is just as notable as his adherence to its basic recipe of elements. Chardin's scenes of childhood play have been noted for their production of aesthetic self-enclosure. (For Michael Fried, they are nothing less than early expressions of the modernist autonomy of painting.)57 Whatever the validity of this reading of Chardin, Copley's Boy with a Flying Squirrel is, in contrast, much more adamantly phatic. We might see Copley's painting as a socially and spatially "stretched" version of the Chardin: it is far more insistent in evoking an extrinsic space (indexed by Pelham's gaze), and also more importunate (with its jutting table corner) in its appeals to the viewer before the painting. The core aesthetic of both paintings centers on a tabletop, but Copley's treats that tabletop as a surface of active relay between places rather than an isolated space of absorbed play.
That relay is not merely spatial but also sensory. Even as the painting proclaims a state of sensory dispersion or fragmentation in the profile, it pictures the conversion of that fragmentation into a unitary sensory bundle delivered to the viewer in the figure of the squirrel. The formal kinship between the squirrel and the boy invites comparison of the two figures. The gentle curve of the squirrel's shoulder echoes the boy's shoulder (as well as the curve of the back of the boy's hand), the point of its nose picks up the triangular curve of the boy's jaw, and-most conspicuous-the meticulously painted white-edged ruff of the squirrel's underbelly presents an exact retracing of the folds of the boy's ear. In these echoes, the sensory marks disposed centrifugally in the boy gather, condense, and even conflate synesthetically in the compact body of the squirrel. Whereas the boy's hand, mouth, and nose are disconnected, for the squirrel, touch, taste, and smell all meet in the knotted junction of claw, nose, and nut (which is itself joined in a compact triangle with eye and ears). The other visual conjunction or condensation permitted-but only by the body of the squirrel-is the animal's gaze connecting the painting and the viewer. The squirrel, like an internal pictorial supercargo, delivers the bundle of sensory information to the viewer.
Spatially, then, the painting moves from flatness to fullness; sensorially, from scatter to synthesis. This shift from flat, abstract background to vivid, embodied foreground is consistent with Copley's other American paintings. As Margaretta Lovell has shown, Copley's composition during these years was based in chiaroscuro and figure-background layering rather than strictly in linear perspective. Indeed, the art books Copley read promoted projective figuration as the primary means to lifelikeness: Daniel Webb, in his 1761 Inquiry into the Beauties of Painting, encouraged painters to attain "that roundness or projection, by which figures are disengaged from their fond, and spring, as it were, from canvas into life."58 But Copley's application of these techniques in Boy with a Flying Squirrel was hardly workmanlike or unreflective. The rhythmic exactitude with which he managed the illusion of objects springing "from their fond"-pulling congruent forms through a series of spatial transformations, as in the earlike shape that travels from the curtain, to the profile, to the squirrel's body-suggests otherwise. Boy with a Squirrel has a metapictorial intensity that had not been evident in Copley's earlier work; it has the character of a demonstration of the ability of painting to deliver cohesive sensory experience from afar.
Empire and Empiricism
In its concern with sensation, Boy with a Flying Squirrel participates in the broader Enlightenment discourse of empiricism. The intensity of observation in Copley's American paintings has been associated with empiricism before; as Barbara Novak has phrased it, "The problem of how the external world is perceived is an urgent issue" in Copley's time.59 But whereas Novak gives Copley's empiricism a nativist bent, connecting it to an essentially American desire to get at the unvarnished truth of things, I emphasize instead the status of empiricism as a quintessentially transatlantic project. For Novak, first writing about Copley in the 1960s, his empiricism ("the need to grasp reality, to ascertain the physical thereness of things") was "a necessary component of the American experience" that was constantly threatened by Copley's dalliance with the imported European illusionistic conventions that would "master and, in many ways, destroy him after he fled from Boston to Europe."60 Novak's influential definition of empiricism as a provincial artistic project has had two problematic effects on later analysis of Copley's work. First: by tying empiricism to American essentialism, her reading effectively foreclosed it as a topic of serious analysis for later scholars more interested in the transnational qualities of Copley's painting. Indeed, compared with scholarship on French and English art of the eighteenth century, which has devoted significant attention to sensationalist philosophy and painting, writing on American and American colonial painting of the same period has remained eerily silent on the topic. Second: the nativist view of empiricism as a project opposed to the importation of conventions obscures the close and indeed structural connection between empiricism and importation, between empiricism and the long-distance transmission of goods and ideas.
Empiricist tracts grappled constantly with problems of communication and perception across long distances. Locke, George Berkeley, and Hume were each consumed by the problem of distance, particularly its effect on the strength of sense impressions. Hume, for example, wrote at length about how and why spatial and temporal removals produce a "diminution of vivacity" in the perception and/or recollection of "foreign and remote objects."61 These questions about "removal" also drove the development of communications and commodity exchange across the Atlantic Ocean and across the other spatiotemporal gaps separating areas of the dilating British Empire.
There is surprisingly little discussion of the relationship between empire and empiricism in the literature of the Atlantic world; what there is tends to focus on how empiricism's encouragement of data gathering helped drive and justify expansion and colonialism, and how imperial contact with the variable cultural worlds of distant peoples helped strain belief in the innate basis of ideas and reinforced the skeptical energies of empiricist thought.62 Copley's paintings are uniquely positioned to reveal another connection: because imperial enterprise interjects unprecedented distances and delays (extensions and durations, in empiricist terms) into communal life, it forces imperial subjects, especially those at the peripheries, to manage and address the issue of sensory continuity through space and time. In empiricist discourse, removals in time and space could threaten to tear apart the very fabric of subjectivity and society. The blind intermission the Atlantic imposed between far-flung members of the British Empire was perhaps the most substantial challenge imaginable to the continuity and juxtaposition of sense impressions and the principles of association that provided empiricists with "the only links that bind the parts of the universe together."63 Indeed, to send an object across the Atlantic was to confront, on an unavoidably practical level, the theoretical durations and extensions that populated empiricist tracts. Copley's paintings help reveal the shared concerns for connection over distance that animated both empire and empiricism.
The broader implications of Copley's empiricism are evident in his most ambitious and accomplished later American paintings, his series of "tabletop pictures" that Boy with a Flying Squirrel prefigured. I expand the discussion here to these works, which include (in order of execution) Paul Revere, 1768 (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston); Mrs. Humphrey Devereux (Mary Charnock), 1771 (see fig. 12); Mrs. Ezekiel Goldthwait (Elizabeth Lewis), 1771 (see fig. 13); Mrs. Richard Skinner (Dorothy Wendell), 1772 (see fig. 11); Mrs. Dorothy Quincy, 1772 (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston); Mrs. John Winthrop (Hannah Fayerweather), 1773 (see fig. 16); Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Mifflin (Sarah Morris), 1773 (Philadelphia Museum of Art); and Mr. and Mrs. Isaac Winslow (Jemima Debuke), 1773 (see fig. 21). I would also add Mr. and Mrs. Ralph Izard (1775, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston) to this group. (It was among the first paintings Copley made after leaving the colonies.) Featuring sitters addressing viewers across highly polished tables, these paintings have come to exemplify Copley's precise American style, notable for its divergence from the loose, brushy facture popular in London and practiced by the likes of Reynolds and Gainsborough.
