Jonathan Singleton Copley, 1738-1815
About 1765. Oil on canvas. 30 x 25-1/2 inches (76.2 x 64.8 cm)
The subject of this painting, Nathaniel Hurd, was an engraver and silversmith who is probably best remembered today for designing the seal of Harvard College. The portrait conveys a feeling of relaxed friendliness, and it's hard not to feel that Copley genuinely liked the sitter. The books resting beside Hurd's hands are ones he consulted in his work. The large one is Guillim's Display of Heraldry, to which Hurd often referred when he made bookplates or engraved silver vessels. In fact, the Cleveland Museum of Art owns a handsome silver teapot by Hurd, and the coat-of-arms on its face was probably copied from this very source.
This is Copley's first portrait to show a sitter in informal clothes. It's not surprising to learn that Hurd was a Patriot in the American Revolution and opposed to inherited wealth and privilege. No doubt he preferred to be shown in this informal way because he was a craftsman who worked with his hands. Notably, Hurd's large, expressive hands play a prominent role in the painting. Nonetheless, the fact that he surrounded himself with books makes it clear that he is not simply a manual worker, but a man of education and intelligence. Moreover, his gown is not really workman's attire, but the imported silk dressing gown of a wealthy aristocrat or merchant.
In the years before the American Revolution, Copley painted both Tories and Patriots, and struggled to remain politically neutral. By the mid 1770s, however, this balancing act had become extremely difficult, in part because Copley had married into a Tory family. (His father-in-law owned the tea that was dumped into Boston Harbor during the Boston Tea Party.) Political uncertainty also dried up much of Copley's patronage, since people of means became fearful that they would lose their wealth and unsure whether they would be able to remain in Boston. Consequently, in 1774 Copley left America for England, where he worked for the remainder of his career, achieving some success as a portrait and history painter and becoming a member of the Royal Academy, but often regretting that he had not stayed in his native country.
The Cleveland Museum of Art, Gift of the John Huntington Art and Polytechnic Trust 1915.534