John Singleton Copley's Unfinished Portrait of Nathaniel Hurd, discussed by Marjorie Searl
You might ask, why is an unfinished painting hanging in an art museum? My first answer to that good question is that even in its unfinished state, this is an expressive portrait by one of America's most remarkable artists, John Singleton Copley. Virtually self-taught, Copley's American career spanned the tumultuous years leading up to the Revolution. As well, the portrait's subject was an important one, a well-known Boston engraver and silversmith named Nathaniel Hurd. You can see Hurd's silver spoons in the case to the right, as well as a beautiful teapot made by his father Jacob. We think that Hurd and Copley bartered services - that Copley asked Hurd to make engravings of Copley's portrait of a popular Boston minister that he could sell, and that in return Hurd asked to have his portrait painted. We think that Copley started on this painting with the idea of showing Hurd in his work clothes, and that Hurd must have looked at it and felt that it was too informal and not how he wanted to be remembered. Back to the drawing board! Copley painted another version, this time with Hurd dressed in a fancy silk robe and turban, looking more like a gentleman than an artisan. That finished painting is in the collection of the Cleveland Museum of Art. Only a few years later, Copley would return to the idea of painting an artisan in work clothes in his famous portrait of the patriot and silversmith Paul Revere, whose beautiful cream pot is in the silver case alongside the pieces made by the Hurd family.
The final reason for showcasing this unfinished portrait is that it helps us to understand Copley's painting technique, and in fact the Hurd portrait is greatly valued by art conservators for that reason. The painting reveals the multiple steps Copley used to create the portrait, from the gray ground layer to the subtle oil glazes in the more finished parts of the painting.
This painting was handed down by Hurd to his family, where it was held for nearly two centuries before it was acquired by the Memorial Art Gallery in 1944. Although unfinished, it had meaning and value for generations of Hurds, and continues to enrich our understanding of the artist and his subject.