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