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 on John Smibert

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 Biography Sources

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

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