Thomas Smith
American, seventeenth century

Figure 1. Thomas Smith, Self-Portrait, about 1680, oil on canvas, 24 5/8 x 23 9/16 in. (62.8 x 60 cm), Worcester Art Museum, Museum purchase, 1948.19.
Figure 2. Thomas Smith, attributed, Portrait of a Man (Probably Elisha Hutchinson), about 1675–90, oil on canvas, 43 1/2 x 35 7/8 in. (110.5 x 91.2 cm), Courtesy of the Harvard University Portrait Collection, Gift of Mr. Robert Winthrop, Class of ‘26, to Harvard College, 1946. © President and Fellows of Harvard College, Harvard University.

Thomas Smith was a seventeenth-century Anglo-American mariner and artist. He is the earliest painter in New England for whom a specific canvas can be—identified his self-portrait (fig. 1). Based on stylistic similarities to that painting, five additional surviving works have been attributed to Smith. Besides his role as an artist, interpretations of Smith's autobiographical painting suggestthat he fought in naval battles and was a Puritan. Genealogists have proposed that Smith came from Bermuda about 1650, though that theory is unsubstantiated.1 Numerous references to Thomas Smith exist in contemporary documents, but because many men shared the same name in Boston at the time, it is extremely difficult to provide further details about the artist's life.

Smith's style embodied the arrival of baroque taste in American painting. Previous New England artists worked in the Elizabethan court style, including the unknown painter who executed portraits of the Freake family. That style emphasized line and the decorative use of color, whereas baroque painters strove to convey the effects of light and shadow to create believable illusions of forms in space. Smith typified the baroque style through his concern with modeling as well as with his relatively somber palette and free brushwork.2 Important European prototypes of the baroque were Peter Lely (1617–1680) and Godfrey Kneller (1648–1723), whose work Smith probably knew from imported prints.3

The body of works attributed to Smith stands at six extant paintings and two lost works. Smith was paid by Harvard College on June 2, 1680, to copy a portrait of the Puritan minister William Ames: "Colledge Dr to money pd Major Tho. Smith for drawing Dr. Ames effigies pr Order of Corporation. 4.4."4 In addition to his self-portrait, Smith is thought to have painted Captain George Curwin (about 1675, Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Massachusetts), Portrait of a Man (Probably Elisha Hutchinson) (fig. 2), Major Thomas Savage (1679, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston), Mrs. Patteshall and Child (about 1679, private collection), and Captain Richard Patteshall (about 1679, private collection).5 Major Thomas Savage is the only dated example of Smith's work, and the self-portrait is his only signed painting.6 The portrait of Capt. George Curwin was radically cut down in 1819 and repainted by the Italian emigré Michele Felice Corné (1751– 1845) and Hannah Crowninshield.7 Only the head is original; the rest of the composition is repainted and is clearly not in Smith's hand.

Figure 3. Unidentified artist, seventeenth century, American Elizabeth Clarke Freake (Mrs. John Freake) and Baby Mary, about 1671 and 1674, oil on canvas, 42 1/2 x 36 3/4 in. (108 x 93.3 cm), Worcester Art Museum, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Albert W. Rice, 1963.134.

Several stylistic and technical differences distinguish the attributed paintings. Self-Portrait is painted on a yellow ground, whereas the others are on a brown ground.8 Modeling varies from subtle in the dated portrait of Thomas Savage to relatively stark in the self-portrait.9 The rendering of details likewise varies. Those in Hutchinson's portrait, for example, are more meticulously rendered than those in Savage's.10 These differences may reflect the development of Smith's handling of the medium over the decade and a half he is presumed to have been active. The relative tightness of Hutchinson's portrait may also indicate Smith's conscious effort to relate the style of the painting to that of Elizabeth Clarke Freake (Mrs. John Freake) and Baby Mary (fig. 3), since the widow of John Freake married Elisha Hutchinson in 1677. The two canvases probably hung near one another, along with the original pendant to Elizabeth Freake, the portrait of her first husband, John Freake.

