Thomas Smith (American painter)

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Thomas Smith, Self Portrait (c. 1680). Worcester Art Museum Purchase, 1948. Worcester Art Museum Thomas Smith 001.jpg
Thomas Smith, Self Portrait (c. 1680). Worcester Art Museum Purchase, 1948. Worcester Art Museum

Thomas Smith was a seventeenth-century American artist and mariner. He is best known for the self-portrait that he painted c. 1680, which (according to the portrait's owner, the Worcester Art Museum) is 'the only seventeenth-century New England portrait by an identified artist and the earliest extant American self-portrait'. [1]

Artist person who creates, practises and/or demonstrates any art

An artist is a person engaged in an activity related to creating art, practicing the arts, or demonstrating an art. The common usage in both everyday speech and academic discourse is a practitioner in the visual arts only. The term is often used in the entertainment business, especially in a business context, for musicians and other performers. "Artiste" is a variant used in English only in this context; this use is becoming rare. Use of the term to describe writers, for example, is valid, but less common, and mostly restricted to contexts like criticism.

Sailor Person who navigates water-borne vessels or assists in doing so

A sailor, seaman, mariner, or seafarer is a person who works aboard a watercraft as part of its crew, and may work in any one of a number of different fields that are related to the operation and maintenance of a ship.

Self-portrait representation of an artist, drawn, painted, photographed, or sculpted by the artist

A self-portrait is a representation of an artist that is drawn, painted, photographed, or sculpted by that artist. Although self-portraits have been made since the earliest times, it is not until the Early Renaissance in the mid-15th century that artists can be frequently identified depicting themselves as either the main subject, or as important characters in their work. With better and cheaper mirrors, and the advent of the panel portrait, many painters, sculptors and printmakers tried some form of self-portraiture. Portrait of a Man in a Turban by Jan van Eyck of 1433 may well be the earliest known panel self-portrait. He painted a separate portrait of his wife, and he belonged to the social group that had begun to commission portraits, already more common among wealthy Netherlanders than south of the Alps. The genre is venerable, but not until the Renaissance, with increased wealth and interest in the individual as a subject, did it become truly popular.



Little is known about Smith's life. He lived in Boston, and is believed to be the same Thomas Smith who was commissioned by Harvard College on 2 June 1680 to produce a portrait of the Puritan theologian William Ames. [2] Because several Thomas Smiths were active in Boston in the late seventeenth century, it is very difficult to identify other contemporary references to persons of that name with the artist. [3] Smith is assumed to have been a mariner and a Puritan based on his self-portrait, which can be traced back to Smith's granddaughter, Catherina Mears Dexter (1701–1797). [3]

Boston State capital of Massachusetts, U.S.

Boston is the capital and most populous city of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts in the United States, as well as the 21st most populous city in the United States. The city proper covers 48 square miles (124 km2) with an estimated population of 694,583 in 2018, making it also the most populous city in New England. Boston is the seat of Suffolk County as well, although the county government was disbanded on July 1, 1999. The city is the economic and cultural anchor of a substantially larger metropolitan area known as Greater Boston, a metropolitan statistical area (MSA) home to a census-estimated 4.8 million people in 2016 and ranking as the tenth-largest such area in the country. As a combined statistical area (CSA), this wider commuting region is home to some 8.2 million people, making it the sixth most populous in the United States.

Harvard College Main undergraduate school of Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts

Harvard College is the undergraduate liberal arts college of Harvard University. Founded in 1636 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, it is the oldest institution of higher learning in the United States and one of the most prestigious in the world.

William Ames English Protestant divine, philosopher, and controversialist

William Ames was an English Protestant divine, philosopher, and controversialist. He spent much time in the Netherlands, and is noted for his involvement in the controversy between the Calvinists and the Arminians.



Smith's style has similarities with English and Dutch Golden Age painting, such as his expressive use of light and shadow. The sitter is shown seated on a chair with maroon upholstery and studs. Smith wears a typically Puritan dark coat and lace jabot. [4] A maroon curtain and golden tassel appear in the top-right corner, lending a sense of depth to the portrait. From a window in the top-left corner is depicted a naval battle between Dutch and English forces and an unidentified enemy. Beneath them, a fortification is shown flying two red flags, one of which has three white crescents. The image may well refer to a significant event in Smith's career. The skull, a memento mori, has unrealistically round eye sockets like those found on contemporary funerary engravings in New England. [5]

Dutch Golden Age painting

Dutch Golden Age painting is the painting of the Dutch Golden Age, a period in Dutch history roughly spanning the 17th century, during and after the later part of the Eighty Years' War (1568–1648) for Dutch independence.

