Reichsfreiherr (Baron) Johann Heinrich Hurter was born in Schaffhausen, Switzerland on the 9th September 1734. He began his career in Geneva, working as an enamel painter, miniaturist and pastellist, his earliest works in the former dating back to 1764. He then settled in Bern from 1768-1770, working as a portrait artist. It is speculated that he trained under Jean-Étienne Liotard, who advised him to pursue a career in Versailles; however, this met with disappointment as he struggled to receive commissions from the Parisian court.

Hurter would then move to The Hague, where in 1772 he became a member of the Painters’ Guild. In 1777 he settled in London under the encouragement of Lord Dartrey (Thomas Dawson, 1725-1803), who was his major patron at the time, and whose family commissioned a great number of miniatures by him. To this day their collection of Hurter miniatures is the largest in the world (although three of his greatest works, a self-portrait from...

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Reichsfreiherr (Baron) Johann Heinrich Hurter was born in Schaffhausen, Switzerland on the 9th September 1734. He began his career in Geneva, working as an enamel painter, miniaturist and pastellist, his earliest works in the former dating back to 1764. He then settled in Bern from 1768-1770, working as a portrait artist. It is speculated that he trained under Jean-Étienne Liotard, who advised him to pursue a career in Versailles; however, this met with disappointment as he struggled to receive commissions from the Parisian court.

Hurter would then move to The Hague, where in 1772 he became a member of the Painters’ Guild. In 1777 he settled in London under the encouragement of Lord Dartrey (Thomas Dawson, 1725-1803), who was his major patron at the time, and whose family commissioned a great number of miniatures by him. To this day their collection of Hurter miniatures is the largest in the world (although three of his greatest works, a self-portrait from 1780 and portraits of Lord and Lady Dartrey themselves, are housed in the Museum zu Allerheiligen, Schaffhausen). It was during his residence in London that Hurter was exposed to the Reynolds portrait from which this work is copied. From 1779-1781, he was exhibiting at the RA, and was allegedly appointed a court painter, but no documentation can confirm this. However, he did indeed paint a number of miniatures of the royal family, including George IV, Queen Charlotte and their children, which certainly supports this speculation.

Between 1785 and 1787, Hurter travelled a great deal throughout Europe, visiting Schaffhausen, Karlsruhe, the Hague and Paris before returning to London to found a factory for mathematical and scientific instruments. In the years following its foundation he would divide his time between London and Germany.

A pivotal moment in his career was his large commission from the Empress Catherine of Russia in 1787: he was to produce fifteen enamels with ormolu frames for her collection. The zenith of the Russian enamel portrait miniature indeed coincided with the reign of Empress Catherine the Great (1729-96), and this commission indicated her desire to acquire miniatures of the traditional Western style (at the considerable price of 661 louis d’or).

In 1789 Hurter was ennobled in Düsseldorf by the Elector Karl Theodore, acquiring the title of Reichsfreiherr (Baron). Hurter is known for executing both original enamels and pastels, and copies of existing portraits, many of which were old masters, such as works by Van Dyck. His characteristic style is soft in its temperament with an effective use of colour and tonality. Hurter also used a variety of signatures on his works. Examples of his paintings and miniatures are largely in private collections but his work is also displayed in several major museums, including the Metropolitan and Royal Collections. He died at Düsseldorf, on the 2nd September, 1799.

The sitter is Mrs Mary Nesbitt (c.1735-1825), born Mary Davis in Covent Garden, London. Perhaps most famously a high-class socialite and courtesan, she rose from humble beginnings of unknown parentage to move in the elevated circles of government and royalty. She married the banker Alexander Nesbitt (c.1730-1772), and their home, Norwood House, in Upper Norwood, was a reputable gathering place for wealthy and high society individuals.

She embarked upon her career as a model for Sir Joshua Reynolds in 1764, and it was through this connection that she was introduced to the eighteenth-century social elite and pursued a lifestyle as a courtesan. Simon Luttrell, known as the ‘King of Hell’ and later the first Earl of Carhampton, is thought to have been her first seducer, and it was through Luttrell that she was introduced to her husband. Nesbitt was the youngest of three brothers, whose father, Thomas Nesbitt, was a merchant banker in the City of London. She married Nesbitt, on the 25th February 1768, with Luttrell as witness but she was allegedly consistently unfaithful to her husband. Nesbitt passed away in 1772, mentally ill and bankrupt, having been incarcerated a year before his death. Mary became the mistress of various gentlemen, including the Hon. Augustus John Hervey (1724-1779), in 1771, a naval officer, who later became the 3rd Earl of Bristol in 1775. They lived together happily, and supposedly faithfully, at Norwood House. She benefitted significantly from his will upon his death in 1779.

With the outbreak of the French Revolution Mrs Nesbitt began to move in diplomatic circles throughout Europe. It is therefore speculated that she was recruited by prime minister William Pitt as a government agent in his clandestine attempts to restore the French monarchy. It was at this time that she began to receive public praise, such as in the Morning Chronicle, which on 25th September 1797, proclaimed her a ‘celebrated woman’, who despite ‘the miscellany of her life’, had ‘acquired an elevation […] which she has preserved with dignity’, using ‘her influence with the great in favour of the unfortunate’.

Her somewhat promiscuous lifestyle seems incompatible with Hurter’s virginal depiction of her in white attire, clutching a dove to her breast, a renowned symbol of innocence. However, it is very possible that this was intended as an attempt to salvage her reputation following the death of her acknowledged lover, the 3rd Earl of Bristol.

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