The paintings of Curwin, Hutchinson, Savage, and Smith all show a man facing three-quarters left, and all but the self-portrait are three-quarter-length portraits.11 Though Captain Richard Patteshall is the least similar stylistically among Smith's paintings, it shares the same format as the other male portraits mentioned. Moreover, examination by X-radiograph reveals that Patteshall and Hutchinson were originally shown with their proper right hands identically positioned on a table to the viewer's left. Mrs. Patteshall and Child is clearly the pendant of Captain Richard Patteshall, thereby completing the group of stylistic attributions.12

Figure 4. Thomas Smith, attributed, Maria Catherina Smith, about 1690-93, oil on canvas, 27 1/2 x 25 1/4 in. (69.9 x 64.1 cm), American Antiquarian Society, Worcester, Massachusett, Presented by Edmund Drianan Barry, 1934. Courtesy, American Antiquarian Society.

Since the middle of the nineteenth century, three paintings have shared a history as representations of Smith's family—Self-Portrait, Maria Catherina Smith (fig. 4), a painting of the artist's daughter, and a portrait of Smith's wife (whose name remains uncertain).13 The paintings of Smith and his daughter are approximately the same size, and the difference in their dimensions may be ascribed to restretching of the canvas of the self-portrait as stated in the technical notes to that work. Among Smith's paintings, Maria Catherina Smith borrows most directly from baroque conventions. Smith painted oval spandrels as a framing device and represented his daughter in a décolleté dress typically found in late-seventeenth-century British mezzotint portraits of aristocratic and royal women.

Smith's self-portrait and his commissions for officers in the Massachusetts militia suggest that he had a military career. Hutchinson and Savage were both prominent in the Massachusetts militia outfit known as the Ancient and Honorable Artillery Company. In 1678 a Thomas Smith became a member of that outfit, and while it cannot be proven that this was the artist, that Smith's sureties included Captain Hutchinson adds to the likelihood that Smith the artist and Smith the militiaman were the same person.14 Smith and Hutchinson's membership in the Artillery Company would have provided a context within which Hutchinson might have commissioned his portrait.15 The self-portrait implies a naval career, though Smith's common name makes it virtually impossible to determine his service. A map in the collection of the Massachusetts Historical Society was prepared in 1668 by one Captain Thomas Smith and a group of other men. While this document would support the family tradition that Smith was a "great navigator", it can only tenuously be connected to Smith the painter.16 Still, the possible connection is tantalizing, since formal training in mapmaking would include lessons in technical drawing which Thomas Smith might have applied to portrait painting.

Self-Portrait is also the best evidence of Smith's Puritan beliefs. Whereas seventeenth-century Boston was predominantly Puritan, an Anglican elite began to emerge as fervor among Puritans waned. Smith, however, was undaunted in his Puritan beliefs, as the memento mori poem at the bottom left of the self-portrait makes clear. He was prepared to die, knowing that "Eternall Drawes to him my heart/By Faith (which can thy Force Subvert)/To Crowne me (after Grace) with Glory." While Puritans shared the belief in God's redemption with other Christians, the poem echoes one of the central tenets of Puritan—faith the Covenant of Grace.17

The genealogist Reverend Frederick Lewis Weis documented perhaps fourteen men in Boston by the same name, at least three of whom worked at sea, during the seventeenth century. Weis reported finding a Thomas Smith, apothecary (d. 1681), Thomas Smith, seaman (d. 1684), Thomas Smith, mariner and shipwright (d. about 1685), Thomas Smith, mariner (d. 1688), Thomas Smith, butcher (d. 1691), Thomas Smith, blacksmith (d. 1693), Thomas Smith, distiller (d. 1698), Thomas Smith, builder (d. about 1715), and Thomas Smith, barber (d. about 1723), among others.18 Weis believed that the Thomas Smith who prepared a will on October 30, 1688, was most likely the painter. His conclusion was apparently based on the elevated economic status of that particular Thomas Smith and the assumption that he was a gentleman-artist.19 The Boston diarist Samuel Sewall recorded the death of a "Capt. Tho. Smith" on November 8, 1688, just nine days after the above will was prepared.20 However, his probate inventory was not prepared until April 25, 1691, adding the possibility that Sewall's Captain Smith was another man.21 The Thomas Smith who wrote a will in 1688 named five children as beneficiaries, but none of them were called Maria Catherina. It is possible that Maria Catherina was an older daughter by an earlier marriage and may have been granted her portion of her father's estate at the time of her marriage, a circumstance that might account for her absence in the will. It is just as likely that this mariner is not the same one as the artist.

