B. Scott Crawford
For those of you who have attended Gathering in the Galleries, followed this blog, and/or watched my Art Detective segment on Daytime Blue Ridge, you probable recognize that when exploring works of art I try to bring as much history to bear on the art as possible. In essence, I firmly believe that setting works of art in a proper historical, and not just art historical, context adds a fuller and even more complete appreciation for the artist and work of art. However, I just as vehemently maintain that historians should explore works of art related to periods they examine to better understand those periods. In short, works of art are wonderful windows to the past.
One example of how a painting can reflect certain events from the past is The Copley Family by John Singleton Copley. John Singleton Copley, a resident of Boston, Massachusetts, for most of his life, until he moved to England in 1774, began to portray himself and his family on canvas in 1776, just as thirteen of Britain’s North American colonies were in the process of declaring their independence. Even though Copley was in England at the time he completed this work, and while he was to some degree a Loyalist through marriage, the painting reveals much about changes that occurred in the American family during the late eighteenth century and that were related to the Lockean ideals that drove the American Revolution. Just as Jefferson turned to Lockean thought to justify the American Revolution, Copley captures the Lockean ideal of the family on canvas. In this sense, Loyalist, or at the very least political neutral, and Patriot converge.
Prior to the Lockean system the English world generally turned to the Filmerian system in order to understand family and government. The Filmerian system viewed the family as a microcosm of the state. The father became a miniature king, and the wife, children, and servants became the patriarch’s subjects. The Filmerian system supported the idea of absolutism as it reinforced a distinct social hierarchy that was basically masculine in nature. During the English Civil War the Royalists formulated an argument against rebellion that proved unshakable for nearly half a century. The Royalists reasoned that since families were miniature kingdoms and fathers were, in essence, kings, if subjects did indeed have the right to rebel, then dependents in the home had the right to rebel against the patriarch. The Roundheads could not address this argument and thus failed to adequately philosophically justify their rebellion.
This concept is represented to some degree in Jan Steen’s 17th century painting The World Turned Upside Down. Why is the world in a state of disarray and turned upside down? Because the woman in the painting boldly stairs at the viewer, suggesting that she is in control of the home, while chaos reigns supreme. The strongly symbolic key, a symbol for domestic order, is conspicuously hanging on the wall and not where it should be, in the lady of the house’s pocket. This is yet another sign of disorder. In short, the patriarch does not have control of his “kingdom.” The result is chaos.
During the American Revolution, Thomas Jefferson, through the Declaration of Independence, was able to succeed where the Roundheads had failed as he philosophically justified the colonists’ rebellion against England. Helping Jefferson in this endeavor was an event that occurred between the English Civil War and the American Revolution. John Locke, in defending the Glorious Revolution, 1688/89, both successfully defended the right to rebel, and thus influenced Jefferson as he wrote the Declaration, and reconstructed the notion of the family, which influenced Copley when he painted The Copley Family.
Locke challenged the Filmerian System as he redefined the state of nature. To Locke, reason dictates that man should help his fellow man, while biology dictates that man should enter into a relationship with a woman and eventually start a family. However, Locke recognizes that reason does not guide everyone, thus necessitating the creation of government to protect both one’s life and property. Locke shows that the state and the family are not related or analogous since the family emerged before the state. To Locke, the right to rebel against the state has nothing to do with rebellion within the home; homes are not miniature monarchies, and husbands are not miniature monarchs.
Locke successfully separates the state and the family, thus allowing for the right of rebellion to exist in a manner less threatening to patriarchs. With this right to rebel established, Jefferson was able to successfully defend the colonies’ right to rebel against England in the Declaration of Independence. Yet the Lockean ideal of the family also redefined the woman’s role in society. The idea of the Cult of Domesticity emerged with the American Revolution and provided a way in which women could find a role in the new republic. Women were the instruments through which morally upright, virtuous citizens would enter political life, something essential in a republic. Men, though less virtuous, were more capable of surviving in the more dangerous public sphere while women, being more nurturing, were better suited to raise children.
The Copley Family
reflects all of these themes nicely. In the painting, Copley’s wife, Susanna, looks lovingly at her son, who equally lovingly looks toward her. All the while yet another child clings to Susanna’s arm, fearfully looking at the viewer; comfort can only be found in her mother’s arms. The virtuous and nurturing nature of women is clearly reflected in the mother’s face and through the calm manner she exhibits as not one but two children demand her attention.
Juxtaposed to this nurturing scene and the loving relationship between the mother and children is the interaction between Copley’s father-in-law and daughter. The grandfather looks off in the distance away from the child, he holds the child in an incredibly awkward manner. The discomfort felt by the child is clearly evident on the child’s face as the child unsuccessfully reaches out to her grandfather for attention.
Copley is one of three figures to look directly toward the viewer. In this manner he may be pulling the viewers into the painting as he intimately engages them through eye contact. Engaging the viewer in this manner allows him to tie himself to the public sphere. He looks away from his family and toward the painting’s audience. Copley is also tied to the public sphere as he unveils the world beyond the domestic sphere that exists behind the curtains. In the spirit of the Lockean system, this unveiled world is his world, masculine in nature, not fit for women. His wife is oblivious to the world her husband shows us as she looks inward, toward her child and family, in her own sphere.
While the painting strongly suggests that gendered spheres were indeed emerging just as the United States declared its independence, not all historians support the idea that such a gendered division of society existed during this period. Arguably, the Lockean system may have been an ideal construct, but it was not an entirely accurate portrayal of early national and antebellum American society. Women did find ways in which to operate within the public sphere, which was supposedly masculine and inaccessible to them. Carolyn Lawes argues nicely in her work Women and Reform that such gendered spheres were not the reality in antebellum America. Lawes demonstrates that through the church, sewing circles, work with orphans, and work outside of the home, women found “room to maneuver” and challenge the ideals of Republican Motherhood and the Cult of Domesticity. In essence, by using the very stereotypes that attempted to relegate women to the home, women were able to find ways in which they could “exert themselves and enforce their will upon a rapidly changing community.”
In this light The Copley Family could reveal not only the ideal of the Cult of Domesticity, but the painting could also reveal a society in which public and private spheres merged. The only other figure besides Copley and his young daughter—the one who is holding onto Susanna in distress—to clearly look at the viewer is Copley’s oldest daughter who stands alone in the center of the painting. In this manner she exerts a degree of independence as she pulls the viewer into the painting to meet her family. She is not tied to the domestic sphere but, like her father, is interacting with the viewer who is in the public sphere. The doll tossed to the side in the painting possibly suggests that this daughter is approaching adulthood since the doll is tied to her through clothing yet has been tossed to the side. This is arguably a young lady who will soon be finding ways to interact in the public sphere.
The floral pattern on the carpet allows the private sphere to merge with the public sphere that Copley reveals to the viewer. The floral pattern on the carpet ties the home to the public sphere, thus suggesting that the two spheres are interconnected, similar to the “unofficial sphere” that Catherine Allgor examines in her work Parlor Politics, in which the women of Washington D.C. allowed their homes to become the medium through which national political issues could be settled. In this manner, The Copley Family not only reflects the themes related to Republican Motherhood and the Cult of Domesticity, it also nicely reflects the rich and complex historiography surrounding women’s history during the early national and antebellum periods. This is a painting that serves nicely as a window to the past!