The subjects of these exceptional eighteenth-century portraits (this one, and Colonel John Harwood [1703–1788], AC 2007.24) are maternal ancestors of the brothers and Amherst College alumni who donated the portraits to the Mead. These canvases are not only portraits of known individuals but together also constitute a portrait of life in eighteenth-century Massachusetts, where John and Hannah Harwood spent their lives.
Portraits, the most popular type of paintings in colonial America, were commissioned by their subjects as status symbols. The sitter’s attributes—the objects they hold—represent what they considered important to their good character. While Hannah holds a delicate knitting project in her lap as a sign of her domesticity, her husband holds the Holy Bible as an indication of his religiosity. During the Harwoods’ lifetime, the American colonies experienced their first major religious revival, propelled forward by Evangelicalism, a new religious movement characterized in part by its emphasis on the Gospels. Whether or not the Harwoods subscribed to the tenets of Evangelicalism, they would certainly have been aware of this religious fervor; Jonathan Edwards, an early evangelical leader, was active throughout Massachusetts.
The chairs upon which the couple sit—likely a banister-backed or slat-backed armchair and a matching side chair—are also revealing. Crafted in a style popular at the time, these chairs were likely made in nearby Boston, the epicenter of American furniture production through the eighteenth century.
Interestingly, the artist or canvas preparer constructed each of these canvases from multiple pieces patchworked together, providing modern viewers with a glimpse of the eighteenth-century painter’s craft as well.