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Smibert, John (1688-1751)

John Smibert (1688-1751)

Artist

Sources

Influence on American Art. John Smibert, who arrived in America in January 1729 at the age of forty, exerted a profound influence on eighteenth-century American portrait painting. His training in the Dutch-influenced style of portraiture that was fashionable among the British aristocracy brought a new sophistication to the art of New England.

Early Life. Born in Edinburgh, Scotland, where he was raised as a Presbyterian, Smibert studied in 1713-1716 at the London artists academy headed by Sir Godfrey Kneller, whose style influenced several generations of British portrait painters. After a few years as a professional portrait painter in Edinburgh, Smibert left for Italy in spring 1719 and spent the next three years studying and copying paintings in the great art collections in Florence and Rome and buying works for his own growing collection. On his return to Britain in summer 1722, he established a studio in London, where he achieved a modest reputation but no great distinction.

The Bermuda Group. His fortunes took a dramatic turn, however, when Irish philosopher and Anglican churchman Dean George Berkeley invited Smibert to teach painting, drawing, and architecture at a new college that Berkeley hoped to establish in Bermuda. Leaving England in late 1728, Berkeley, his family, Smibert, and others involved in the plan went to Newport, Rhode Island, where they settled while waiting for funding from Parliament. Smibert commemorated the enterprise in his best-known painting, The Bermuda Group (1729-1731). The allotment was never approved, and Berkeley returned to England after a fruitless two-year wait. Even before his patron had left, however, Smibert had found his niche in America, settling in Boston to pursue a lucrative career as a portrait painter.

American Painter. Within a year of his arrival in Boston in spring 1729, Smibert gained wide recognition, attracting people to his studio with an exhibit of his own paintings, his copies of works by the old masters, and items from his personal collection. Poet Mather Byles welcomed Smibert to the city with a poem that proclaimed:

  Thy Fame, O Smibert, shall the Muse rehearse,
And sing her Sister-Art in softer Verse.
  Tis yours, Great Master, in just lines to trace,
The rising prospect or the lovely Face.

Within eight months the artist had completed twenty-six portraitsincluding paintings of Judges Samuel Sewell and Nathaniel Byfield. In July 1730 Smibert cemented his ties to the Boston elite when he married Mary Williams, daughter of Dr. Nathaniel Williams, the highly respected master of the Boston Latin School, and after five years in Boston Smibert had done more than one hundred portraits. Smiberts paintings might have been considered only average in London, but British Americans had never seen anything like them for their lifelike poses, elegant textures, and perceptive characterization. His eight-foot-by-five-foot painting The Bermuda Group hung in Smiberts studio to the end of his life, attracting local admirers as well as many travelers from other colonies.

Later Life. Smiberts reputation also brought him a wealth of paying customers to purchase art supplies and imported prints from the shop he kept on the side. There aspiring young Boston painters such as John Greenwood, a friend of John Singleton Copleys family, came for supplies and advice on portrait painting. Younger American artists incorporated many of Smiberts techniques in their own work, extending his influence far beyond Boston. He also dabbled in architecture, designing the original Faneuil Hall in Boston in 1742. Yet as he settled into a complacent, prosperous life, his portraits grew less and less imaginative.

Sources

Frank W. Bayley, Five Colonial Artists of New England (Boston: Privately printed, 1929);

Richard H. Saunders, John Smibert: Colonial Americas First Portrait Painter (New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 1995).

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John Smibert

John Smibert

John Smibert (1688-1751), Scottish-born American artist, was a most celebrated painter in the Colonies.

John Smibert was born in Edinburgh, where he was trained as an artisan. Hoping to attain success as a painter, he went to London, working as a coach painter and a copyist. At the age of 28 he became a student at James Thornhill's Great Queen Street Academy. Smibert traveled in Italy from 1717 to 1720, for the grand tour was expected of an aspiring painter, and then reestablished himself in London, where he was regarded as no more than a competent painter.

In 1729 Smibert sailed for America with Dean (later Bishop) George Berkeley, who had organized a movement to establish a college in Bermuda "for converting the Indians to Christianity." Smibert had hoped that in America, where there were no European-trained painters, he would be successful. Berkeley's party landed at Newport, R.I.; as the plan for the college did not materialize, Smibert went to Boston, where he expected to find patrons.

Smibert's Dean George Berkeley with His Family and Friends (1729) was the most elaborate and complex painting done in New England to that time. New England portraits usually contained one, two, or at most three sitters, who were shown with few if any accessories. In Smibert's painting, eight sitters, disposed in front of a landscape, are arranged about a table covered with a Turkey-work cloth on which books are placed. Here he introduced a new sophistication and an almost baroque complexity into American art. The gestures of the figures are awkward, and at times the drawing is uncertain, but the faces are rendered honestly, rather than with the facile flattery then characteristic of most English painting.

The homespun, direct quality that Smibert quickly adopted was well received by Bostonians. Some of his portraits, such as that of Nathaniel Byfield (1730), have qualities approaching caricature; others reveal sympathetic psychological penetration. Smibert may also have painted landscapes, for he wrote of working "with somethings in a landskip way." But except for the backgrounds in some of the portraits, including the Berkeley group and the portrait of Jane Clark (ca. 1740), no landscapes survive.

Smibert was one of the first painters in the Colonies to enjoy a status beyond that of an artisan. As such, he set the tone for later painters. He married well; he held civil offices; and he was able to support himself as a settled citizen rather than as an itinerant artist, as was then common. He also submitted some of the first designs for Faneuil Hall in Boston. His son Nathaniel (1734-1756) was also a painter.

Further Reading

The best and most complete study of Smibert is Henry Wilder Foote, John Smibert, Painter (1950), which contains a descriptive catalog of the portraits.

Additional Sources

Saunders, Richard H., John Smibert: colonial America's first portrait painter, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995. □

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Smibert, John

John Smibert (both: smī´bərt), 1688–1751, American portrait painter, b. Scotland, the first skillful painter in New England. After his apprenticeship to an Edinburgh house painter, he went to London. There he studied art, made a trip to Italy, then returned to London, where he had small success. He emigrated (1729) to America with Dean (later Bishop) Berkeley, who had persuaded him to teach art at his college in Bermuda, though the plan did not materialize. After a stay in Newport, R.I., Smibert went to Boston. There in 1730 he assembled probably the first art show in America. He married an heiress, became a successful portrait painter, and won considerable social standing. Among his works are portraits of Judge Edmund Quincy (Mus. of Fine Arts, Boston) and Peter Faneuil (Mass. Historical Society, Boston). Harvard, Bowdoin, and other institutions house examples of his formal portraiture. Yale owns the first important portrait group painted in America, Smibert's Bishop Berkeley and His Entourage (1731), including a self-portrait. The artist's influence is evident in the work of such early Americans as Copley, Washington Allston, and John Trumbull.

See study by H. Foote (1950, repr. 1969).

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