The tables in these paintings are not without precedent: as noted above, they derive partly from thresholds and visual supports in Renaissance portraiture and Dutch and French genre and still-life painting. Probably their closest visual analogues lie in the portraits of Holbein and his followers, which Copley would have known well through British prints. But Copley developed the table motif to a level of polish, emphasis, and metapictorial investment not seen before or, arguably, since. In each of Copley's tabletop paintings, the orthogonal surface of the table occupies and defines the space implied between the sitter and the viewer, mediating the exchange of visual information in the painting. On this surface, the elbows, palms, forearms, wrists, and fingertips of the sitters-along with the objects they hold-generate precise reflections. Copley takes evident delight in the forms that unfold from the meeting of flesh and reflection, such as the striated orb-like shape that develops from the reflected hand in Mrs. Richard Skinner (Dorothy Wendell) of 1772 (fig. 11). These half-reflected forms install bursts of spatial complexity in the portraits, producing illusions of multidimensional fullness that partly transcend the two-dimensional limitations of pictorial representation. Although in reality the reflected image of Dorothy Wendell's hand occupies the same plane of the two-dimensional canvas as the rest of the portrait, it helps generate a multidimensional impression by replicating itself along other implied axes. The hand seems to lurk below the surface of the table and also appears to stretch forward toward the viewer along the tabletop. Copley is careful, moreover, to show that the reflection adds information the predominant point of view in the portrait cannot reveal-note that Mrs. Skinner's little finger is more dramatically crooked in reflection than can be seen in her foreshortened real hand.
Like Boy with a Flying Squirrel, many of the later tabletop pictures also engaged issues of long-distance sensory adjudication and dimensional conversion. Mrs. Humphrey Devereux (fig. 12), for example, was painted explicitly to produce and maintain a sensory and mnemonic connection across the Atlantic. The portrait, painted in Boston, was commissioned for the sitter's sixtieth birthday by John Greenwood, her son, who, living in London, was a painter, art importer, and founding member of the Society of Artists.64 Although these paintings were not all produced for dispatch across the Atlantic, all of them thematized transmission and sensory connection in a world where these processes were governed by transatlantic challenges, doing so by virtue of the aesthetic strategies Copley had been compelled to develop when painting Boy with a Flying Squirrel. None of them are profiles, but most share with Boy with a Flying Squirrel the structure discussed above, in which the hands of a distracted or otherwise distanced sitter (along with other objects) are captured and relayed by the surface of a polished tabletop. Copley's elaborate treatments of reflection and polish turn these tabletops into metasurfaces for the process of long-distance communication. Overall, they are strenuously hopeful essays in the capacity of painting to deliver transitive form and thereby to hold "the parts of the universe together."
Copley's access to empiricist philosophy is difficult to trace precisely. It is impossible to determine whether he had read specific empiricist authors and particular tracts-or whether (as is more likely) he absorbed information about sensationalist philosophy secondhand, from conversation and from widespread discussion in the general literature. It is clear from both his writings and paintings that two tenets of empiricist thought were central to his work: first, the notion (most purely articulated in Berkeley) that external objects can be perceived only by synthesizing, in the mind, independent data from the visual and the tactile senses, and second, a general vocabulary of ideas and impressions in which immediate experience is "impression" and its vitiated afterlife, experienced as reflection or memory, is "idea."
George Berkeley, perhaps the most important theoretician of vision in the eighteenth century and a figure closely tied to Copley and Boston, argued in his essays on vision that the outside world arrives at the threshold of consciousness as a set of heterogeneous sensory impressions that must be synthesized by the perceiver. He noted, for example, that the perception of distance or depth is not purely visual but requires the synthesis of visual and tactile perception.65 For Berkeley, vision provided only a flat pattern of color and light: "What we immediately and properly see are only lights and colours in sundry situations and shades, and degrees of faintness and clearness, confusion and distinctness."66 Distance and depth are not immediately seen; they require that the mind coordinate the planar visual patterns with the information gained by exploring the tactile world. Berkeley called this a process of "incorporation" because the fullness of the world could be produced only in the act of its proper ingestion and assembly by the body and mind.
Ann Gibson and Lucia Palmer have argued that Copley, as a Bostonian and a painter, could not possibly have avoided Berkeley's theories. Berkeley had traveled to New England in 1729 with John Smibert, who became a close friend and associate of the engraver Peter Pelham, Copley's stepfather, in Boston. Berkeley's ideas had a deep impact on Smibert's painting techniques, and Copley gained much of his knowledge about painting in Smibert's studio and library.67 Although forensic and theoretical connections between Copley and Berkeley would not alone justify making an interpretive connection between them, there was already something in Copley's own painting of his tabletops that compelled him to tap into this particular period philosophy.68 For Copley, Berkeley's questions about distance and sensory fragmentation were not dry or hypothetical. The issues in play in contemporary empiricism-how are objects at a distance perceived?-were direct operational challenges to Copley as a painter and particularly as a transatlantic painter.
As mentioned above, a key aspect of Berkeley's theory was the heterogeneity of the senses. The information gained from looking at awater glass three feet away is purely visual; the information acquired by touching it is purely tactile. These two bodies of information never cohere in reality (and for Berkeley, the glass seen and the glass touched are two entirely different objects); one can only perceive a "glass at a distance of three feet" by synthetic operations of the mind. Like language, these synthetic operations are learned, although they happen so quickly and habitually as to seem natural and automatic. "Hence it is, we find it so difficult to discriminate between the immediate [disassembled] and mediate [synthesized] objects of sight, and are so prone to attribute to the former, what belongs only to the latter. They are, as it were, most closely twisted, blended, and incorporated together."69 Berkeley wanted to interrupt and thereby denaturalize this process to reveal it. He led his readers through a series of examples that served to untwist, unblend, and disincorporate these ideas, if only for a moment, to reveal the mechanics of perception.
Significantly, painting was one of the examples Berkeley called on to help him make his argument about sensory heterogeneity. He argued that the visual illusions routinely proffered in paintings demonstrate that visual impressions are not naturally or necessarily connected to the tangible objects they evoke. What looks, in a painting, like the object called water glass does not feel like a water glass; it feels instead like a flat surface coated with dried oil paint. "That there is no necessary connexion between visible and tangible ideas suggested by them, we need go no further than the next looking-glass or picture to be convinced," he commented.70 Even as this example demystified the operations of painting, however, it emphasized the centrality of the art in the empiricist discourse of sensory conveyance and highlighted its power to evoke (if somewhat deceptively) the presence of objects and to deliver the sensory experience of distant objects to a viewer.
