Big things can have small beginnings. If the “big thing” in this instance is American art, then one could argue that one of the most profound “small beginnings” was the arrival of John Smibert in Boston in 1729. Indeed, Smibert’s artistic influence in the American colonies extended far beyond the scope of his own life, and the argument can be made that he was the most important painter in the colonial period. This prominence is not for the art that he himself completed, but for the inspiration he provided to generations of artists to come.
Smibert was born in Edinburgh, Scotland; his father was a moderately successful wool dyer. Unfortunately for Smibert, Scotland had little fine arts training available. Rather than immediately pursue instruction as a portraitist, in 1702 Smibert instead began a seven-year apprenticeship with Walter Melville—a house painter and plasterer who often painted heraldic shields. This somewhat lowly form of artistic production was a common chore for painters in Scotland during the early eighteenth century. In fact, there was little need for professional portraitists in Edinburgh, as those who had the discretionary money to afford such a luxury—like members of Parliament—would have consistent cause to visit London and could seek out a skilled portrait painter there.
Edinburgh to London and back again
A Grand Tour
This was a period of great learning for Smibert. He spent a month in Paris, almost a year in Florence, and more than six months in Rome. Florence in particular was fruitful for the artist. Smibert purchased more than 300 works of art while there: 45 paintings, 250 drawings, 6 pastels, and at least one cartoon (not a comic, but a full-size study for a painting). It was also in Florence that the artist met the Irish philosopher George Berkeley. In fact, this fortuitous meeting would echo throughout the majority of Smibert’s life to come.
Smibert returned to London in 1722, overflowing with confidence. His time abroad had been wonderfully fruitful; he had immersed himself in the art of Italy and had met many Britons on their own Grand Tour who would be in a position to aid his portrait career upon returning to Great Britain. For a period of six years—that is, from the summer of 1722 until fall of 1728, Smibert experienced modest success as a London portraitist. He was a moderately talented painter working in a city teeming with exceptionally talented artists. And so, hoping to be the only fish in a miniscule pond (rather than a small fish in a enormous pond), Smibert took a remarkable leap of faith. George Berkeley was there to provide the nudge that led Smibert from his London studio to the relative wilderness of the Americas.
And on to Bermuda (via Newport)
The years had been kind to Berkeley since he had first met Smibert in Florence. In 1724, Berkeley had been appointed Dean of Derry in Ireland, a religious post that provided an affluent salary of £1,500 per year (in contrast, Smibert earned £345 as a full time portraitist in 1725, and only £233 the following year). It was about this time when Berkeley began to plan on beginning a college on the island of Bermuda. In 1726 Berkeley was in London securing funding for this enterprise when he met Smibert, commissioned a portrait, and convinced the artist to join his “New World” adventure of starting a college in Bermuda. Smibert agreed, and was charged with lecturing on painting and architecture—subjects uncommon in eighteenth-century college curricula. Berkeley and Smibert departed on September 5th, 1728. They were joined by four other adventurous people: John James and Richard Dalton—who presumably were to teach and were described as “Men of Fortune” and “gentlemen of substance”—and Anne Forster (Berkeley’s new wife) and her traveling companion, a Miss Handcock.
The group arrived at their first destination, Newport, Rhode Island, in January 1729 and stayed there awaiting the £20,000 Parliament promised for the move to Bermuda and to begin the college. Unfortunately—or, perhaps, fortunately for Smibert—the funding from Parliament never came. Thus, rather than spending time in Bermuda—truly a distant outpost—Smibert instead went to Boston. Although small by European standards with a population of about 13,000, Boston was as bright and vibrant of a colonial town as there was during the first half of the eighteenth century. And Smibert was the most talented portraitist in Boston the moment he entered the city.
Finally . . . Boston and The Bermuda Group
To begin, The Bermuda Group—which is sometimes called The Berkeley Entourage—is, for colonial New England if not Europe, a composition as immense as it is ambitious, and many suggest that Smibert had Peter Paul Rubens’s The Four Philosophers in mind—a painting Smibert would have seen in Florence.
Both paintings depict a group sitting around a table. Both show books and writing implements. Both have landscape visible in the background. While it is unlikely that many of Smibert’s potential patrons would have understood this visual reference, it does indicate that Smibert was pulling out all the stops for this blockbuster work. Few (if any) limners in New England could claim the pedigree of having studied Rubens’ paintings in Florence. In doing so, Smibert clearly claimed to be different from his more provincial competition.
And how different this image is. Measuring nearly 6 x 8 feet, it contains eight nearly full-sized figures, something unseen in colonial Boston. Six of these figures are those who landed in Newport. Two others—the seated John Wainwright on the left and the infant Henry Berkeley—complete the figural group. They stand in front of a colonnade and an Arcadian landscape unseen around the Boston area. Although anachronistic—that is, this scene could have never existed in real life—this portrait was meant to commemorate a bold, although ultimately unsuccessful enterprise.
There are five men present. Dean Berkeley has been given the most prominent position in the composition. Standing to the side of the table rather than behind it, he wears the full-length black cassock of an Anglican priest, and the wide, dual-banded white clerical collar popular during the eighteenth century. He looks heavenward as if for inspiration, and his face has an expression of thoughtfulness. His right hand rests on an upright leather-bound book, a symbol for both his own education and the scholarship for which he was famous.
Whereas Berkeley wears his clerical attire, the other gentlemen wear garments of the highest London fashion—something that would have dazzled Smibert’s colonial audience. John Smibert can be seen on the opposite side of the composition. As is typical of an artist who includes their own image in a group portrait—see Raphael in The School of Athens or Diego Velázquez in Las Meninas—Smibert looks directly out of the picture at the viewer. He wears a fashionable brown jacket and white cravat, and wisps of grey hair speak to his age. He holds a rolled up sketch and paintbrush in his right hand.
The man who stands in front of him—identified as either John James or Richard Dalton—is also fashionably dressed. He wears a powdered wig, an unbuttoned grey jacket, and a white cravat. He looks downward to observe the seated John Wainwright. This figure is an interesting addition, for Wainwright was never a part of Berkeley Entourage. Instead, he was the patron who commissioned this portrait. As such, Smibert places him close to the picture plane, unobstructed by the table. He is shown in profile and seated facing Dean Berkeley, writing in an open book as if taking dictation. The fifth gentleman stands behind the two women and can be identified as either John James or Richard Dalton. He casually leans on the back of the chair and looks towards the left edge of the painting.
Although this image was never intended to remain in Boston, it stayed in the artist’s Boston studio and served as the cornerstone for what many consider to be that city’s first museum. Indeed, this painting, when combined with the copies of the Old Masters Smibert painted on the continent and the works he purchased in Florence, provided people in Boston with a fine arts viewing experience unmatched in the Americas. Smibert even ran a kind of art supply store where he sold pigments, paintbrushes, and mezzotints from England and all over Europe. This brought European art into the homes of the well to do in colonial Boston. Visiting Smibert’s painting room became a kind of right of passage for aspiring painters. John Singleton Copley, John Trumbull, Charles Willson Peale, and Washington Allston were all influenced by the works they saw in Smibert’s studio long after the artist had died. In this regard, The Bermuda Group is as important for who saw it as it is for what it in fact is.
Read a chapter in our textbook, Reframing Art History, about Art in American Colonies and the United States, c. 1600–1860.