Descended in the family of the sitters to the present owner: Rachel King Smith, b.1774 and Captain James Smith, b.1762, Dumfries, Virginia; Mary King Smith Tyler (their daughter), b.1806; Edmund Andrew (Squire) Tyler (her son), b. 1832; William Edmind Tyler (Squire's son), b. 1898; James Ferguson Tyler (William's son), b. 1927
According to family tradition, The Smith-King Family Portrait was painted by patriarch Captain James Smith (1762–1818) around the year 1807. The portrait, which centers on Smith's wife Rachel (1774–1823), is unusual in the variety of poses it includes and the number of figures it represents. James Smith was a to Scottish ship captain and merchant who traveled vast distances to India and Southeast Asia. In 1790, he married Rachel King Smith, a descendant of the prominent Westwood and King families of Virginia, and settled on an estate called Cedar Grove in Dumfries.
The couple had nine children, though only five survived to adulthood. Jane (1806–1841) is shown seated on her mother's shoulder, while Andrew (1802–1876) points to the pair from below. To his right, Mary (1804–1884) and Robert (1800–1825) tend to the family's pet rabbit. Above them, James (1791–1812), the couple's oldest son, appears in profile next to Rachel's mother, Rachel Westwood King McClurg (d.1817). Behind these two figures, Smith also included a portrait of himself. The identities of the figure reaching toward Jane at left and the sitters in the pair of portrait miniatures remain uncertain. The first may be Mary Westwood King (ca. 1760–?), Rachel's only sister, while the miniatures could represent her maternal grandparents, Mary Tabb and William Westwood (1698–ca. 1770).
Based on the depiction of Jane, who appears to be at least a one-year old, the portrait was probably completed in 1807. Around this time, financial difficulties stemming from a decline in Dumfries's economy had prompted the Smiths to make a new start in Richmond—about 150 miles to the south. By 1806, James Smith was busy setting up his new baked goods business, which was located in the city's bustling central district. When his wife and children eventually joined him in Richmond the following year, he may have felt eager to commemorate his family's reunion by painting this group portrait.
As art historian Margaretta Lovell has noted, family portraits by American artists of this period frequently "valoriz[e] emotional experience, 'naturalness,' and an elevation of maternal duties in a world nevertheless ruled by elaborate codes of behavior...and legal patriarchal strictures." In contrast to early seventeenth- and eighteenth-century portraits, which relied on formal, stock poses derived from European prints (see fig. 1), Rachel is shown playfully balancing her youngest daughter on her shoulder and offering her thumb for Jane to grasp. As the work's clear visual and emotional focus, Rachel epitomizes the eighteenth-century ideal of virtuous, un-self-conscious motherhood (see fig. 2). Likewise, the Smith children are depicted—not as smaller versions of adults—but as participants in a series of believable, childlike activities. Andrew turns and gestures in space, while Jane wraps her hand around a borrowed piece of "grown-up" jewelry. Next to them, Robert and Mary mirror their mother's nurturing behavior by carefully watching over the family pet (see fig. 2).
In contrast to these figures, Smith's self-portrait conveys an engaged, but firm and pillar-like presence. Standing between his family and the incursions of the outside world, he acts as both provider and protector to his wife and young children. Smith's eldest son, James, dutifully mirrors his father's pose and facial expression, indicating his near-readiness to take on his own set of responsibilities and worldly obligations.
Lastly, by including portraits of Rachel's mother and older relatives, Smith references the family's deep genealogical roots and long-standing presence in the pages of Virginia's history. Newly arrived in Virginia, still seeking his fortune in the volatile years following the American Revolution, Smith was understandably eager to secure his wife's patrician heritage for himself and for their children. Thus this family portrait is surprisingly immediate, an intimate snapshot and narrative of an important moment in the family's life.
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