This power would have been interesting to Copley, and Boy with a Flying Squirrel, in its play between flatness and volume, surface and depth, and the disconnection and regathering of sensory information, showcases precisely this process. The glass and hand on the table are particularly relevant in relation to the delamination and synthesis of the visual and the tangible. As noted earlier, Copley painted the hand so that the curve of the chain appears to span precisely the diameter of the tumbler of water. This makes it appear, at first glance, that the hand hovers directly over the glass. But closer inspection reveals a visual deception,for in fact the hand is placed well behind the glass. If one could slide the tumbler back so that it actually did sit just underneath Pelham's fingers, it would (visually) contract, and its diameter would no longer correspond to the measure provided by the chain. The placement of the glass is too provocative to be merely accidental. Copley set it precisely where it would engender maximum confusion about its size and position. It sets in play on the table a full-fledged drama of calibration: although the boy's hand measurement of the diameter of the glass is correct in one universe (the tactile world of the painting as a two-dimensional object, in which glass and hand share the flat surface of the painting), it is incorrect in the other one (the optical world in which glass and hand share the flat surface of the illusionary table).71
In explaining the heterogeneity of visual and tactile measurement, Berkeley argued that visual inches and tactile inches were categorically different. Whereas an inch marked on a ruler always remains the same when measured by a finger held against it, that same inch has "a different visible extension," depending upon the distance of the ruler from the eye.72 By suggesting the equivalence of the visual span of the glass (which already connotes optics and lenses) to the tactile span of the hand but then demonstrating that equivalence to be false, Copley invites his viewers to acknowledge that they have actively equated visual and tactile inches and have therefore performed a synthetic act. The habitual synthetic operations that permit painterly illusionism erupt into uncanny visibility here on Copley's table. The glass-hand puzzle interrupts the viewer's easy and automatic apprehension of the image, revealing the operation that makes that illusionism possible. Copley pries apart vision and touch just enough to claim their bravura synthesis-and with it the successful delivery of sensory information to the body and mind of the observer-for his own art of painting.
Copley's other tabletop paintings stage similar visual-tactile dynamics. As two-dimensional illusions, Copley's paintings cannot escape their own status as mere "lights and colours" on a flat plane. But as if attempting to overcome this fragmentation, they go out of their way to encourage the viewer to synthesize the optical information on offer with memories of tactile experience and thereby to produce a fully incorporated reception of the painting. In Mrs. Richard Skinner (see fig. 11),for example, the well of forms created by the deep reflections in the table as they align with the front of the sitter's dress creates an axis of confusion in depth similar to that in the hand-and-glass passage in Boy with a Flying Squirrel. Most of the reflections in these polished tabletops, moreover, are of hands and the tactile manipulations in which they engage. As they blossom into reflection on the tabletops, the hands are joined to their optical doubles, synthesizing tactile and optical worlds. Within these oscillatory reflections, scenes of reconciliation between tactile and optical sensation are repeatedly staged. The optical and tactile sides of the divide complete each other (while also revealing their essential scission) in reflection: hands and the objects they hold are "unfolded" into a heightened impression of multidimensional reality by virtue of the reflections that reveal their appearance from multiple angles. At the same time, the immaterial reflections are substantiated by their attachment to hands and solid objects. Mrs. Ezekiel Goldthwait (Elizabeth Lewis) (fig. 13) is especially suggestive in this regard. The formal theme of the painting emphasizes sensory plenitude through doubling. As the circular tray holding the peaches meets its reflection in the table below, its mirrored form recalls the peaches themselves, which consist of fleshy half-spheres joined at a cleft. Tray, table, and peaches then echo Mrs. Goldthwait's ample form (with "double chin").
Copley's tabletops, then, serve both as stages for and performances of tactile-optical syntheses. In this sense, they directly recall a celebrated table in the history of perceptual philosophy, namely, the table in Molyneux's Problem, which functioned, arguably, as the primal scene of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century empiricism. Here is Locke's description: "Suppose a man born blind, and now adult, and taught by his touch to distinguish between a cube, and a sphere of the same metal, and nighly of the same bigness, so as to tell, when he felt one and t'other, which is the cube, which the sphere. Suppose then the cube and sphere placed on a table, and the blind man to be made to see: Quaere, Whether by his sight, before he touch'd them, he could now distinguish, and tell, which is the globe, which the cube."73
Locke and Berkeley argued that the blind man would be unable to distinguish the two forms by sight; only after he had handled the objects while looking at them, and learned to associate their tactile contours with their visual contours, could he recognize objects simply by looking at them. If Molyneux's table is a charged surface across which the adjudication of sensory knowledge takes place, so are Copley's tables, across which the viewer of the painting receives the visual information that the painter offers and extrapolates its three-dimensional reference. Although Copley hardly presumes the literal blindness of his viewer, his paintings engineer and allegorize something like an experience of "first sight." This operation, the encounter with data from a distance, is for Copley a form of active re-collection and "incorporation" (to use Berkeley's term).74 In moving from background to foreground, the viewer actively translates flattened, heterogeneous, dismembered sensory information into whole bounded bodies or objects. Some assembly, to proffer a suitable anachronism, is required.
Tables and table-like surfaces are conspicuous presences in eighteenth-century sensationalist discourse. Along with Molyneux's table there is Locke's tabula rasa, which figured the act of sensory apprehension as the creation of impressions of images on a tabular surface. Copley's tables are deeply implicated in this discourse of impression as well. In the empiricist discourse about impression (I take Hume as exemplary), those things that caused the most powerful and immediate impact on the mind ("those which enter with most force and violence") were called "impressions"; "ideas" were "the faint images of these in thinking and reasoning."75 These ideas, when later recalled from memory and reflected upon, could cause new impressions ("impressions of reflection").76 The oscillation from impression to idea and back again could theoretically continue indefinitely:
An impression first strikes upon the senses, and makes us perceive heat or cold, thirst or hunger, pleasure or pain of some kind or other. Of this impression there is a copy taken by the mind, which remains after the impression ceases; and this we call an idea. This idea of pleasure or pain, when it returns upon the soul, produces the new impressions of desire and aversion, hope and fear, which may properly be call'd impressions of reflection because deriv'd from it. These are again copy'd by the memory and imagination, and become ideas; which perhaps in their turn give rise to other impressions and ideas.77
The efficacy of the preservation, transmission, and refreshment of sensation was linked to values of indexicality, precision, and replicability: precisely the operations in play on Copley's tables. Copley's letters indicate that he was familiar with the distinctions between ideas and impressions, their relation to the preservative capacity of memory, and the applicability of all of these notions to painting.78 Moreover, Copley's artisanal apprenticeship (such as it was) was in printmaking, where getting a good "impression" involved peeling away reversed images from a matrix on a table-like bed.
Copley builds tropes of memory, sensory continuity, and impression into the reflective structure of the paintings, so that the paintings perform their own convertibility between idea and impression and therefore their capacity to forge a continuity of consciousness. The reflections attest to the force and vivacity of the image, inasmuch as they advertise the painting's own capacity to leave an impression, to copy itself on the mind, or to toggle between image and impression. It is as if, for Copley, the sheer force and vivacity of his portraits have caused them to leave imprints on their own interior surfaces. The reversed contours of the shapes visually impressed in the tabletops present this image of simultaneous replicability and stability: the image is dynamic because it can be transferred from surface to surface, place to place, or person to person-but the reflections also "lock" the portraits into place, as if to vouch for their ability to be securely apprehended. Copley's tabletops, then, prompt synthetic incorporation in the viewer producing and perpetuating impressions. Both functions assert the capacity of Copley's pictures to overcome gaps in long-distance perceptual continuity.
