Treasures from the Vault: Mr. & Mrs. George Smith

Katy Thompson, Children’s Education Associate

Continuing on our “No-Shave November”, we present to you the Portrait of Mrs. George Smith & Portrait of Mr. George Smith. Though the artist of this work is unknown, they have left us details in the portraits that allow us to make inferences about the sitters, and the artist! One of our most asked for programs by school teachers is a presentation called Artistic Detective, wherein students practice being “artistic detectives” by looking at a collection of artwork for clues to understand the story the artist is telling. What stories do portraits tell? Let’s be detectives! What can we discern with JUST our eyes?

Let’s start from the left. Looking only at the work, my eyes are drawn to her eyes first, which stare pointedly out at the viewer. Her dark black hair is pulled back in a fashion I recognize from Melanie Hamilton in Gone with the Wind. Set during the antebellum South and the Civil War, her demure dress and color echo fashions from the movie as well, leading me to believe this portrait is from the mid-to-late 1800s. She holds a book in her hand, her fingers marking her place, as if the artist has disturbed her reading. Books were expensive then, so this could be a nod to her wealth. Her ability to read also suggests that she is well-to-do, as many women still did not receive a rigorous education aside from what they needed to run a household. Another nod to affluence is the lush curtain and green-cloth chair trimmed in wood upon which she sits. Her posture is erect, straight-backed and proper. Perhaps due to her corset, but also a reflection of etiquette (well-bred ladies don’t slouch). Her gold earrings also point to wealth, and her prim smile and pink cheeks give her middle-aged face a younger sheen. Her pale hands and face suggest a lack of exposure to the sun, and therefore work in the home as opposed to the fields, further solidifying her status as a wealthy woman. There appears to be a window in the upper-right corner, but interestingly nothing behind her head that further expounds upon her prosperity, like artwork.

Moving now to the next portrait, Mr. George Smith has a jaunty little beard to match his side-swept hair, perhaps covering the beginnings of hair loss. Portly and broad-shouldered, he carries a cane in one hand, despite being seated, and a book in the other. Much like his wife, his eyes stare directly at the viewer under thick, bushy eyebrows. The couple have similar noses, lips, and eyes, but is this because they naturally share a resemblance or because the painter was not as adept at portraying unique characteristics? As they are a couple, it makes me wonder why they weren’t painted together on one canvas. Or, at least, looking at each other instead of gazing out at the viewer. Perhaps they were not available to sit for the artist at the same time? His green cloth chair trimmed in wood mirrors his wife’s, whether it is the same chair or one of a matching set is hard to determine. The red velvet curtain is also found in his wife’s portrait, and behind him looks to be an unlit fireplace below a mantle. His posture is also perfect, his shoulders squared and ready for the artist; unlike his wife, who appears more caught unawares or interrupted. His dark dress is similar to hers, both with a bow at their collars. He, too, is pale except for flush cheeks, a nod to his indoor work and status. While his wife states her wealth in her earrings and collar decoration, his is attached to his jacket, a gold chain leading to, most likely, a hidden pocketwatch. Neither flaunt their wealth. Have they always had wealth, and so don’t feel the need to show it ostentatiously? Or are they newly wealthy and still accumulating objects?

What can we learn about the artist? Both portraits are rendered well, aside perhaps from the hands. The artist has deftly hidden Mrs. Smith’s hands in her book and under it, while the cane forced completion of Mr. Smith’s hands. Did the artist choose the setting? And the props? If you go to a photography studio today, you would be offered a selection of packages that included certain backdrops and props. Often, objects included in the portrait pointed to the status of the sitter and their craft, like a king in royal purple robes holding the orb and scepter. Here, they probably chose a comfortable room with good light. Sitting for an artist can take hours, and sometimes multiple appointments, and as they appear older that could explain why they are sitting, instead of standing side-by-side or leaning against the mantel like the customary full-scale portraits of the period. In the 19th century, portraits were intimate, which suggests that the background and furnishings are the couple’s own, but we don’t technically know that for sure. The chair and drapes could be from the imagination of the artist or a studio setting. Many portraits include no background whatsoever, so it could be either a nod to their wealth or to the skill of the artist themselves. They look like individuals, and the artist doesn’t seem to be experimenting with colors or textures, instead focusing on a faithful, realistic rendering; though, they do share similar features. Their stiff, mannequin-like poise coupled with luminous eyes and stately gazes are characteristic of 19th century portraiture. This may be the style of the artist, or the couple could be distantly related. Here, the title of the work provides assistance. Mrs. George Smith is, most probably, the wife of Mr. George Smith. The “Mrs.” means the woman is married, and based on their shared name we can infer they are a couple. Even in the 1800s, a sister would not be known by her brother’s name, though their resemblance is uncanny. (Look at the date, ca. 1880’s!). It was not uncommon, however, for cousins to marry, and that could explain their similarities. (In fact, in Gone with the Wind, Melanie Hamilton marries her cousin, Ashley Wilkes. It was a way to keep money in the family, another clue that they are well-off).

Why have your portrait painted at all? Why should we gather visual clues to learn all we can about an artwork? Portraits tells us not only about how people lived but how they wanted to appear and what they valued. During this period, America was moving away from dependence on Britain, both in government and culture. The growth of the middle class introduced a new set of patrons for art, wealthy merchants, and artists responded to the call. Marriage portraits were not uncommon, though this couple appears middle-aged, older than usual to be getting married unless it was a second marriage. It may also be that they raised themselves up in wealth, members of that burgeoning middle class, and weren’t able to get their portrait painted until much later. Perhaps it was a gift, commissioned by their children or other family members or completed to commemorate an anniversary. The gilded frames are another nod to wealth, and even the fact that they are not painted together could be as well; it shows they were able to afford two paintings, another discreet nod to their fortune. What is different from other diptychs, or a painting made of two parts, is that the couple isn’t looking at each other, but out towards the viewer. There is no suggestion at all that they are aware of the other’s presence, instead using the curtains to bookend each other. Was that at the behest of the artist, or a condition they requested? Portraits were formal, used to project a view of the person onto society. They were often idealized so the sitter could put their “best face forward” and confirm their status in society. A symbiotic relationship, these works elevated the artist and served as marketing for their craft, which does pose the question of why this artist is unknown. Using what we have seen in this couple’s portraits, how have they chosen to be presented, and, thus, remembered? Knowing that artist and benefactor shared a beneficial relationship, what would allow an artist to remain unknown or disappear into the annals of history?


Following the publication of this post, FWMoA President & CEO Charles Shepard recalled some early research he did on the couple before acquiring the pair of portraits:

“Mr. Smith’s father had a shipyard that had fallen on hard times and his son brought it all back to life by changing the kind of ships the yard would produce. As the son’s fortune turned around, he built a big glorious house across the street from the shipyard and commissioned the two portraits, of himself and his wife, for the house prior to having a major cocktail reception to both show off the new house and his newly found good fortune. To avoid obviously showing off, Mr. Smith hung the paintings close to where the bar was set up that evening so that everyone would, by accident, see he and his wife in the portraits. Oops — we’re famous!”

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