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Mrs. Francis Brinley and Her Son Francis, 1729

Mrs. Francis Brinley and Her Son Francis, 1729

John Smibert (1688 – 1751)

Raised in Edinburgh, Scotland, John Smibert settled in Boston and became one of the foremost portrait artists in colonial America. His style was that of the Old Masters, and he painted nearly 300 portraits. In his later years, with weakened eyesight, he turned to portrait painting.

He worked first as a coach painter and house painter in London and then as a copyist. He learned to draw from being a copyist and at Sir James Thornhill’s Academy, and he became a moderately successful portrait painter in London. In 1719, he went to Italy and studied by copying the Old Masters, especially Titian and Raphael. In Italy he met George Berkeley (1685-1753) who invited Smibert to go to the Colonies to help establish a university. Smibert went along and remained in America, although Berkeley left because the funding never came through for the university.

In 1729, Smibert moved to Boston where he married Mary Williams, a wealthy heiress with high social connections. He became a quick success with some of his clients coming from Old South Church, a powerful Congregational church where he worshipped. In the first five years of his residency, he completed almost 100 portraits, each one earning him forty guineas.

However, there was little opportunity for further art training in Boston in those days, and as his painting continued, he became formulaic and lessened in popularity. In 1734, he opened a shop which he ran for the next 30 years and where he sold artist colors, catering to hobbyists and young painters and even house painters. He also sold copies of Old Master paintings and sculptures and engravings, did renditions of coats of arms, and gave some art instruction including to John Trumbull (1756-1843), future well known American portraitist.

Sources include:
Isabel Breskin, Essay, Masterworks of American Painting at the De Young
Michael David Zellman, 300 Years of American Art
Matthew Baigell, Dictionary of American Art

Biography from the Archives of AskART