John Singleton Copley was born in Boston in 1738. He was the son of Irish immigrants Richard Copley and Mary Singleton. His father died when he was young. His mother married Peter Pelham in 1748. Copley showed an early interest in art, and he received training from his stepfather, who was an English engraver. Copley experimented with many media, including oil on canvas, miniatures on copper or ivory, pastel, and printmaking. After his stepfather’s death in 1751, Copley began a career as a mezzotint engraver, publishing his first portrait, Reverend William Welsteed , in his early teens. By the late 1750s he was well established as a portrait painter.
In 1774 Copley moved to London, then on to Italy, where he spent more than a year studying and painting. In 1775 he returned to London where he settled with his wife and three of his children, who had come from Boston. He exhibited two paintings, The Copley Family and Watson and the Shark, at the Royal Academy of the Arts (an art institution based in Burlington House on Piccadilly in London), where their success earned him praise from reviewers and full membership in the academy. While he continued to paint portraits, Copley began to paint historical pieces as well. He took great care in creating these paintings, painstakingly researching in an attempt to make them accurate, with good likenesses and correct accessories.
Copley painted portraits of John Adams, John Quincy Adams, and others from Boston who visited England. He was elected a Foreign Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1791.
Copley died in London in 1815 after creating around 350 pieces of art.