Susannah Farnum Copley

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Susannah Farnum Copley (Clarke)

Birthplace: Boston, Suffolk Co., MA
Death: Died in Boston, Suffolk Co., MA
Immediate Family:

Daughter of Richard Clarke and Elizabeth Clarke
Wife of John Singleton Copley
Mother of Elizabeth Clarke Greene and John Copley, 1st Baron Lyndhurst
Sister of Hannah Bromfield; William Clarke; Elizabeth Clarke; Edward Clarke; Joseph Lee Clarke and 6 others

Managed by: Martin Severin Eriksen
Last Updated:

About Susannah Farnum Copley

Susanna Farnham Clarke Copley colonial woman Wife of American Portrait Artist John Singleton Copley

Susannah Farnham Clarke was born on May 20, 1745, in Boston, Massachusetts, the daughter of Richard Clarke and Elizabeth Winslow, both of whom were of high social position. Richard had graduated from Harvard College in 1729, and became one of the most prominent merchants in Boston, later under the name of Richard Clarke & Sons. Elizabeth Winslow's ancestry goes back to Mary Chilton, who came from England on the Mayflower in 1620.

John Singleton Copley was born July 26, 1738, son of humble Irish parents, Richard and Mary Singleton Copley, recent Irish immigrants, who lived in a very simple home and ran a tobacco shop on Long Wharf in Boston. Long Wharf was home to approximately 40% of colonial American shipping, and a center of trade, with exports such as lumber, beef, and furs, and imports such as textiles, glass, sugar, and rum.

Copley's father died when he was a young boy, but his mother had married an English artist named Peter Pelham in 1748, and they moved to his new home on Lindel's Row, a quieter and more respectable part of Boston. Though it was only a short distance from Long Wharf, it was socially and economically an upward move, broadening Copley's exposure to small businessmen.

In Lindel's Row, Copley was surrounded by skilled laborers, who hawked their wares throughout Boston. Printers, carvers, upholsterers, pottery and fabric designers were among the artisans in his neighborhood. His mother and stepfather were among the small businessmen there, and they sold a variety of goods and services.

Peter Pelham was a London-trained mezzotint engraver and a portrait painter, and he introduced John Copley to portraiture through his European engravings. Though Copley lacked any formal education, Pelham probably instructed the young Copley in drawing, printmaking, and portraiture, as well as introducing him to the English portrait prints that were to influence him throughout his career. Europeans held artists in higher esteem than the early colonists did. To be wealthy in England meant that at some point, a person would have their portrait painted.

Boston was then a small provincial town where art was almost unknown. Early in the 18th century, American colonists had no interest in such luxuries; but by the middle of the century, the cultural divide between the rich and the poor was growing in colonial America. The very wealthy were becoming interested in distinguishing themselves as men and women of breeding, and were becoming more interested in having their portrait painted.

Given the economic and social climate, the conditions were favorable for an artist who could market himself well. Peter Pelham selected well-known subjects as own his clients, thereby gaining notoriety among the elite, and advertised the "truthfulness of the likeness" of his portraits, which appealed to the vanity of colonial aristocrats. He went so far as to offer a financing plan.

Young Copley began at an early age to see visions of lovely forms and faces, which nature impelled him to reproduce with whatever materials as he could find. In 1751, Peter Pelham died, when Copley was only thirteen, but the three years Copley spent with his stepfather proved to be critical to his development as an artist.

John Singleton Copley began painting portraits in his teens in his native Boston. When only 16 years old, he painted and engraved a portrait of the Reverend William Welstead and his success was assured. In the atmosphere of colonial Boston, Copley's talent was phenomenal. He soon gained local celebrity by painting portraits of the leading families.

In 1758, at the age of twenty, Copley began to develop a style uniquely his own, rather than copying other artists. As his techniques matured, so did his appreciation for colors and fine fabrics, such as the richness of an embroidered silk waistcoat, the smoothness of satin, or delicate lace cuffs. Copley was a prolific producer, and was commissioned by many of the most prominent New England families.

Copley worked in a variety of media throughout his American career. He was the first native-born American artist to paint miniatures and created at least thirty-seven of them between 1755 and the early 1770s. About two-thirds of those known works were painted in oil on copper, and one-third in watercolor on ivory.

John Singleton Copley is considered the greatest U.S. painter of the eighteenth century. He quickly became famous for his portrait paintings of important figures in New England, particularly men and women of the middle class – local merchants and landowners and their wives – in settings and poses flatteringly suggestive of the English aristocracy. He received commissions to paint many of the distinguished Americans of his day, including George Washington.

From about 1760 until 1774, Copley painted the finest portraits of the colonial period. His directness of observation resulted in portraits that conveyed the innate nobility and heroic qualities of the people who pioneered the early American way of life. He was also one of the pioneers of the private exhibition, orchestrating shows and marketing prints of his own work to mass audiences. His portraits were innovative in that they tended to portray their subjects with artifacts that were indicative of their lives.

But Copley had ambitions to be an artist of international standing. Benjamin West, the Pennsylvania painter, wrote to Copley encouraging him to share his work in England, and effectively convinced him his prospects in a colonial town were too limited. In 1765, at the age of 27, Copley sent his portrait, Boy with a Squirrel, to London for the spring exhibition of the Society of the Artists of Great Britain.

This piece depicted Copley's 16-year-old half-brother, Henry Pelham, seated at a table playing with a pet squirrel. Through Benjamin West's influence, the painting was exhibited at Somerset House. It met with praise from many, including artists such as Sir Joshua Reynolds, and established Copley's fame in England.

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Susannah Farnum Copley's Timeline

May 20, 1745
Boston, Suffolk Co., MA
November 1770
Age 25
Boston, Suffolk County, Province of Massachusetts
May 21, 1772
Age 27
Boston, Suffolk Co., MA
Age 90
Boston, Suffolk Co., MA