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Man at Work

This unusual portrait, painted in Boston in 1852, offers a glimpse into the daily life of a nineteenth-century craftsman.

When the hammer fell at Sotheby’s last fall, SPNEA became the proud owner of this portrait of an upholsterer at work in his shirtsleeves, tacking cloth to the front rail of a rococo revival chair. The tools of his trade hang on the wall behind him: an awl, a circular needle, and a pair of shears. The subject, who has not yet been identified, was obviously proud of his work. Portraits of craftsmen in their working clothes, especially paintings, are rare and serve as important documents of early American industries. Only a few others are known, such as John Singleton Copley’s famous portrait of Paul Revere contemplating the decoration of a silver tea pot.

Preliminary research has revealed some interesting facts about the artist. The portrait is signed in the lower right corner, “F. Cuypers/1852/Boston.” Franciscus Reinerus Hubertus Cuypers (1820–1866), like Rufus Porter (1792–1884), itinerant painter and founder of Scientific American, and Samuel F. B. Morse (1791–1872), founder of the National Academy of Design and inventor of Morse code, combined a career in art and science. In 1861 and 1862, he was Professor of Drawing and Painting at Seton Hall University in South Orange, New Jersey. In 1862, he patented an “Improvement in Hinges and Hooks.” Hopefully these clues will lead to more discoveries about this intriguing portrait.

—Melinda Talbot
Assistant Curator

Man at Work