John Smibert (Smybert), celebrated, Scottish-born painter who established an early tradition of colonial portraiture in Boston, died on the 2nd of April, 1751.
Smiberty-Jiberty John Smibert was the man who assembled what was the first art show in America, in Boston. That’s not counting the cave paintings of the Basketmaker Era in the southwest. Who knows what Smibert would have made of those petroglyphs. In 1730, Smibert settled in Boston and opened an engraving studio and artist supply store, above which he displayed his original works. That studio thus constituted America’s first art gallery. As a result of his having made an exhibition of his art, rather than of himself, John Smibert became one of the first painters in the Colonies to enjoy a status beyond that of a mere artisan. As such, he set the tone for later painters, such as Copley, Washington Allston, and John Trumbull. Instead of supporting himself as an itinerant artist, as was then common, good ol’ Smibert married an heiress, became a successful portrait painter, and won considerable social standing. He might have defined the term ‘upwardly mobile’ long before that became fashionable. John Smibert exerted a profound influence on 18th Century American portraiture, having introduced a level of Old English sophistication to the art of New England.
Smibert’s most famous painting was produced, most likely, in 1731, although some biographies suggest 1729, but that’s a bit far fetched as he didn’t open his studio until 1730, the year after he arrived in America. Smibert’s huge, famous, elaborate, and complex painting is known as ‘The Bermuda Group’ or otherwise as ‘Dean George Berkeley with His Family and Friends’ or ‘Dean George Berkeley and Entourage’. Most paintings of the time included two to three sitters at most, with the subjects having few, if any, accessories. Smibert’s tribute to his friend the Dean includes eight sitters – well, it’s actually four ‘standers’ and four sitters, one of whom is a child that looks like it was drugged for the occasion; possibly in order to ensure it sat still long enough to be captured on canvass. The ‘accessories’ are a table, covered with what’s called a Turkey-work cloth, some books, and perhaps, the child. Smibert himself also appears in the painting; his is the face that appears top left.
An expert analysis presented via Novelguide.com (a source of free literary analysis on the web) grants that the faces in Smibert’s ‘Bermuda Group’ are rendered honestly “rather than with the facile flattery, which then characterised most English painting” – well, he wisnae English. Smibert’s painting of the Dean and his ‘Bermuda entourage’ is owned by Yale University Art Gallery, in Connecticut. It is considered to be the first important portrait group painted in America, and was certainly the most elaborate and complex painting done in New England up to that time.
Amongst Smibert’s other works are portraits of Judge Edmund Quincy (in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston) and Peter Faneuil (in the Massachusetts Historical Society in Boston). Harvard, Bowdoin, and other such institutions also hold examples of his formal portraiture. Smibert’s portraits were well received by Bostonians, many of whom became his subjects. Some of his portraits, such as those of Judges Nathaniel Byfield and Samuel Sewall, could be said to have qualities approaching caricature and his portrait of Portrait of Mrs. Tyng has her with a rather unflattering double chin. Between 1740 and 1742, Smibert also dabbled in architecture, designing the original Faneuil Hall in Boston, in the style of an English country market.
John Smibert was born in Edinburgh on the 2nd of April, 1688. In 1701, he was apprenticed as an artisan (a painter and plasterer) and at the end of his apprenticeship, in 1709, hoping to achieve success as a painter, he set out for London. There he worked as a coach painter and a copyist (making copies of old pictures for a dealer). Later, from 1713 to 1716, Smibert studied at Sir James Thornhill’s Academy, either in St. Martin’s Lane or Great Queen Street or at the London Artists Academy headed by Sir Godfrey Kneller; take your pick. After that, Smibert returned to Edinburgh, but the descendants of the Picts had grown out face painting so, after a while, in 1717, he set off for his ‘Grand Tour’.
On the Continent, Smibert worked in the likes of Florence, Rome and Naples, copying the works of old masters and painting portraits with some success. Back in London in the summer of 1722, Smibert established a studio in Covent Garden, where he achieved a modest reputation as no more than a competent painter, without great distinction. Societies were a big thing in those days and Smibert was a member of one known as the ‘Virtuosi of London’ whose associates all were artists. Smibert designed an ambitious group portrait of the ‘Virtuosi’ containing a large number of his contemporaries, including John Wootton, Thomas Gibson, George Vertue and Bernard Lens, but it was never finished.
In 1728, Smibert sailed for American via Jamaica with Dean (later Bishop) George Berkeley. The artist hoped that in the Colonies, where there were no European trained painters, he would be more successful than in London, where there was just too much competition. Nevertheless, Smibert had been persuaded to teach art at Berkeley’s college in Bermuda, but as that plan didn’t come to fruition, Smibert set out for fame and fortune in Boston. After arriving in Newport, Rhode Island, in January of 1729, Smibert did indeed find a measure of success in Boston, where he lived “at his Houfe in Queen Street, between the Town Houfe and the Orange Tree.”
Smibert was known to advertise his art studio in ‘The Weekly Rehearsal’ often in such manner: “John Smibert, Painter, Sells all Sorts of Colours, dry or ground, with Oils and Brufhes, Fans of feveral Sorts, the beft Mezzotinto, Italian, French, Dutch and Englifh Prints, in Frames and Glaffes, or without, by Wholefale or Retail at reafonable Rates.” Smibert also used ‘The Rehearsal’ to advertise a collection of valuable engravings, which he’d collected on his European tour. One sale was to begin “In Queen Street, this Day, being the 26th of May, 1735” and was to “laft ’till Saturday Evening next, and no longer.” The prints that remained unsold were to be sent to England. John Smibert never made it back to England – or Scotland – as he lived in Boston until he died on the 2nd of April, 1751. His body lies in an unmarked grave, somewhere in Boston’s Granary Burying Ground.