J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

Follow by Email


Tuesday, January 16, 2007

John S. Copley Paints Nathaniel Hurd

Two days ago Boston 1775 featured John Singleton Copley's portrait of Boston merchant Nicholas Boylston in his cap, banyan, and shaved head. By dressing so casually and resting his arm on books, Boylston showed the world that he was so wealthy and genteel that he could retire from business and devote himself to intellectual pursuits. (Not that I recall any particularly intellectual productions from him, but that's another story.)

Copley painted the silversmith Nathaniel Hurd in much the same style of dress—or undress. That portrait, shown here, is now at the Cleveland Museum of Art. Unlike Boylston, Hurd was a craftsman—albeit a luxury craftsman who worked in gold and silver for an elite clientele. Hurd also engraved book plates and illustrations, which provided a concrete link between him and the volumes pictured on his table. Nevertheless, I sense that Copley struggled over whether it was appropriate to paint a mechanic like Hurd in the same style as a gentleman like Boylston.

There is a similar, unfinished painting of Hurd at Rochester University's Memorial Art Gallery. It also shows the silversmith with a cap over his shaved head, but he has one sleeve rolled up to show his working-man's biceps—not a detail that appears in any other Copley portrait. And Hurd doesn't look happy about the portrayal. He's clearly more satisfied in/with the picture above.

I think Copley's depictions of Hurd map out a middle ground between his images of the Boylston brothers and other wealthy merchants and his now more famous painting of Paul Revere. Copley portrayed Revere as a working silversmith, a silver teapot in his hand and his engraving tools on the table before him. This is a very rare formal portrait of an eighteenth-century craftsman at work, by any artist, and it differs in several respects from Copley's other paintings. Revere wears either his own brown hair or a wig that looks like his natural hair instead of a white wig. He wears an open collar, showing a bit of chest; as far as I can tell, all the merchants and gentlemen Copley painted have their shirts buttoned up tight and cloths around their necks.

And what do you know? Nathaniel Hurd's collar is open, too—more like Revere than like Boylston. I suspect that might symbolize how Hurd wasn't quite as high-class as his cap and banyan might imply.


. said...

Looks like David Gest with his head shaved

White Badger said...

"*Not that I recall any particularly intellectual productions from him...*"

I am not sure about Nathaniel Hurd, but I do know that - thanks to Mr. Boylston - Harvard University received $23,200 as a foundation of the professorship of Rhetoric and Oratory, with the condition that John Quincy Adams should be appointed professor.
Not that it's exactly an "intellectual production," but it certainly may have helped others in theirs.
Just a little tidbit...thanks for the cool article. Nice site as well.

White Badger said...

Oh, and it was also said of Mr. Boylston that "He has done more towards raising the standard of the medical profession in this common."

J. L. Bell said...

Thanks for the tip about the Boylston Professorship. Yes, according to Harvard's English Department, Boylston's estate paid for that position starting in 1772.

I don't think it could have been meant for J. Q. Adams at that point, precocious as he was, since he was still learning his letters. He did hold the position later, in the first decade of the 1800s.

But this page from Princeton, Massachusetts, explains the discrepancy. Nicholas Boylston left the bulk of his money to a nephew named Ward Hallowell, son of one of Boston's hated Customs Commissioners. That lad adopted the name Ward Nicholas Boylston, and returned to Boston in the early 1800s after making even more money in London. He "confirmed" his uncle's bequest and added the stipulation about Adams. He also funded a number of resources for Harvard Medical School. (Being more prominent in U.S. history, Ward Nicholas Boylston wreaks havoc on internet searches for the older man.)

Anonymous said...

Nice to see Nathaniel Hurd receiving some attention. There is research available about these portraits at mag.rochester.edu/seeingAmerica.

Please contact me, the American curator of the Memorial Art Gallery of the University of Rochester, with any questions or additional information.

Many thanks.

J. L. Bell said...

And thank you for a very interesting article.