William N. Copley - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Day Sale London Friday, March 8, 2024 | Phillips

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  • Often credited as a bridging point between European Surrealism and American Pop-Art, William N. Copley’s work revels in the tension between the academic and the puerile. In Copley’s satirical arsenal is a series of self-taught figurative styles, circus-poster caricatures, and slapstick nudity. Copley’s pre-eminence in the New York scene in the 1960’s occurred as the hegemony of Abstract Expressionism was fading, allowing both the commentariat’s tastes and the American art market room to freewheel. However, for every candy-coloured scene of vulgarity, there is a nod to Manet or Degas; a brash approach to social commentary belies the poised wit of a polymathic individual. As an artist, poet and collector, Copley regularly engaged with the limits to self-awareness and self-control. Accordingly, Copley’s work delivers his unique insight into the paradoxes found in morality, nationalism and high-seriousness.


    “The problem that interests me most in painting – it’s a tough problem – is to find that 50/50 balance between form and humour which many great masterpieces of literature have achieved”
    —William N. Copley


    In the present example, the art-historical legacy of the female nude is approached in a manner that is characteristically puckish. It stands out against other works that portray scenes of lewd sex acts and debauched re-imaginings of romantic genre paintings. A lone figure, Briget, is portrayed with sincere reverence to feminine divinity. Fleshy curves are caressed by decorative bed sheets and golden locks are rendered as a single cascading form. Yet for all of Copley’s sentimentality, he condemns the subject, and indeed his own gaze, with the misogyny inferred from the title. The very absence of a pervasive male lover, typically found in the rest of his work, is Briget’s only damming feature. Copley drolly pricks the notion of female agency, reducing Briget’s worth to her capacity for sexual gratification and regards the viewer as an equally scathing participant.

    • Provenance

      Estate of William N. Copley
      Nolan/Eckman Gallery, New York
      Galerie Schönewald und Beuse, Krefeld
      Kunsthandel Lambert Tegenbosch, Heusden aan de Maas
      Private Collection
      Christie's, Amsterdam, 5 November 2013, lot 49 (incorrectly titled Frigid Briget)
      Acquired at the above sale by the present owner

    • Exhibited

      Krefeld, Schönewald Fine Arts GmbH, William N. Copley: Bilder / Paintings 1963–1984, 3 September - 25 September 2000

    • Artist Biography

      William N. Copley

      American • 1919 - 1996

      William N. Copley, also known by the name of CPLY, drew attention to himself in the late 1940s by fusing elements of Surrealism and Pop Art.  Copley focused on symbols of American pop culture—staples of American society including pin-up girls, cowboys and the flag—and transformed them into more accessible, universal icons that could appeal to both men and women without bias.

      In the '70s, Copley distinguished himself from the rest of the Surrealists by attempting to represent the tumultuous relationship between erotic and pornographic symbolism. He celebrated the female body, sexual freedom and, most of all, the promiscuity of America.

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Frigid Bridget

signed and dated 'CPLY 66' lower left
acrylic on linen
195.7 x 150 cm (77 x 59 in.)
Painted in 1966.

Full Cataloguing

£120,000 - 180,000 

Sold for £190,500

Contact Specialist

Simon Tovey
Specialist, Associate Director, Head of Day Sale
+44 7502 428 688


20th Century & Contemporary Art Day Sale

London Auction 8 March 2024