Saturday, August 06, 2011

The human soul -- a Saturday reprise

What is it about this painting that holds my attention? (Click to enlarge.) OK, I'm from Boston, or close enough. Everyone from Boston has heard of John Singleton Copley even if they don't know who he was. Copley Square is the hub of the Hub, and in the center of the square is a statue of the artist himself, the first American painter to achieve transAtlantic fame.

The subject of "The Boy with the Squirrel" is Copley's half-brother Henry Pelham. (The squirrel is a northern flying squirrel, once common in New England and popular as pets, although I have never seen one in the wild.) The painting was done in 1765, when Copley was in his mid-twenties. It is, I think, on a different level from the artist's other work of the time, which was mostly a matter of cranking out rather prosaic portraits of his A-list clients. What a difference, say, from this cliched, bone-stiff portrait of Sam Adams painted a few years later.

Yes, the technical perfection of "The Boy with the Squirrel" is complete. The composition. The light and shadow. The silky hair. The texture of wood, cloth and skin. But that's not the secret of the painting's appeal. Young Henry Pelham looks dreamily away, his lips lightly parted, his soul alight with an adolescent boy's wistful anticipation. Look at the delicacy with which he holds the squirrel's gold leash. See how the squirrel's posture echoes the boy's. Posture, yes, but not spirit. This is more than just another workaday portrait, more than just a few more pounds in Copley's pocket. The artist is showing us what it means to be human.

How is that possible? How is it possible that mere oil on canvas can capture the ineffable thing that separates us from brute creation? Science can count the cells in Henry Pelham's body, match his genes to those of his half-brother, or, for that matter, compare his genome to that of Glaucomys sabrinus, the northern flying squirrel. But science cannot distill the thing that is a conscious organism of 100 billion neurons in interaction with an essentially infinite environment. We turn to artists to catch a glimpse of the soul.

John Singleton Copley complained that in colonial America painting was considered just one more useful trade, like carpentry or shoemaking. And practical Benjamin Franklin opined: "To America...the invention of a machine or the improvement of an implement is of more importance than a masterpiece of Raphael." And yet, and yet -- at the remove of almost two-and-a-half centuries, we look at Copley's portrait of young Henry Pelham and know that what is not materially useful can be utterly essential to knowing who and what we are.

(This post originally appeared in June 2008.)