These paintings attempt to ensure their own efficient embodied delivery in one other way. Virtually every contemporary art theorist in Europe at the time called for immediacy, instantaneity, and unity in paintings so as to avoid the interruption or deflection of attention and thus the "diminution of vivacity" that Hume and others described. As Reynolds put it, the painter should avoid "whatever may in any way serve to divide the attention of the spectator."79 Roger de Piles, in his Principles of Painting, which Copley had read in English translation, claimed that paintings should work "to hinder the eye from being dissipated, and to fix it agreeably."80
For many theorists, the most problematic formal dissipations were those that drew too much attention from the upper half of the canvas (territory of the head and hands, primary loci of expressive rationalism) to the lower half. Copley got a direct lesson about this in 1767, when he sent to the Society of Artists a follow-up to Boy with a Flying Squirrel, titled Young Lady with a Bird and Dog (fig. 14),without, as mentioned in the introduction, having had sufficient time to incorporate a response to comments he had received on the first painting. This painting was compared unfavorably to Boy with a Flying Squirrel, which, although it had been "to liney" and had suffered from "over minuteness," had nonetheless managed better to subordinate the lower half of the painting. On the comparisons made in the Academy room, Captain Bruce reported, "Mr. Reynolds and the Majority prefer the first [Boy with a Flying Squirrel], because in that you have made the under parts of the Picture more subordinate to the principal than in the last, where they say the under parts such as the Dog, Parrot Carpet etc., are too brilliant and highly finished in proportion to the Head and Hands."81 Copley absorbed this advice (from Reynolds and others) so well that he was careful to pass it along to Pelham later on. In a letter to Pelham from London, in which he suggests that Pelham might "try somthing for an Exhibition," he admonishes him to "be carefull as you go towards the bottum of your Canvis to mannage your objects that they do not take the eye."82
Another benefit of the tabletop motif for Copley, then, was that it allowed him to subordinate what we might call the nether regions of the painting while maintaining an overall consistency of sharpness and finish. The tabletops cast the bottom half of the painting (along with the "under parts" of the sitter) into shadow or obliterate it from view altogether. In its place are the reflections of the sitters' hands-doubled reinforcements of the top of the painting.
Copley's tabletop reenactments of empiricist tenets, however sophisticated, were not simply dry demonstrations of theoretical knowledge. Empiricism's promise that perceptual information could be successfully delivered, synthesized, and incorporated across distance had immediate urgency for Copley not only as a painter but also as a colonist. Consider how closely the empiricist dynamics in Copley's tabletop paintings, in which objects unfold into synthetic impression across thresholds of exchange, mirrored the workaday dynamics of reception that pervaded social and economic life in colonial Boston. Indeed, what is perhaps most compelling about Copley's empiricism is that it restages the transatlantic commodity exchange and consumption that pervaded the colonial Atlantic world. Throughout this world, the shipping and reception of commodities and information constituted a drama of dimensional conversion, expansion, animation, and incorporation.
Every scrap of knowledge that American colonists had about England, every image, every object, every memory, had to be physically transported thousands of miles across the water on a ship. "England" was a cargo of ideas, accessible only as a vitiated packet of information: parcellated, modularized, dehydrated, pickled, or pressed. It arrived in schematic form and needed, upon arrival, to be concretized.83 Objects did not usually pop out of ships, in other words, ready to be passively consumed. Consider the complex processes of physical and perceptual transformation involved in loading and unloading even the most basic staples of transatlantic commerce. The shipment of necessities like molasses, rum, pitch, and potash, for example, required the skilled and specialized work (not to mention the specialized vocabulary) of the cooper, who handled the heading and unheading, shifting, lining, drawing, bunging and unbunging, truckage and porterage of the finely built casks (caggs, hogsheads, pipes, and so forth) that were the workhorses of transatlantic shipping. Such practices of material recalibration were part of the very fabric of maritime existence for Copley and his clients. (A single daybook of the Boston cooper Joshua Pico, covering the spring and summer of 1765, includes accounts with several of Copley's sitters).84 In these material techniques and transformations lies the intersection of transit and consumption-indeed an entire material philosophy of movement, communication, and reception. The efflorescence of forms as they pass Copley's polished table thresholds is analogous in many ways to the bustle and din of the colonial threshold of Boston Harbor, where commodities burst out of crates and caggs and began the process of sensory transplantation on which the survival of British colonial culture depended.
These processes didn't end at the waterline but constituted a way of colonial life. In architectural pattern books, the bodies of buildings in England and Europe are flattened, modularized, and atomized before being resynthesized and reincorporated into habitable buildings in America. Bolts of imported textiles unfold and recombine into sewn ensembles-in Margaretta Lovell's words "kinetic sculptures"-on the bodies of colonists. Tea expands not on but in the bodies of colonists, its rehydration a literal sensory incorporation. Seeds inflate into plants in the body of the colonial earth. Etiquette books and comportment manuals are performed in colonial bodily gestures (Copley's stepfather was a Boston dancing master as well as a printmaker). And prints are copied into paintings that are "incorporated" with color and chiaroscuro.85 The squirrel in Boy with a Flying Squirrel-breaking open and consuming a nut as if to echo the opening of the painting's own wooden crate and its subsequent aesthetic incorporation-serves as a demonstration of this entire process. The aptness of Copley's choice of a flying squirrel for the painting is also evident here. The body of the flying squirrel, when flying, is the most perfect mammalian analogue imaginable of a stretched canvas in transit (fig. 15), and more generally, the flying squirrel's body is a convertible one that is capable of transformation between flatness and fullness. In flight (transmission), it is schematically flat, its body nearly unrecognizable, but on land again it reconstitutes itself into a whole, three-dimensional body. How better to simulate the aims of the painting itself?
All the transatlantic consumption activities discussed above were manifestly social and socializing processes that bound far-flung members of the empire through conventional practices of sensory reception. Often the objects on Copley's tabletops are marked specifically as transatlantic delegates that have (or will have) experienced such transformation. As Paul Staiti has shown, for example, the nectarine branch that Mrs. John Winthrop proudly displays on her table (fig. 16) was the result of a complex operation in which imported nectarine stock was grafted into American trees.86 Indeed, this process of grafting is a serviceable analogy for colonial processes of reception generally-portable, partial information from a distance must be reattached to local American bodies upon receipt. In the same way, Copley's tabletop sensory synthetics attempt to ensure that the painting itself might be grafted onto the viewer's living sensory matrix.
