This painting is Copley’s first attempt at a life-size, full-length portrait, a format that indicated both grandeur and expense. The idea came from two principal sources: the full-length likenesses of the English monarchs that were on display at the Town-House, the seat of colonial government...
This painting is Copley’s first attempt at a life-size, full-length portrait, a format that indicated both grandeur and expense. The idea came from two principal sources: the full-length likenesses of the English monarchs that were on display at the Town-House, the seat of colonial government in Boston, and four full-length images of heroes of the 1745 Battle of Louisburg painted by John Smibert and Robert Feke. The royal portraits had been imported from England and included pictures of Charles II, James II, and George III, the last of which was a replica of Allan Ramsay’s official representation. They were all “swagger” portraits: their rhetoric was theatrical, often encompassing distinctive gestures, yards of gathered drapery, and inflated, if not actually imaginary, settings. Smibert had painted his three full-length heroes between 1746 and 1747 (Sir William Pepperrell, Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Massachusetts; Sir Peter Warren, Portsmouth Athenaeum, New Hampshire; and William Shirley, location unknown) and Robert Feke had depicted Brigadier General Samuel Waldo about 1748 (Bowdoin College Museum of Art, Brunswick, Maine). Copley would have been familiar with all of these paintings; not only could he have seen them first hand, but in 1747, Peter Pelham, Copley’s stepfather, engraved a mezzotint after Smibert’s portrait of Pepperrell [M27872]. Pepperrell was Sparhawk’s father-in-law and owned all three of Smibert’s portraits by the 1760s. Nathaniel Sparhawk (1715–1776), however, was neither hero nor monarch. He was instead a merchant from Kittery, Maine, posed by Copley as a man of state. Though he had achieved some wealth trading in wood and molasses, it was Sparhawk’s marriage in 1742 to Elizabeth Pepperrell that made him socially prominent. He suffered financial setbacks in 1758, largely due to a dramatic increase in taxes, but the death of Sir William in 1759 led to a timely inheritance of the Pepperrell estate and relief from his debts. At this time, Sparhawk also acquired Pepperrell’s seat on the Court of Common Pleas for York County, Maine. Sparhawk’s grand pose suggests his inheritance from Sir William, imitating Smibert’s depiction of the older man, but Sparhawk’s grace and informality contrast with Pepperrell’s stiffness. Sparhawk’s animated pose was consistent with new eighteenth-century codes of bodily conduct that postulated the ideal gentleman as relaxed and conversational, a trend that would have been familiar to both Copley and his sitter. Also in keeping with eighteenth-century codes is Sparhawk’s excess weight, considered a sign of health and prosperity; the visible remains of another set of buttons beneath Sparhawk’s waistcoat indicate that Copley deliberately altered his design to increase Sparhawk’s girth. Sparhawk holds in his hand an architectural drawing, but the four-columned porch diagrammed on the paper was never used in either of the two building projects associated with him: his own house of 1742 (Sparhawk Hall, no longer extant; a doorway [2010.212] from it is in the MFA’s collection) and his mother-in-law’s of the 1760s (Lady Pepperrell House, Kittery Point, Maine). Instead, Copley placed Sparhawk in an imaginary setting. Two colossal columns flank him on the right, and in the background, a classical arcade surmounted by sculpted figures suggests an Italian villa. The arcade bears resemblance to patterns used in contemporary architectural publications, but this feature may derive more directly from the pillar-and-arch wallpaper in Sparhawk’s home. Block-printed in England, the wallpaper hung in the stairhall of Sparhawk Hall and was probably installed by Sparhawk shortly after Sir William’s death. This text was adapted from Paul Staiti’s entry in John Singleton Copley in America, by Carrie Rebora et al., exh. cat. (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art in association with Harry N. Abrams, 1995).
Center right, on architectural plans: John.S.Copley./pinx 1764
1764, the sitter, Nathaniel Sparhawk (1715-1776), Kittery, Maine; by 1873, descended in the family to the great-nephew of the sitter, D. H. Sparhawk. 1880, Samuel B. Rindge (1820-1883), Cambridge; by descent to Frederick H. Rindge (1857-1905), Cambridge and Los Angeles, Calif.; 1905, by descent to his wife, May K. Rindge (1864-1941). 1983, sold by heirs of Frederick H. Rindge and May K. Rindge to the MFA. (Accession Date: December 7, 1983)
Charles H. Bayley Picture and Painting Fund