<i>Memento mori</i> Latin phrase and its meaning

A memento mori is an artistic or symbolic reminder of the inevitability of death. "The expression 'memento mori' developed with the growth of Christianity, which emphasized Heaven, Hell, and salvation of the soul in the afterlife."

Attributed to Thomas Smith, Major Thomas Savage (1679). Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Major Thomas Savage.jpg
Attributed to Thomas Smith, Major Thomas Savage (1679). Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.


Beneath the skull in the bottom-left corner is a piece of paper that contains an eight-line poem:

Why why should I the World be minding
therin a World of Evils Finding.

Then Farwell World: Farwell thy Jarres
thy Joies thy Toies thy Wiles thy Warrs

Truth Sounds Retreat: I am not forye.

The Eternal Drawes to him my heart
By Faith (which can thy Force Subvert)

To Crowne me (after Grace) with Glory.

The monogram T. S. led critics to assume that Smith composed the verses, which describe the speaker's resignation from the world's troubles in order to seek divine solace. In fact, the poem is Josuah Sylvester's translation of a French devotional poem by Simon Goulart. [6] Roger B. Stein finds that 'the poem is the central organizing element, the key to the picture—to its design, to the relationship of its parts to one another, and to its meaning both as individual work and as an artefact within its larger culture'. [7]

Josuah Sylvester English poet

Josuah Sylvester was an English poet.

Simon Goulart French theologian

Simon Goulart was a French Reformed theologian, humanist and poet.

Attributed to Thomas Smith, Mrs. Richard Patteshall (Martha Woody) and Child (1679). Museum of Fine Arts, Boston Thomas Smith (attrib.) - Mrs. Richard Patteshall and child (1679).jpg
Attributed to Thomas Smith, Mrs. Richard Patteshall (Martha Woody) and Child (1679). Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Other works

Five other portraits have been attributed to Smith. Major Thomas Savage (1679) and Mrs Richard Patteshall and Child (1679) are both owned by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. [8] Captain Richard Patteshall (private collection) was meant to hang with the portrait of his wife. [3] Captain George Curwin (c. 1675) is owned by the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts. [3] The sitter of Portrait of a Man, probably Sir George Downing (1624–1684) has also been identified as Elisha Hutchinson. [9]

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston Art museum in Boston, MA

The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, Massachusetts, is the fifth largest museum in the United States. It contains more than 450,000 works of art, making it one of the most comprehensive collections in the Americas. It is home to 8,161 paintings, second most only to the Metropolitan Museum in New York among American museums. With more than 1.2 million visitors a year, it is the 52nd most visited art museum in the world as of 2019.

Peabody Essex Museum Art museum in Salem, MA

The Peabody Essex Museum (PEM) in Salem, Massachusetts, is a successor to the East India Marine Society, established in 1799. It combines the collections of the former Peabody Museum of Salem and the Essex Institute. PEM is the oldest continuously operating museum in the United States and holds one of the major collections of Asian art in the United States. Its total holdings include about 1.3 million pieces, as well as twenty-two historic buildings.

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  1. "Thomas Smith: Self-Portrait" . Retrieved 11 April 2017.
  2. "November Meeting". Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society. 6: 340. 1862–63.
  3. 1 2 3 4 Worcester Art Museum. "Thomas Smith, American, Seventeenth Century".
  4. Michael J. Lewis (6 June 2006). American art and architecture. Thames & Hudson. ISBN   978-0-500-20391-0.
  5. Tashjian, Dickran and Ann (1974). Memorials for Children of Change. Middletown, Conn. pp. 108–09.
  6. Auger, Peter (2017). "The Octonaire in Thomas Smith's Self-Portrait" (PDF). Huntington Library Quarterly. 80: 1–19. doi:10.1353/hlq.2017.0000.
  7. Stein, Roger B. (1984). "Thomas Smith's Self-Portrait: Image/Text as Artifact". Art Journal. 44 (4): 316–27 (317). doi:10.1080/00043249.1984.10792564.
  8. "Museum of Fine Arts, Boston".
  9. Harvard Art Museums. "Portrait of a Man, probably Sir George Downing (1624–1684)".


Attributed to Thomas Smith, Portrait of a Man, probably Sir George Downing (1624-1684). Harvard Art Museums Sir George Downing by Thomas Smith.jpeg
Attributed to Thomas Smith, Portrait of a Man, probably Sir George Downing (1624–1684). Harvard Art Museums