Lot 462
  • 462

Attributed to John Rubens Smith (1775-1849)

5,000 - 7,000 USD
6,250 USD
bidding is closed


  • John Rubens Smith
  • Portrait of a Gentleman seated at a Desk with Inkwell and Pen
  • watercolor, pen and ink on paper
In 1806, at age thirty-one, Smith decided to move permanently to Boston. Although by training and upbringing Smith was prepared for the most rarefied of art circles, he was attracted to the leisurely life in the United States not afforded in wartime Europe. Smith enjoyed the prosperous conditions of the young country, as well as its prospects for patronage. He also felt passionately about developing a popular art appreciation in the United States, and believed that the best way for him to contribute was to help advance the standards of drawing and engraving. Smith first became known to the Boston public as a drawing teacher, and in May 1807 he undertook a petition by socially prominent ladies to open an academy of drawing and painting. The resulting
Probationary Academy of Fine Arts, an early attempt to organize art on an educational basis by giving young artists the opportunity for study and self-training through free access to its collection of sculptures and paintings, was one of the first art academies in the United States. But Boston proved to be unprepared for such an institution, and the Academy soon failed. Smith's own difficult personality and exalted opinion of his own abilities likely contributed to the Academy's demise.

After spending ten years in Boston, Smith moved to Brooklyn, conducting classes on perspective and opening an academy there in 1816. This was more successful, and Smith improved many of his professional opportunities while running the academy in New York. Among his many students were Emanuel Leutze, William Guy Wall, Thomas Seir Cummings, and Sanford Gifford. From 1816 to 1828, Smith sketched many views of New York and the Hudson River area, as well as areas in Brooklyn and scenic views of New Jersey, including the Passaic Falls at Patterson. During his time in New York, he published several important pedagogical books, including A Compendium of Picturesque Anatomy (1827), The Key to the Art of Drawing the Human Figure (1831), and The Juvenile Drawing Book (1839), which provided basic instructions and principles of drawing. In the early 1830s he returned to Boston, and died in 1849 at the age of eighty.

While Smith is remembered for his many views of the young republic-much of his best work is of American cities and landscapes from South Carolina to New England-he also produced a number of portraits. These mainly seem to have been smaller watercolors with completely flat, simple backgrounds, making them unusual not only in scale but also in execution. The small size of Smith's portraits can be seen as deriving directly from the English cabinet portrait. The present portrait follows this distinctive format. In aiming for a direct and accurate presentation of his subject, Smith places the emphasis squarely on the sitter, producing an effect similar to what photography would lend to portraiture nearly thirty years later.

A collection of almost 700 drawings, paintings, and engravings by Smith was acquired by the Library of Congress in 1993, forming one of the largest collections of art by a single artist of the Federal Period in a public collection.