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Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The First Professional Artist in America

Today, in most countries, professional artists abound.  Nearly every community of modest size has at least one individual who makes most if not all of his or her living as an artist, even if it means painting 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 the new world 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.

Self Portrait, 1739, John Smibert

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 the British Parliament failed to fund the venture however, he decided to remain in New England where he found patronage among 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 center, doing much to elevate the knowledge of art in the area.

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