Theory and Artisanship in Colonial Art Communication
Issues of sensory incorporation had high stakes not only for Copley as a colonist but also for Copley as a colonial painter. His constant challenge in teaching himself to paint in Boston was to translate the vitiated imported information he received about painting in shipped books and engravings into his own bodily practice (techniques of painting) and into fully fleshed-out oil paintings. In drawing attention to the sensory deprivation of Copley's position as an artist, I have implicitly contested the long-standing assumption that his work in America was characterized primarily by an artisanal rather than a theoretical sensibility.87 The literature on colonial American painting has persistently equated provinciality and theoretical naïveté; in Copley's case it is imperative to decouple these notions. Copley was a painter without a serious mentor, living three thousand miles from the nearest academy and subsisting without access to any of the original old-master paintings that formed the sacred core of period aesthetics in Europe. But he was not therefore merely a "mechanick," nor was his painting (as generations of isolationist critics have asserted) sincere, direct, and innocent of European theoretical contamination.88 If anything, it was the opposite. It cannot be argued that Copley had no theoretical access to European aesthetics; on the contrary, theoretical access was almost the only kind he had. References in his letters provide direct evidence that he had closely read Francesco Algarotti, Charles du Fresnoy, Roger de Piles, Horace Walpole, Daniel Webb, and George Turnbull; but his sphere of reading was almost certainly much larger and probably included key tracts by Shaftesbury, Jonathan Richardson, Joseph Addison, and William Hogarth as well. His provinciality increased his reliance on theory and highlighted the difficulty of translating that theory into practice.89
Indeed, Copley felt excluded, not from the theoretical, but rather from the kinesthetic and mechanical traditions of painting-its performative secrets and material practices. He had far more access to the mind of painting than to its body. Beyond written art treatises, his visual understanding of the history of art was restricted almost entirely to engravings.90 His constant challenge was to take this coded, abstracted, portable, grayscale data about painting and attempt to transform it into fully fleshed-out artifacts that might somehow incorporate the color, facture, scale, and tactility of "painting," something that happened thousands of miles away. He did have access to a few copies of old-master paintings scattered along the Eastern Seaboard; these, he studied intensely for clues to the true touch of the originals.91 When he finally got to Italy in 1775 to study such paintings directly for the first time, he wrote letters back to Pelham (who was then working to become a painter himself) that indicate the immense care with which he had examined every inch of these copies in America. Writing from Parma, for example, he raves about the inimitable transparency of Titian's color and suggests that the only passage of paint on the Eastern Seaboard even remotely similar to it is "the knee and part of the thigh of the little Jesus in the Madonna's lap at Mr. Chardons."92
Copley's letters to Pelham from Italy also brim with technical advice-detailed practical tips about things like the proper ratios of gum mastic and turpentine-rather than flighty arias about theory and ideal beauty.93 Having deduced Raphael's method of composing ambitious multifigure paintings by looking closely at his preparatory drawings, Copley describes the method to Pelham and adds: "I hope you will be profited by this very perticular Account of my proceedings.... I should have been happy to have had such a plain account of the process when I was in America, and what may seem trifling to a Man who has not known the want of such information, I know to be of the last importance to one who has not had an oppertunity of knowing the manner the great Masters have pursued their Goddess with success."94 He bemoans the general ekphrastic inadequacy of the "Eligant treatise[s] on the Art" that he had read in Boston.95 Blaming European art discourse for its air of presumptive proximity, he writes to Pelham: "Those who have wrote on the subject seem always to suppose their Readers to have the Works of the Great Masters before them; hence they are very defective and convey little or no Idea, at least no just Idea, of their Works."96
Failure to Deliver: Watson and the Shark and the Boston Tea Party
Copley's tabletop paintings contest the deficiencies of transmission by positing themselves as objects that can ensure lossless communication, fixative impression, and plenary perception and might therefore link far-flung colonial subjects in communities of embodied conviviality. This, at any rate, was the ideal. In reality, Copley was living through the spectacular breakdown of these relations in the years leading up to the Revolutionary War. He painted Boy with a Flying Squirrel in the midst of the Stamp Act crisis and continued painting in Boston for nearly a decade as controversies about nonimportation agreements, violent resistance to excise duties, and other expressions of consumption politics raged around him. The breaking point in colonial relations (according to Copley as well as many modern historians) was the Boston Tea Party of December 1773 (then called the Destruction of the Tea), when a group of patriots armed with hatchets stormed three ships at dock that were holding dutied tea from England, broke open the chests, and dumped the tea into Boston Harbor. After this incident, Copley, because of his Loyalist connections, could not remain in the city for long. Making good on his long-postponed plans to travel abroad for artistic training, he left for Italy in 1774 and joined his family in London in 1775, never to return to America.
It is no accident that the figures in Copley's tabletop paintings all have the air of taking tea even though none of them are actually depicted doing so. The paintings evoke long-distance sensory incorporation, and the consumption of tea was both the primary practice and the master metaphor for that incorporation in the British Empire at the time. Tea was a global commodity, elaborately processed and packed, shipped thousands of miles, and then reincorporated not only by drinking it but also by performing elaborate gestural rituals that redoubled the communal function of consumption. To take tea was to be in intimate conversation with one's own immediate compatriots and with England.
In the years before and after the Boston Tea Party, the misincorporation or misdelivery of tea came to symbolize the collapse of the integrated transatlantic body of the British Empire. The imposition of unfavourable mercantile relations and the resistance to those relations were often represented in contemporary visual culture, for example, as a forcible introjection of tea into hapless bodies (fig. 17).In the Boston Tea Party itself, opposition to British policies was performed as the refusal to "take" tea properly, by the enforced spoilage of the tea cargo, prematurely brewed in the harbor. Indeed, themes of imperfect or interrupted delivery-quarantine, spoilage, and wreckage-functioned throughout the theater of revolutionary politics. Questions of failed or refused importation were politicized during the very years that Copley was working so strenuously to develop an aesthetic of perfect perceptual delivery. The fragility of that aesthetic in Copley's tabletop images becomes clear in the circumstances of its unraveling around the Tea Party crisis.
If Copley's American portraits had attempted to imagine a lossless transfer of perceptual experience over distance, Watson and the Shark, the famous modern history painting Copley completed in London in 1778, revised and ultimately renounced that hope (fig. 18). Although the radical differences between Watson and the Shark and Copley's colonial tabletop portraits derive partly from developments in Copley's academic training and the shift in genre from portraiture to history painting, the historical politics of delivery in the Revolutionary period, particularly as crystallized in the Boston Tea Party, can also productively illuminate them. The Tea Party-the most momentous political event of Copley's time in America and one in which Copley himself was deeply involved-was also an event that might be described as the most spectacular misdelivery of the Revolutionary era. Watson and the Shark wrestles with the failure of transatlantic communal life and the broader catastrophe in Anglo-American material relations that the Tea Party represented. The painting also imagines the implications of that failure for the function and meaning of art itself.
Copley left Boston in June 1774, just as the British began barricading Boston Harbor in punishment for the Tea Party.97 Soon after taking a grand tour of Italy and moving permanently to London, he began work on Watson and the Shark, his first large-scale history painting. The overt subject of the paintingis well known: a perilous incident in the young life of the British merchant Brook Watson. In 1749, at the age of fourteen, Watson had slipped overboard the merchant ship he was working on to take a quick swim in Havana Harbor.98 While swimming, he was nearly killed by a shark. It attacked twice, first stripping off all the skin on one leg, then taking much of the leg itself, just below the knee. Watson's comrades, meanwhile, were frantically rowing out to save him. The painting meets the narrative just at the moment the rowboat arrives and the shark comes around for a third (presumably final) blow.
Commissioned by Watson and exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1778,99 Watson and the Shark was an immediate sensation. It was a stunningly original composition; indeed, it was aesthetically subversive for many of the reasons attributed, nearly fifty years later, to Géricault's Raft of the Medusa:100 it lavished grand-manner treatment on an event from recent history, it transformed the modest genre of the sea piece by elevating it to history painting and focusing on figures rather than seascape, and it placed a black figure at the apex of the composition. It is now recognized both as a seminal work of modern history painting and as one of the first articulations of the romantic sublime in the visual arts.