The surviving paintings by Thomas Smith remain the best evidence of his life and career. They firmly establish the artist's presence in Boston in 1679, and documentation of his Harvard commission confirms that he was still there in 1680. Of course his artistic career probably spanned more years, perhaps from about 1675 to 1690. While supporting evidence can be produced to support many theories about Smith's identity, none of them have been convincingly shown to relate to the mariner-painter. And yet Smith remains a pivotal artist in New England painting, credited with introducing the baroque visual aesthetic to portraiture in Massachusetts. More important, Smith created not only America's first known self-portrait, but also the first portrait in this country that can be identified with confidence to an artist known by name.


Since the creation of this Early American Art website, additional information on the Portrait of Thomas Smith has been discovered by Jason LaFountain. The following quote is from the diary of Thomas Smith's great-grandson, Samuel Dexter, whose mother, Catherina Mears Dexter, was known to have owned the painting.

My mother has the arms of an ancestor of hers, of the name of Smith. She has his portrait too, daubed by himself, with some lines in verse at the bottom, of his own composing, in the style of the day. He was an officer in Cromwell's army, and had also the command of a fort, or garrison. From her family arms the field of mine was taken. The crest and the motto were as Mr. Artist pleased, and the Vellum was, in other respects, bedecked and bedizened according to his fancy.

--Samuel Dexter, “Samuel Dexter Commonplace-Book,” 1763-1809, Massachusetts Historical Society, Ms. SBd-219/Microfilm P-201, 276-277.

Cavitch, Max. "Interiority and Artifact: Death and Self-Inscription in Thomas Smith's Self-Portrait." Early American Literature 37:1 (2002): 89-117.

1. Dresser 1935, 135; and Dresser 1966b, 11 n. 25.

2. Dresser 1935, 26.

3. Smith is widely recognized by art historians for his role in introducing the baroque style to New England. See, for example, Flexner 1947, 19; Prown 1969, 19–21; and Miller 1984, 173. This shift is sometimes said to reflect the influence of Dutch realism or the importation of Dutch trends established by Rubens and Van Dyck.

4. Clapp 1923, 80.

5. Dresser 1935, 62–66, 108–11, 130–8; and Fairbanks 1982, III, 419, 468–75.

6. Fairbanks 1982, III, 468, 474.

7. Dresser 1935, 64.

8. Fairbanks 1982, III, 419.

9. Ibid., 470, 474.

10. Ibid., III, 470.

11. Dresser 1935, 63; and Fairbanks 1982, III, 469.

12. Fairbanks 1982, III, 419.

13. Dresser 1935, 139–40.

14. Roberts, I, 1895, 250.

15. It is also possible that the portrait thought to represent Hutchinson depicts the high standing but unpopular British official George Downing (1624–1684) instead. See Fairbanks 1982, III, 473.

16. Dexter 1904, 37.

17. Allard 1976, 341–48; and Stein 1984, 317, 321–5.

18. Frederick Lewis Weis to Louisa Dresser, June 10, 1942, object file, Worcester Art Museum.

19. Thomas Smith, Will, October 30, 1688, Suffolk County Probate, Boston, Massachusetts, record no. 1672.

20. Sewall 1973, I, 183.

21. Inventory of the estate of Thomas Smith, April 25, 1691, Suffolk County Probate, Boston, record no. 1672.