First portrait painter in colonial America
"Thy Fame, O Smibert, shall the Muse rehearse,/And sing her Sister-Art [painting] in softer Verse."
American poet Mather Byles.
John Smibert (also Smybert) was the first portrait painter to come to America. After settling in Boston (then located in the Massachusetts Colony), he exerted a profound influence on eighteenth-century American art. Smibert's training in the fashionable Dutch-influenced style of portraiture (the making of portraits) brought a new sophistication to painting in New England. Most of the leading citizens of Boston were his clients. Smibert is credited with organizing the first art show in America. He also influenced a number of young American artists.
Apprenticed as house painter
John Smibert was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1688, where he was raised as a Presbyterian (a Protestant denomination of the Christian religion). While working for seven years as an apprentice to a house painter and plasterer in Edinburgh, he developed an interest in drawing. Upon completing his apprenticeship he moved to London, England. For a time he barely made a living by working for coach painters and copying old pictures for an art dealer. Finally he was admitted to an art academy in London, where he studied with Godfrey Kneller from 1713 until 1716. Kneller's style had influenced several generations of British portrait painters.
Starts career as portrait painter
After his time studying with Kneller, Smibert returned to Edinburgh, where he supported himself for a few years as a professional portrait painter. Finally, when there was no longer a demand for portraits, Smibert left for Italy in 1719. For the next three years he had a successful career painting portraits and copying works from the great art collections in Florence and Rome. He also bought paintings for his own growing collection. Returning to England in 1722, Smibert established a studio in London, where he achieved a modest reputation but no great distinction. His fortunes took a dramatic turn, however, when he met the Irish philosopher and Anglican dean (church official) George Berkeley.
John Smibert, the first portrait painter in America, is credited with having a lasting impact on early American art. He also dabbled in architecture. In 1742 he designed Faneuil Hall, a public market and meeting hall in Boston, Massachusetts. The building was commissioned by the wealthy merchant Peter Faneuil, who gave it to the city. Faneuil Hall burned in 1761 but was later rebuilt. During the American Revolution (1775–83) colonists met there to discuss political and military plans, and the building became known as "the cradle of liberty." Faneuil Hall is still in use today as a market, meeting hall, and museum.
Smibert had joined a society called the "Virtuosi of London." Among the members were artists John Wootton, Thomas Gibson, George Vertue, and Bernard Lens. One of the sitters (people who pose for the painting of their portraits) was Berkeley, who was then dean of Derry, Ireland. Smibert began painting a large group portrait of the "Virtuosi," but he never completed the work. In 1728, however, he did finish a portrait of Berkeley, which now hangs in the National Portrait Gallery in London. That year Smibert also accepted Berkeley's invitation to teach painting, drawing, and architecture at a new college Berkeley hoped to establish in Bermuda (an island in the Caribbean Sea) for planters' children and Native Americans.
Paints Bermuda Group
Smibert arrived with Berkeley's party at Newport, Rhode Island, in 1729. The plan was to settle there while Berkeley acquired funding for the college from the British Parliament. During the two-year wait Smibert commemorated the enterprise in his best-known painting, The Bermuda Group (also called Bishop Berkeley and His Entourage), which contains a self-portrait. The first group portrait painted in America, the work is now owned by Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. A smaller version hangs in the National Portrait Gallery of Ireland in Dublin. Since the Bermuda project was never approved, Berkeley returned to England. Yet even before his patron (financial supporter) left, Smibert had found his niche in America. Shortly after reaching Newport, he had moved to Boston, where he pursued a lucrative career as a portrait painter.
Becomes first American artist
By 1730, less than a year after arriving in Boston, Smibert had gained wide recognition as a painter. He attracted clients to his studio with his own paintings as well as his copies of the old masters' works and with items from his personal art collection. At that time he reportedly organized the first art show in America. Within eight months he had completed twenty-seven portraits. Among his subjects were merchant Peter Faneuil, who financed the building of the original Faneuil Hall, and judges Samuel Sewall (see entry), Nathaniel Byfield, and Edmund Quincy. In 1730 Smibert married Mary Williams, daughter of Nathaniel Williams, the prominent master of the Boston Latin School. The Smiberts had two children. (Their son Nathaniel, who also became a portrait painter, died in 1756.) After five years in Boston, Smibert had painted over one hundred portraits. Although his work would have been considered only average in Britain, American colonists praised the portraits for their lifelike poses, elegant technique, and perceptive interpretation. The Bermuda Group hung in Smibert's studio until the end of his life, attracting local admirers as well as travelers from other colonies.
Influences other painters
Smibert's reputation also attracted numerous customers who purchased imported prints and art supplies from a shop he kept along with his studio. Aspiring young Boston painters such as John Greenwood came for support and advice on portraiture. Other American artists incorporated many of Smibert's techniques into their own work, thus extending his influence beyond Boston. Among them were John Singleton Copley, Washington Allston, and John Trumbull. Smibert also dabbled in architecture, designing Faneuil Hall in 1742. As he settled into a prosperous life, however, his portraits became less imaginative. Yet when Smibert died in 1751, he left a lasting impact on American art.
For further research
Foote, Henry W. John Smibert, Painter. New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1969.
Smibert, John (1688-1751)
John Smibert (1688-1751)
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 portraits—including 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. Smibert’s 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 Smibert’s studio to the end of his life, attracting local admirers as well as many travelers from other colonies.
Later Life. Smibert’s 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 Copley’s family, came for supplies and advice on portrait painting. Younger American artists incorporated many of Smibert’s 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.
Frank W. Bayley, Five Colonial Artists of New England (Boston: Privately printed, 1929);
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.
The best and most complete study of Smibert is Henry Wilder Foote, John Smibert, Painter (1950), which contains a descriptive catalog of the portraits.