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Artifact of the Month: Mayor or Moses? Portrait of William F. Cooper

Posted by on February 19, 2013

The beginning of the New Year brought our nation’s presidential inauguration, and seeing all the pomp and tradition (and this being the month of Presidents’ Day), it got me thinking about people in authority, formal portraiture, and historic perception. When I work in the MAH’s collection room, I often glance up at the portrait of the first mayor of Santa Cruz. His name was William F. Cooper, but I like to call him Moses. Take a look at this painting and you’ll see why.

a close-up of Lillian Heath's portrait of Mayor William F. Cooper

a close-up of Lillian Heath’s portrait of Mayor William F. Cooper

Painted by local artist Lillian Heath, Mayor Cooper is shrouded in green and tan drapery, his lined face (attributes of wisdom and knowledge) house brown eyes that gaze reassuringly at the viewer. This is a man you can trust. His long white beard completes his wise look, and reminds me of an Old Testament figure. The effect is on purpose, allowing the viewer to imagine the mayor as an almost divine being from a different time than when it was painted. I’m pretty sure Mr. Cooper didn’t walk around town in garb like that, even if it was 19th century Santa Cruz. Doesn’t he look like an extra from the movie, The Ten Commandments?

Mayor Cooper appears to be an honorable man, and by all accounts he was. Born in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, William F. Cooper came to Santa Cruz in 1849, and opened the Cooper Brothers Mercantile Store with his brother on Main Street (now Front Street, where the MAH is now). William was known to be kind to the Native Americans at the Santa Cruz Mission, and according to local historian Margaret Koch, he “slipped many a sack of flour or bag of beans or warm blanket to some…” Hmmm, not exactly parting the Red Sea, but random acts of kindness are admirable.

The portrait of Mayor Cooper was painted in the neo-classical style, which was all the rage in mid to late 19th century art. Neo-classicism portraiture and history painting get a bad rap now, due mainly to the overly romanticized images used to heighten the importance of their subjects. Was George Washington an amazing general and president? By all account he was. Did he cross the Delaware looking as steadfast and dapper as depicted in numerous paintings? I’m guessing not.

I love history paintings like the portrait of Mayor Cooper. When we first accepted the painting into the collection, the MAH’s collections management committee had some lively discussions about it. Is this questionable art with a good story or just weird? Is this art or is it history? I think it’s both and that’s what makes it so wonderful for our collection. And the role of Moses is played by Mayor Cooper.

Mayor Cooper hanging in the MAH's collection room

Mayor Cooper hanging in the MAH’s collection room