The fundamental question animating the scholarship on Watson and the Shark is this: What led Copley to believe that a merchant's terrifying but historically inconsequential childhood swimming accident had the necessary resonance to support a modern history painting of this scope and ambition? Although existing commentaries focus on the painting's religious resonance, its alignment with early American salvation narratives, its relationship to contemporary political prints, and its intersection with debates about the slave trade-and Copley's workis fully legible in each of these terms-Watson and the Shark also functions as a meditation on the breakdown of transatlantic material relations and thus on the breakdown of the model of plenary, synthetic perception Copley had perfected in his portraits. Although Watson and the Shark, as an enormous history painting, may seem to have nothing to do with Copley's more modest tabletops, those earlier works form the compositional and thematic template from which the later painting both emerges and diverges. The Watson painting, like each of the tabletops, is defined by the intersection of vertical figures with an orthogonal plane that stretches forward to engage the perceptual space of the viewer. This plane is defined in Watson by the surface of the water, and in the portraits by the watery reflective surfaces of the tables. Such compositional similarities only emphasize the profound renunciation in the Watson painting of the tabletops' perceptual functions.
Images of the Boston Tea Party are surprisingly scarce, despite the status of the event as conspicuous political spectacle and its pivotal role in triggering the American Revolution. Most of the illustrations now used in history textbooks were produced in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. An engraving of the incident was published in London in 1789 (fig. 19), but it did not seize the contemporary cultural imagination, perhaps because it lacks the pedigree of immediate reportage that characterizes other prints of major pre-Revolutionary events like the Boston Massacre or the battles of Lexington and Concord.Indeed, Watson and the Shark is arguably the closest thing we have to a period visual imaginary of the Destruction of the Tea and the only image that struggles with the full range of the event's implications both for history and for painting. When the connections between Watson and the Shark and the Boston Tea Party are explored, Watson's misadventure in Havana comes into compelling alignment with Copley's most acute and immediate concerns about the fragile status of the British Empire in America, his own status as an artist, and the very function and meaning of painting in the fracturing Atlantic World.
Copley and the Tea Party
Because of his family connections, Copley was intimately involved in the Tea Act crisis of 1773. His success as a Boston portraitist through the uneasy years of the 1760s and early 1770s had depended on his ability to maintain a meticulous political neutrality, painting portraits from both ends of the Whig-Tory spectrum. The conditions produced by the Tea Act crisis, however, put Copley in a position of extreme political vulnerability that would ultimately make such neutrality impossible. His family was at the center of the difficulties. Four merchant firms in Boston had been consigned to receive and sell the notorious shipments of tea from the British East India Company: one of the Boston firms was headed by Richard Clarke, Copley's father-in-law, and another by Copley's wife's cousins.101 These consignees became the focus of patriot enmity during the crisis because they refused to bow to nonimportation pressures and send the tea back to England. In the weeks leading up to the Destruction of the Tea, Copley's extended family was twice attacked by mobs and his father-in-law received death threats.102
As the crisis worsened, Copley, desperate to prevent the outbreak of violence, volunteered to serve as mediator between the growing crowds of patriots meeting at Old South Meeting House demanding the return of the tea to England and the consignees holed up for protection in the British fortifications at Castle William on an island in Boston Harbor.103 On the frigid night before the destruction, Copley rowed back and forth across Boston Harbor, carrying messages between the two parties in an attempt to prevent a conflagration. Had he succeeded in his arbitration efforts, the course of world history might well have been drastically altered. But he failed to prevent the outbreak of violence, and the rupture in colonial relations occasioned by the Destruction of the Tea was a key factor in his decision to leave Boston in 1774.
The letters between Copley and his half-brother Henry Pelham about "the fatal Era of the Tea's arrival" make clear not only that Copley perceived the Tea Party as the decisive event in the dissolution of colonial relations and the direct cause of the Revolutionary War, but also that he recognized the monumental implications of his own failure to prevent it.104 In his letters, Copley agonizes over his thankless attempts to stop the destruction: "You must think I aught to have many friends and thanks for the pains I took to prevent so violent and rash a peice of conduct. I was sure it would produce the consiquences that have followed and are only the faint beginings of More fatal and terrable evils than have yet taken place." "Ocians of blood," he writes, "will be shed."105
Copley wrote these and similar letters while traveling in England and Europe, at the time he was engaged in his most concentrated efforts to teach himself history painting. After leaving Boston, he had made a quick stop in London, where he saw Benjamin West's Death of General Wolfe (1771, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa), his key precedent for modern-dress history painting and its infusion of profound historical allusions into contemporary events.106 He then traveled to Italy, where he studied and copied old-master paintings, spending several weeks in Rome and the Vatican, where he examined Raphael's Transfiguration (see fig. 24) with particular care. His letters from Italy veer from his growing confidence as a painter of complex historical subjects to his growing concerns about both the consequences of the Tea Party and the safety of his family and friends who remained barricaded back in Boston.
Given that Copley had found himself at the center of the Tea Party, which he knew to be an event of world-historical importance, and given that his greatest anxieties about the outcome of that event corresponded with his most furious preparations to be a history painter, it is worth wondering whether he might have considered the Tea Party itself as the overt subject of a modern history painting. Any such painting would have required a commission, which was not forthcoming. And even if the Tea Party was a compelling subject, it was also an impossible one for him for reasons internal to the event and his own involvement in it. Two months after the Destruction of the Tea, Copley was already struggling with the question of committing the event to public memory. He wrote to his father-in-law, Richard Clarke, about the possibility of producing a "Memorial" of the event (by Memorial he meant an official court statement laying out the facts of the event from the family's perspective): "The matter of a Memorial had started in my mind more than three Weeks ago but I had many objections to it which I could not get over, the most meterial was this, that however Clear the facts may be yet they may be controverted, your conduct misrepresented, and what ever you either have or shall say misconstrued."107 The letter shows that Copley, even as he worried about setting the record straight, also recognized that a straightforward recitation of the facts would not be an effective way of doing so. The topic was too controversial to be remembered without "misrepresentation," and Copley and his family were too close to the event for their testimony to appear disinterested-whatever they "have or shall say" about the event would be inevitably "misconstrued."
The simultaneous urgency and impossibility of representing the Destruction of the Tea make it easier to understand why Copley embraced Brook Watson's commission so enthusiastically. In requesting a painting of his encounter with the shark, Watson commissioned an image depicting an American harbor in which something has gone overboard and is in imminent danger of obliteration. This brief gave Copley an opportunity to paint a scene onto which he could easily displace many of the elements of the Destruction of the Tea. Granted, it would be preposterous to set up a point-for-point correspondence between Watson and the Shark and the Tea Party. Watson is not a systematically coded allegory with this or that figure standing in neatly for the tea or the merchants or the patriots. But the painting resonates so fully with the memory of the Tea Party that it would be equally preposterous to ignore the connections. Even though the painting does not represent the Destruction of the Tea directly, it is difficult to imagine a commission more fully imbricated in the event and its aftermath. The setting, the cast of characters, the compositional management of forces in space, even the basic model of perception offered by the painting all intersect with the key political and artistic problems raised for Copley by the Destruction of the Tea.
