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Jane Clark

Jane Clark Portrait, oil on canvas
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[ This description is from the project: Witness to America's Past ]

Jane Clark was born in Boston in 1722, the daughter of Jonathan and Mary (Phillips) Clark. In 1741 she married Ezekiel Lewis, a Harvard graduate who had joined the family merchant trade. The couple settled in Boston, where they were important members of the Old South Church. Jane Clark Lewis died young, in or shortly after 1753, leaving her husband and four children.1

When this portrait was given to the Society, it was attributed to Hogarth and dated 1739, but Blackburn was also suggested as the artist. The scholar William Sawitzsky first attributed the portrait to Smibert, an attribution accepted by Smibert expert Richard Saunders.2 The date of 1732 is taken from John Smibert's notebook, where he notes "Ms. Clark—whole lenth" in September of that year.3 The notebook, which contains a list of his portrait commissions from 1722 to 1746, is the property of the Public Record Office, London, and was published by the Historical Society in 1969. Since its publication, a number of portraits, formerly believed to be the work of other artists, have been attributed to Smibert.

Smibert was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, but moved to London in 1709 and there worked as a coach painter and made copies of paintings for picture dealers. His formal art training was at the academy operated by Sir Godfrey Kneller (1646-1723), the premier portrait painter in England during this period.4 Kneller promoted a sophisticated and aristocratic style of portraiture in which it was more important to present the subject's exalted position in society than to show his or her individual character. Smibert returned to Edinburgh about 1716 and worked as a portrait painter for nearly three years before he embarked on a sojourn to Italy (1719-1722). During this trip Smibert copied masterpieces by Renaissance and Baroque artists as well as painting from life.5

Back in London in 1722, Smibert soon established himself as a professional portraitist. Between the years 1722 and 1728, Smibert completed 175 portrait commissions, averaging twenty-five per year.6 In 1728, he accepted an offer from his friend Dean George Berkeley (1685-1753) to be part of a small group to establish a college in Bermuda. Smibert was to be the professor of art and architecture and set sail for America with Berkeley's group in September 1728. Landing in 1729, the group settled temporarily in Newport, Rhode Island, to await the arrival of the additional funds necessary for the establishment of the college. Soon after their arrival, Smibert began a group portrait of himself and his fellow travelers, now known as the Bermuda Group (Yale University Art Gallery). Completed in 1730, it is considered Smibert's masterpiece, and is the largest group portrait painted in America up until that time. In the same year Smibert also painted a smaller bust-length portrait of Berkeley, which is now in the Society's collection.

By May 1729 Smibert had moved to Boston, presumably to be better able to support himself by painting portraits in the more populous town. Sometime during Smibert's first winter there, he held an exhibition in his studio. Not only did he exhibit his own recent portraits, but also the copies he had made of masterpieces while in Italy, as well as some plaster casts of antique statues he had brought from Europe. This was the first "art exhibition" in America and the public's response was overwhelmingly positive. One spectator, Mather Byles, the young nephew of Cotton Mather, was so taken with the artist's work that he wrote an eighty-line laudatory poem, "To Mr. Smibert on the Sight of His Pictures."7 In 1730 Smibert married Mary Williams, the twenty-three-year-old daughter of Nathaniel and Anne (Bradstreet) Williams. The Society now owns Smibert's portrait of Mary Williams (1729), painted during his first year in Boston.

It was clear by 1731 that the money necessary to establish the college in Bermuda would never be forthcoming, and although Berkeley returned with his family to England, Smibert decided to remain in Boston, where he was already established as the town's foremost portrait painter. In 1734, Smibert extended his interests and opened a "color shop" in his home on Queen Street, where he began to sell "all sorts of colours, dry or ground, with oils, and Brushes, Fans of Several Sorts, the best Mezotints, Italian, French, Dutch and English Prints."8 The shop seems to have been quite successful becoming a gathering place for artists as well as for those with an interest in art. Smibert continued to paint portraits until about 1746, and his American production totals 250 paintings during his seventeen years here.

Waldron Phoenix Belknap, in his pioneering work on the influence of English mezzotints on American colonial portraiture, suggests that the source for Jane Clark's pose is a mezzotint of Lady Essex Mostyn by John Smith after Kneller (1705).9 Certainly, the landscape setting, which opens up to a vista on the right, and the position of Clark on an incline beside a tree suggest the print after Kneller. However, unlike his mentor, Smibert seems to have painted a realistic likeness. Posing in her sumptuous pink satin gown, Jane Clark seems somewhat stiff, but her basket of fruit, from which she offers an apple, serves to engage the viewer. Smibert used a similar landscape background in his portrait of James Bowdoin (1736, Bowdoin College Museum of Art).10

1. John Langdon Sibley and Clifford K. Shipton. Biographical Sketches of Graduates of Harvard University. 17 vols., Cambridge, Mass., 1873, 9: p. 550. Thwing Catalogue, MHS.

2. Henry Wilder Foote. John Smibert, Painter. Cambridge, Mass., 1950, pp. 144-145.

3. John Smibert. The Notebooks of John Smibert.. Essays by Sir David Evans, John Kerslake, and Andrew Oliver, Boston, 1969, p. 98.

4. Richard H. Saunders and Ellen G. Miles. American Colonial Portraits, 1700-1776. Washington, 1987, p. 113.

5. Wayne Craven. Colonial American Portraiture: The Economic, Religious, Social, Cultural, Philosophical, Scientific, and Aesthetic Foundations. New York, 1986, p. 153; Richard H. Saunders and Ellen G. Miles. American Colonial Portraits, 1700-1776. Washington, 1987, p. 113.

6. Stephen T. Riley. "John Smibert and the Business of Portrait Painting." In American Painting to 1776: A Reappraisal Ian M. G. Quimby, ed. Charlottesville, 1971, p. 162.

7. Ibid., p. 167.

8. Boston Newsletter, Oct. 10-17, 1734.

9. Waldron Phoenix Belknap, Jr. American Colonial Painting: Materials for a History. Cambridge, Mass., 1959, p. 305, plate XXXIII.

10. Richard H. Saunders and Ellen G. Miles. American Colonial Portraits, 1700-1776. Washington, 1987, pp. 124-125.


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