How Did Copley Do Drapery?
The question of how drapery should be portrayed in painting was one hotly debated amongst artists in the 18th century.
Jonathan Richardson, an English painter active in the early 18th century, took a moderate approach. In his book “On The Subject of Painting,” he advised painters working on drapery to employ "broad Masses of Light, and Shadow, and noble large Folds to give a Greatness...". Richardson noted the tendency to mix historical and contemporary styles in portraits, particularly of women, who might have feared a portrait looking more like a historical artifact if their clothing went out of fashion. "Portrait-Painters seeing the Dis-advantage they were under in following the Dress Commonly worn, have Invented One peculiar to Pictures in their Own way, which is a Composition partly That, and partly something purely Arbitrary...which is indeed very Handsome," he writes.
Sir Joshua Reynolds, another English painter, wrote in his "Discouse on Art" that an artist should not "de-base his conceptions with minute attention to the discriminations of drapery. It is the inferior style that marks the variety of stuffs. With him the clothing is neither woollen, nor linen, nor silk, satin, or velvet: it is drapery; it is nothing more". Rather than spending time on the "mechanical operation" of portraying drapery true to life, Reynolds believed that good artists knew how to depict "truth, simplicity, and unity of nature" in just "a few lines or touches".
Reynolds believed in a “quasi-classical style of dress for female portraits” – the “Grand Manner...wherein the sheen and texture of pictorial stuff was purposefuly subordinated to the dignifying effect of its noble folds”.
Copley, however, took a stance directly opposite Reynolds in his portrayal of drapery, particularly during his time as a portrait painter in the American colonies, a period that lasted until his leaving for Europe in 1774. He depicted drapery in clothing as accurately as possible, taking care to convey the texture and small ornamental details of his sitters' garb. Many, though not all, of his portraits, included sitters in up-to-date fashions, be they formal, casual, or professional. Copley had a reason for this tactic that went beyond mere aesthetic or theoretical preference. After all, he was not idly painting great masterpieces on his own dime; he was being commissioned for specific portraits. And Copley’s portraits had a utilitarian function: they served to both boost the status of their depicted individuals and send a wordless message of who the sitters were. His portraits were tasked with telling compelling stories about their subjects, and painstakingly accurate costumes - be they real items or imagined ones - acted as important devices in creating the tale of their wearers. The more accurate a costume, the more legitimate the portrait appeared as a reflection of the truth.
Copley's letter to Benjamin West solidifies his position as a painter preoccupied portraying accurate fashion on his subjects. He writes to West that he painted his subject in much simpler dress than he usually employs, as he is afraid fashions will change by the time the painting makes its way to England. Copley knows what his colonial sitters desire - paintings of themselves surrounded by obvious trappings of their wealth, including clothing - but he admits to being clueless about "what will please the Coniseur" and art appreciators.
This letter excerpt also reveals the state of fashionable dress in the colonies: "Nor indeed can I be suplyed with that variety of Dresses here as in Europe, unless I should put myself to a great expence to have them made," he writes. That fashionable dress was so difficult to obtain and exceedingly expensive in the colonies, presses upon the signficance of portraying his sitters in detailed, expensive, and up-to-date clothing and their symbolism as status markers.
Copley's letters reveal clues to his process of painting drapery. In this letter to Pelham, Copley mentions conducting laborious studies of how to best depict drapery, in which he wet sheets and draped them over objects to study how they fell. He also mentions frequently employing the technique of tracing drapery in order to ensure its perfection in his works. This would suggest that Copley did not necessarily paint his subjects' drapery when they were present, giving him more freedom in what to depict them as wearing. However, other letters indicate that sitters could decide what they would wear in their portraits, and that there were certainly instances where sitters owned the clothes they were painted in. For instance, in 1768 Myles Cooper wrote to Copley, giving instructions to depict him in certain garments: "I also send a Gown, Hood, and Band, by which to finish the Drapery. This, I doubt not, you will be able to execute, before Capt. Smith returns to New York; at which Time You will return the Gown etc. together with the Pictur".