attributed to Mather Brown (American, 1761–1831),
John Smart, English Miniature Painter
, ca. 1784
oil on canvas, 24 x 20 in.; 60.96 x 50.8 cm
Museum Purchase, 1937.34
Frustrated by the lack of training opportunities and commissions in his native Boston, Mather Brown studied under fellow American Benjamin West at the Royal Academy in London. Due to the honored positions many Americans achieved there — including West — the Royal Academy became the chief educational center for American artists during the eighteenth century. As a school, it emphasized the study of classical antiquity, drawing from nature, and portraits as aesthetic objects versus mere likenesses.
This painting by Brown is a good example of the work produced by members of the British School. Typical of this school are fashionable portraits, not just likenesses but objects of aesthetic value, distinguished by a freedom and looseness of brush stroke.
John Smart, the subject of the Joslyn's unfinished portrait, was an English miniaturist whose work was characterized by exquisite color and draftsmanship and an accuracy not always flattering to his subjects. Believed to have been born in 1742 or 1743, Smart was awarded second prize in the 1755 competition of children's drawings at the Society of Arts in London. Although the next thirty years brought him considerable success as a miniaturist in England, stories of the vast sums of money to be made in India inspired him to set sail for Madras in 1785. There he remained for ten years, never at a loss for commissions but not able to collect all the money owed him by his sitters. Frustrated, Smart returned to England in 1795. His apparent age in this portrait suggests that the painting dates from around 1784, before his years in India.