The sitter, circa 1801-02
Charles Smith, Pennsylvania (his son)
Mary Margaret Smith Brinton, 1836 (his daughter)
Dr. John Hill Brinton, 1870 (her son)
Sarah Ward Brinton, 1907 (his wife)
Dr. Ward Brinton, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 1924
By descent in the family to the present owner
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Loan Exhibition of Historical Portrait, December 1887-January 1888
Los Angeles, California, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, American Portraiture in the Grand Manner: 1720-1920, 1981, no. 23, p. 116
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art; Washington, D.C., National Portrait Gallery, Gilbert Stuart, October 2004-July 2005, no. 61, pp. 227-231, illustrated p. 229
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, University of Pennsylvania Art Collection (on extended loan)
Gilbert Stuart’s portrait of Dr. William Smith (1727-1803), honors the life and accomplishments of one of Pennsylvania’s most highly regarded educators, intellectuals and clergymen. Dr. Smith devoted his lifetime to the study of education and his dedication would ultimately help lay the foundation for the University of Pennsylvania.
The distinguished Dr. Smith was well acquainted with the Stuart family as the artist and his growing family lived in two different houses owned by the Smiths, one in Philadelphia where more than one sitting with George Washington took place for the full-length Landsdowne Portrait (now in the National Portrait Gallery, Washington,D.C.) and later one in Germantown. Although the dates for Smith’s sitting are not known, a contemporary engraver, David Edwin, described meeting Smith when he was commissioned to complete an engraving of him from the Stuart portrait in 1801 (fig. 1). “The inscription on the engraving, William Smith D.D. AEt:75, suggests that the portrait was made during the year leading up to Smith’s seventy-fifth birthday on September 7, 1802” (Carrie Rebora Barratt and Ellen G. Miles, Gilbert Stuart, New York, 2004, p.229).
Smith was born in Aberdeen, Scotland, and came to the colonies in 1751 as a tutor. An ordained minister in the Church of England with doctor of divinity degrees from Oxford University and the University of Aberdeen, Smith was appointed to the faculty of the Academy of Philadelphia (ultimately reorganized as the College of Philadelphia). Smith soon became provost where he taught mathematics and natural sciences. The College of Philadelphia’s charter, revoked during the American Revolution, was ultimately reinstated in 1789 and two years later the college became part of the University of Pennsylvania.
Gilbert Stuart portrayed Smith at the end of his long life seated at home and surrounded by references to his many interests. The horizontal format, rarely seen in his formal portraits, makes this one of Stuart’s most unusual compositions. The present portrait includes references to Smith’s life’s work and presents him in black academic robes, a crimson hood signifying his Oxford degree. A large brass theodolite on the desk points to Smith’s interest in the sciences and to his attempt at tracing the transit of Venus on June 5, 1769. Further references to his studies include a compass tucked beneath a stack of books, and loose writing sheets spilling over the side of the desk. An impressive, panoramic view of the provost’s estate is glimpsed through parted red curtains and features a vista of the Schuylkill River and the falls visible from Smith’s hillside home, but it is in the sitter’s face and gesture that the most revealing information about the man is given. Stuart’s careful rendering of Smith’s features, the soft lines and texture of his aged skin, his fine gray hair and his sharp blue eyes as well as his delicate treatment of Smith’s hand poised with his pen capture the distinguished aura of this cultured American scholar and reflect Stuart's deep admiration of his great friend.
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