Study for "The Ascension"

Artist: John Singleton Copley (American, Boston, Massachusetts 1738–1815 London)

Date: 1774

Medium: Ink ("Bistre") washes, pen and ink, black chalk, and graphite on off-white laid paper, watercolor

Dimensions: 15 1/4 x 20 3/8 in. (38.7 x 51.8 cm)

Classification: Drawings

Credit Line: Harris Brisbane Dick Fund, 1960

Accession Number: 60.44.16


After planning a trip to Europe for more than a decade, Copley finally left Boston in June 1774. After a brief stop in London he spent four months in Rome, studying the works of the old masters and composing a painting of his own. He took his inspiration from Raphael’s “Transfiguration of Christ” (Vatican Museums), which he deemed of “exalted Merrit.” He gave careful thought to his interpretation of the event—“I considered how the Appostles would be affected at that Instant”—and then began the present study, a sketch of the lower part of the picture. Copley concerned himself with the arrangement of areas of light and shadow, devised the action of each figure, and drew from a layman, or artist’s mannequin, that he draped with a wet tablecloth. The drawing occupied him for the better part of November 1774, and on December 4 of that year he reported to his wife that it “has the approbation of all who have seen it. I am encouraged to paint it.” His finished painting "The Ascension" is now in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.