First, the cast of characters. As noted above, Copley was entangled in the Tea Party crisis by virtue of his relation to the consignees set to receive the tea. Brook Watson was equally complicit, as the head of one of the export firms that had handled its shipment to Boston. In other words, the painting was commissioned by the tea's sender and painted by a close relation of the tea's receivers.108 The tea chests hacked to bits in Boston Harbor were Watson's, as was the body threatened by dismemberment in the waters off Havana. Second, the setting. In both the Boston Tea Party and Watson's misadventure in Havana, something went wrongly overboard in an American harbor. Of course Havana is not Boston, but the two ports were both understood as American harbors and were easily conflated in the eighteenth-century imagination. As another corner of the triangular trade associated with British naval power, Havana was as much a part of America as Boston was.109 Moreover, the idea of all America as a tropical zone, forged by earlier images of explorations in South America and the Caribbean, continued to inform imagery of the North Atlantic for many English and European audiences, furthering the imaginative interchangeability of Boston and Havana. Notice that the 1789 engraving of the Tea Party (see fig. 19) includes palm trees and what looks like a volcanic outcrop in the background, neither element a feature of Boston Harbor.
Third, the violent forces at play in Copley's shark attack echo those applied to the tea in Boston Harbor. This connection is difficult to recover today, because existing visual renderings have evacuated the Tea Party of its physical severity. Nineteenth- and twentieth-century illustrations show Sons of Liberty casually lifting tea chests overhead and tossing them overboard (fig. 20). More recent images have continued this trend until the dematerialization of the event seems to have reached its limit; in these images the Tea Party's value as pure political sign is repeatedly folded back onto the material imaginary of the actual occurrence. But in fact each lead-lined chest of tea weighed 450 pounds. The chests had to be hoisted on deck with block and tackle and then hatcheted open before being emptied over the side of the ships.110 The damaged chests then landed in the shallow water of low tide, where patriots, splashing about in the salty tea blooming in the harbor, continued to hack away at them to ensure their final destruction.111 The raising, straining, leaning, and violent dismemberment in the painting, in other words, were also features of the Destruction of the Tea. Moreover, the painting features a boat that has been strenuously rowed across a harbor in hopes of preventing a fatal calamity. Copley's desperate efforts at mediation had required him to row hurriedly back and forth across the harbor between Faneuil Hall and Castle William, delivering messages between the two parties. (Note that Watson also features a castle: Morro Castle, in the distant background at right.)
Although the posture of the central figures, as they reach forward to pull Watson upward and inward, evokes an attempted rescue that seems thoroughly unrelated to the overboarding vector of the Tea Party (where men reach over the side to cast out materials), the reaching figures function ambivalently as signs of both casting out and retraction or rescue; indeed, this essential ambivalence characterizes not only the indecision of the moment itself (it isn't clear whether Watson will be reached) but also the sources from which Copley drew to design the figures. It is well known that he borrowed from Raphael's Miraculous Draught of Fishes as he composed these figures (drawing or pulling in) but less so that he similarly derived elements from engravings of Rubens's treatment of the men throwing Jonah-casting him-overboard to be devoured by the whale. The exertion of the men in Watson can thus be said to conflate casting and retrieving.
Perception and Reception in Watson and the Tea Party
Along with the compositional and iconographical slippages already noted, Watson and the Shark and the Boston Tea Party exhibit a more structural connection in Copley's altered model of beholding, his revised conception of perceptual delivery that painting is (or is not) capable of achieving. Watson and the Shark is a post-Tea Party painting inasmuch as it abandons Copley's previous model of sensory delivery by replicating the material destruction of tea in the harbor in his pictorial structure. The Destruction of the Tea as it might appear through an empiricist lens would involve a perceptual bundle coming from England but violently intercepted before it could be fully and properly incorporated into the colonial sensorium. The tea, as part of a spectacle of destruction watched by thousands of people lining the waterfront, would be a sensorially fragmentary tea that could be seen but not touched or tasted-tea that never reached its intended destiny as an agent of multisensory synthesis. It was tea taken by the harbor rather than by the bodies of colonists so that it manifestly failed to produce plenary receptive impressions. In other respects as well, the Tea Party was understood as a sensorially misaligned or unnatural perceptual experience. Commentators noticed, for example, that the fires and moonlight created a ghastly hyperillumination-"Everything was as light as day, by means of lamps and torches; a pin might be seen lying on the wharf"-but this acute visibility was accompanied by an eerie silence: "Although there were many people on the wharf, entire silence prevailed,-no clamor, no talking." There was "a great silence of the neighborhood."112 Access to the event was granted to vision, but not to other senses.
The same failures characterize Watson and the Shark. Indeed, every operation of reflective impression, sensory synthesis, and focal attention that Copley developed in the tabletop paintings is retracted in the history painting. Where there were once unruffled tabletops that announced their capacity for retaining and regenerating precise impressions of reflection, there is now (occupying an equivalent portion of the canvas) a choppy and eerily unreflective sea that offers, at best, only displaced and distorted formal echoes.
As in each of the tabletop pictures, Copley populates this surfacewith grasping hands, but in Watson and the Shark, they all dramatically fail to reach their appointed objects. In the tabletop paintings, hands placidly align with their reflections coming up from below (figs. 21-23); in Watson and the Shark, the hands in the upper and "bottum" parts of the painting miss each other entirely, creating an effect of sensory shear rather than equilibrium. In Watson, Copley disrupts the neatly covalent lozenges made by reflection in the tables (for example, the balanced, perfect forms made by the tabletop as it meets Mr. and Mrs. Isaac Winslow's hands, in figure 21), offering instead a series of offsetting triangles that echo, if anything, the jagged shapes of the shark's teeth. Connections between top and bottom, background and foreground, are also severed. Boy with a Flying Squirrel had featured a delicate chain connecting foreground and background figures over an expanse of water (the glass), and in Watson a rope stretches between a figure in the boat and the figure in the foreground sea. But now the rope lies slack, unhandled, the connection broken.
The viewer's role in the painting shifts sharply with these missed connections and misregistered reflections. Whereas the foreground of the tabletop paintings stages the enlivenment and embodiment of objects as they pass outward toward the picture plane, the viewer's corporate synthesis recuperating those objects from flat signs to multidimensional realities, the foreground of Watson and the Shark stages the opposite process: fragmentation, dismemberment, disincorporation. The ripping teeth of the giant shark and the flayed and dismembered leg of the figure of Watson are only the most obvious signs of this process.Watson, for example, is multiply resonant as a figure of aesthetic interruption and even disaster. As commentary on the painting by other scholars has shown, Watson is a hybrid of quotations from two sources Copley had studied intently in Italy: the figure of the possessed boy in Raphael's Transfiguration and one of the sons in the Laocoön group.113 But the full resonance of these allusions has not been traced.
