Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Smibert, John

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SMIBERT or SMYBERT, JOHN (1684–1751), portrait-painter, born at Edinburgh in 1684, was apprenticed for seven years to a house-painter and plasterer, during which time he developed a taste for drawing. On leaving his master he came to London, and for a few years supported life with difficulty by working for coach-painters and making copies of old pictures for a dealer. At last he was able to enter Sir James Thornhill's academy in St. Martin's Lane. After studying there, Smibert returned to Edinburgh; but, finding no demand for face-painting in the north, he made his way in 1717 to Italy, working at Florence, Rome, and Naples, copying the works of old masters and painting portraits with success. He returned to England in 1720 with some reputation, and quickly found practice as a portrait-painter. He was a member of a society called the ‘Virtuosi of London,’ including John Wootton, Thomas Gibson, George Vertue, Bernard Lens, and other artists, and designed a large portrait group of the members. This, however, he did not complete. Among his sitters was the famous George Berkeley, bishop of Cloyne (then dean of Derry), one of whose portraits by Smibert, painted in 1728, is now in the National Portrait Gallery. When Berkeley left England in September 1728, with a view of promoting the cause of religion in America, Smibert accepted the offer to accompany the dean to the Bermudas, where the dean hoped to establish a college for the education of planters' children and young savages in the Christian religion, literature, and the arts. The party arrived at Newport, Rhode Island, in America, in January 1729. When Berkeley, after waiting two years for money to realise his project, decided to return to England, Smibert resolved to remain in America, and settled in the city of Boston. An interesting group, painted by Smibert, of Berkeley and his associates, including the painter himself, is now at Yale University; a smaller version of the same picture is in the National Portrait Gallery of Ireland. Smibert was apparently the first portrait-painter who came from Europe to America, and he found an open field before him at Boston. He painted many portraits of the leading citizens of Boston, having a considerable influence in encouraging and establishing art in America. Smibert's portraits have much merit, and have been unduly neglected in England. He died at Boston, U.S.A., in March 1751, leaving a widow (a lady of property, whose maiden name was Mary Williams) and two children, one of whom, Nathaniel Smibert or Smybert, also a portrait-painter, died young in 1756.

[Redgrave's Dict. of Artists; Vertue's Diaries (Brit. Mus. Addit. MSS. 23076, &c.); Dunlap's Hist. of the Arts of Design in the United States; Notes and Correspondence of the late Sir George Scharf, K.C.B.]

L. C.