William Nelson Copley; Painter, Art Collector


William Nelson Copley, the witty and irreverent painter and collector of surrealist art who once painted Betsy Ross stripping in front of her design of the American flag and titled it “O Say Can You Sew,” has died. He was 77.

Copley, who signed his work “Cply,” died Tuesday at his home in Sugar Loaf Key, Fla., of complications from a stroke. He had retired to Florida about five years ago.

His paintings, noted for puckish innocence and Freudian overtones, often featured naked women posing with men wearing starchy Edwardian business suits. More pop art than surrealist in technique, they included cartoonish figures with stark black outlines against colorful backgrounds.

Copley began collecting surrealist art in the late 1940s when he became the first to exhibit the genre at his own Copley Gallery in Los Angeles. He befriended Max Ernst, Man Ray, Rene Magritte and Marcel Duchamp and obtained many of their works.


Born in New York City, Copley was abandoned as a child and later adopted by Ira C. Copley, owner of the California and Illinois newspaper chain. He grew up in privileged circumstances and after attending Yale and serving in the Army, worked briefly as a reporter at his father’s San Diego Tribune.

After attempting to sell art in Los Angeles and then New York, Copley decided to paint instead. Self-taught, he spent many years in Paris socializing and working with other surrealist artists.

He exhibited frequently at Los Angeles’ David Stuart Gallery, where former Times art critic Henry J. Seldis once evaluated his work as “hard to beat for sheer fun and irreverence.”

Copley’s paintings have also been shown at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Museum of Contemporary Art, the Chicago Art Institute, New York’s Museum of Modern Art and Cooper-Hewitt Museum and in galleries from Europe to Japan.


Divorced five times, Copley is survived by his sixth wife, Cynthia; a son, William, and two daughters, Claire and Theodora; and four grandchildren.