The boy in the Transfiguration (fig. 24)had been described by earlier eighteenth-century critics as a flaw in Raphael's composition because he broke the narrative unity of the scene and served to "divide the Picture" by introducing an "Under-Story." As Jonathan Richardson wrote: "O Divine Rafaelle, forgive me if I take the Liberty to say I cannot approve in this particular of that Amazing Picture of the Transfiguration, where the Incidental Action of the Man's bringing his Son possess'd with the Dumb Devil to the Disciples, and their not being able to cast him out is made at least as conspicuous, and as much a Principal Action as that of the Transfiguration."114 Richardson associates the possessed boy (already entangled with themes of diabolical or deviant "possession" or seizure, as well as the action of casting out) with the shattering of narrative unity.
The Laocoön allusion (fig. 25)imports into the foreground of Watson an even more traumatic echo of aesthetic breakage. Copley, having "stood astonished" before the original in Italy, purchased a plaster cast of the Laocoön group. It was one of a group of casts he acquired in hopes of transporting the sculptural heritage of the classical world to his future studio in London. Writing to his wife from Florence in 1775, he promised, "I shall find means to carry with me the most valuable specimens of art, in casts of plaster of Paris, of the finest works in the world."115 But this act of aesthetic transmission went horribly wrong: as one of Copley's earliest biographers wrote, "It may here be mentioned that, when Copley received the case containing the above-named casts, they were found to be broken into a thousand pieces, from want of proper care in packing,-a disappointment which, in the words of his son, 'he never ceased to regret during the whole course of his after-life.'"116 If Copley still clung to some hope that transit could suture long-distance separation even after the splintered tea chests in Boston Harbor announced the violent miscarriage of transatlantic sensory communities, that hope must surely have been dashed into a thousand pieces along with his Laocoön.
With Watson and the Shark, it is as if the tabletops have dropped out of Copley's portraits, revealing both the under parts (so assiduously obscured by the tables and disavowed by their clean reflections) and a profusion of incident which-with its diabolical "under-story"-draws attention from the upper quarters of the painting. The crucial synthetic link between vision and touch has been severed-standing before Watson and the Shark, viewers are no longer beholders (be-holders); they have become spectators.
Copley not only forces this model of distanced and compromised reception upon the viewer; he also installs it in the world of the painting. Consider his unusual treatment of the figure of the black sailor in the rowboat. This figure befuddled critics, not only because his position at the top of the pyramidal composition radically inverted the normative hierarchies for such arrangements (with social subordinates occupying the subordinate corners of the pyramid), but also because of his cryptic expression and ambiguous role in the narrative action. Reviewers, who repeatedly praised the expressions of sympathy, "eagerness," and general physical/emotional exertion of the other figures ("the Eagerness and the Concern so strongly marked in every Countenance," "Horror bristling their Hairs, and the Eagerness of a compassionate good Heart for the poor Sufferer in their Faces"), puzzled over the nondescript expression of the black figure and his failure to assist in the rescue efforts:117 "But we must suppose, that at that instant of time, no horror in beholding the object would prevent seamen from acting to his rescue. It would not be unnatural to place a woman in the attitude of the black; but he, instead of being terrified, ought, in our opinion, to be busy. He has thrown a rope over to the boy. It is held, unsailorlike, between the second and third finger of his left hand and he makes no use of it."118 In these texts, the black figure exemplifies a numb impotence that is further reinforced by the critic's suggestion of emasculation.The crux of the description is that the figure is said to see but not physically participate in the action surrounding him: "He makes no use of" his hands.
At least one critic found a way to justify the figure's reticence, suggesting that the black man, though leaning back out of an irrational fear, was at least keeping the boat from capsizing as the other figures reached out. "An idle Black, prompted by the connate Fear of his Country for that ravenous Fish, leans backward to keep the Gunnel of this Side of the Boat above Water."119 Whatever the causal connection between the black sailor and the disposition of the boat, that sailor's detachment parallels the oddly neutral position of the boat, which seems similarly disconnected from the physical dynamics around it. Critics noticed this too: "The sea should be of a foam with the lashing of the shark's tail, and the boat, as almost every man leans on one side, in order to save the boy, ought to lie nearly gunnel to, whereas the waves are as placid as those of the Thames when there's little or no wind, and the boat as steady as if it was in that sort of safe sea which is occasionally exhibited on the stage of Sadler's-Wells."120
The black figure has rightly received a great deal of attention in treatments of the painting, most notably that by Hugh Honour and that by Albert Boime, who draws the painting into a detailed history of the role that the politics of abolitionism played in British responses to the American Revolution during the 1770s and 1780s. For Boime, Copley's inclusion of this figure was a Tory propaganda tactic intended to show sympathy for the enslaved and thereby to highlight the slaveholding hypocrisy of the American "Sons of Liberty." He reads the weak agency of the black figure (who "functions as little more than a peg on which to hang the towline") as evidence of Tory cynicism, because the figure serves merely a symbolic function in a Revolutionary debate and is not actually to be granted liberty or agency in the real world. He is "an invisible man whose capacity to act in the real world is blocked."121
To build upon-and also complicate-this account, I argue not only that Copley shows sympathy for the black figure but also that the black figure occupies Copley's own imagined position in the action, standing in for precisely the neutrality, impotence, and disembodiment that Copley expressed in his letters about the Tea Party and the Revolution generally, but which he could not publicly embody in painting in the figure of a white man. Yet the black figure also mirrors the viewer's own imagined position before the painting, standing in for the blocked, impotent, dis- or misembodiment that characterized transatlantic material relations during the Revolutionary crisis.
The black figure was interpreted as unable to fully inhabit the moment, to act or to react according to the codes of synchronic sympathy; he looks at the action around him but cannot or will not participate bodily in the scene.122 Copley scholars know that the pose and the position of the black sailor had been planned originally for a white figure (fig. 26).123 Only later in the process of painting did Copley change the ethnic identity. This alteration indicates both the importance the figure held for Copley and his difficulty finding the proper embodiment for the role the figure played. Copley's decision here deploys racial discourse to articulate the spectator's traumatic impotence and problematic neutrality by nominating a subaltern proxy to bear these functions in the painting.
In his book Shipwreck with Spectator: Paradigm for a Metaphor for Existence, Hans Blumenberg argues that the metaphor of the observer watching a shipwreck or other naval disaster from shore develops, during the nineteenth century, into the core metaphor for modern subjectivity, aesthetic distance, and the "spectator position with regard to history."124 Watson and the Shark represents an earlier opening onto this position, defining it, moreover, as integral to the art of painting. The breakup of the senses in shipwreck (from shore, one can see but not reach it) is both coeval with what would become the fragmentation of the viewing subject in romanticism, and (as Copley allows us to see) an analogy for the limitations of painting as a synthetic, recuperative mode of communication and for the failure of long-distance sensory communities. The shipwreck is to the dockside spectator what the painting is to the viewer-all image.
Copley's tabletop paintings had assiduously attempted to make painting a device for the plenary propagation of experience across the sea. Watson and the Shark, imagined as it is through the experience of the tea's destruction in Boston Harbor and the realization that the full reincorporation of objects over distance is impossible, recognizes the annulment of Copley's dream. All paintings are shipwrecks, Copley seems to realize; like the English tea ships, they cannot deliver synthetic, multisensory, immediate impressions. The relationship between this sensory disjunction and academic painting later becomes concretized in the flowering of romanticism, but Copley's painting allows us to account for one of its origins in colonial traumas of transit.
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