The Acquisitions Table: Portrait of Nathaniel Bowditch

Harding, Chester, attr. Nathaniel Bowditch (1773-1838). Oil on canvas, [ca. 1830]

Salem navigator and mathematician Nathaniel Bowditch was also the author of several atlases and scientific publications which can be found in the AAS collection. Bowditch is perhaps most famous for his 1802 publication, The New American Practical Navigator, which went through several editions in his lifetime and is still in print. He spent many years working on an English translation of Pierre-Simon de Laplace’s Traité de mécanique céleste, a mathematically-focused tome dealing with issues of astronomy. Bowditch’s impressive personal library of over 2,500 volumes, maps and manuscripts was given to the Boston Public Library in 1858 by his descendants.

 This portrait was painted towards the end of Bowditch’s life, probably in Boston where he was working in the insurance industry. Art historian Louisa Dresser has attributed this painting to Chester Harding, though further research remains to be done. Harding was in Boston at the time, and was considered one of the most fashionable painters of the era. Bowditch was an active consumer of portraits, sitting often to have his likeness made in watercolor miniature, plaster busts and easel painting. He was painted in the 1820s by James Frothingham in Salem, in 1828 by the elderly Gilbert Stuart, and in 1835 by the Salem painter Charles Osgood. Based on the sitter’s appearance, this portrait was probably painted around 1830. The artist has captured the shrewd features of the sitter with great detail, capturing the sharp-eyed look for which he was known. A biographer noted, “It was indeed wonderful with what facility Dr. Bowditch could in an instant divert his attention from any subject to another of the opposite character; at one moment engaged in the every-day detail of the business of his office, at the next abstracted from all around him by the most elevated investigations of science. . ..”  This portrait was the generous gift of AAS member Karl Lombard Briel.

Published by

Lauren Hewes

Andrew W. Mellon Curator of Graphic Arts, American Antiquarian Society

2 thoughts on “The Acquisitions Table: Portrait of Nathaniel Bowditch”

  1. I am working on a short film about “Longitude”, for the website I would like to use, Harding, Chester, attr. Nathaniel Bowditch (1773-1838). Oil on canvas, [ca. 1830], in our film. We are a subscription based website. The subscription goes to paying for our films, as we do not charge any fee for making them. Can we use this image? We will give Past is Present credit.

    Thank you,
    Heidi Perkins

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