America's First Professional PainterToday, in this country, professional artists abound. Nearly every community of modest size has at least one individual who makes most if not all of his living as an artist, even if it means adding to his repertoire signs, commercial work, teaching, picture framing, and other art-related money-making activities. This was not always the case however. We know that those who first came to this country brought with them an artistic tradition dating back many centuries. At the same time, survival being what it was on these foreign shores, only the strongest and most practical of these traditions survived. Aside from a number of practical and decorative crafts having some artistic significance, the art of portrait painting was the one area that thrived above all others in Colonial America.
Ever wonder who the first professional painter was on these shores? His name was John Smibert. Born in Scotland in 1688, he studied in Italy before establishing a portrait studio London. Painting in a Baroque style, he was unhappy with the stiff competition there, so he moved to Boston hoping to become a drawing instructor at a college in Bermuda. When Parliament failed to fund the venture however, he decided to remain in New England where he found patronage amongst the emerging affluence of the merchant society.
In 1730, Smibert was the first to hold an art exhibition in the colonies and by the time he retired in 1746, he had painted over 250 portraits, indicating a level of production and patronage previously unknown in the American Colonies. Even after his death, his art gallery in Boston was a cultural centre, doing much to elevate the knowledge of art in the area.
Contributed by Lane, Jim
5 November 1997