By the mid-1700's the portrait was virtually the only art form available to the American painter. Portraiture was in great demand in the colonies and was sufficient to support a small number of artists.
Foremost among these was John Singleton Copley. Born in Boston in 1738, Copley was influenced by the mezzotints of his stepfather, Peter Pelham, and the portraits of local portrait artists John Smibert. Copley painted both the young and the aged but emphasized setting to convey the desired mood.
Ladies posed before fine furniture and textured draperies; men were surrounded by books and tools, hunting dogs and guns. His style was straightforward and realistic, creating portraits of great strength. In London he exhibited his famous Watson and the Shark, depicting a real-life event that occurred in Havana harbor. The painting portrays Brook Watson, a friend of the painter, who, as a boy, lost his leg to a shark while his friends struggle to rescue him in the water. Today, this work is considered to be an early landmark of romanticized contemporary history painting.
Another of his major works is The Death of Major Pierson, January 6, 1781.