Thomas Smith
Self-Portrait, about 1680

Thomas Smith's Self-Portrait is a half-length representation of a seated man facing three-quarters left. The man's gray hair is parted in the center and shoulder length. Long, individual strokes of gray and white are painted over broadly painted areas of gray and brown. The man's features are slightly stylized and sharply modeled. His blue eyes bulge under drooping eyelids and look directly at the viewer. The skin is wrinkled at the outer corner of the proper left eye and at the bridge of the nose. A light pink highlight runs the length of the nose and draws attention to its prominent size. The mouth is straight, and the upper lip has a gray shadow that extends into the creases around the mouth. The chin is round, with a fleshy throat just below. The skin tones vary from light pink under the eyes and on the chin to darker pink on the cheeks and gray in the creases along the mouth and in the shadows. Some of the ground color shows through the flesh tones on the nose and above the mouth.

The man's coat is black and indistinct, due in part to the blanched surface of the painting. The most prominent feature of the costume is a ruffled lace neck cloth, which is gathered at the throat. The lace pattern features a matrix of crossed lines with a design of cascading vines and stylized flowers. The man's proper right hand rests on top of a skull. The four fingers conform to the curvature of the skull, and the tip of the thumb extends in the air slightly. The hollowed-out eyes are nearly perfectly circular, and the hole of the nose is simplified to an inverted heart. A band of tiny teeth form a slight arc. Below the skull is a sheet of white paper on which a poem and monogram signature have been inscribed within faintly visible ruled lines. The paper extends over the edge of the red cloth-covered table on which it sits. Though the artist took care to paint highlights to suggest the folded paper occupying space, he also tipped the letter up unrealistically to allow the viewer to read the text easily.

Smith sits in a red upholstered chair trimmed with a yellow border along the top edge. Large yellow tacks secure the red fabric to the chair frame. Only a corner of the chair is visible to the viewer. Above the chair is a red curtain with several folds defined by wide black lines. The curtain is held in place by a cord, from which hangs a yellow tassel. This drapery is placed against a solid field of unmodulated black. At the upper left corner of the painting is a vertically oriented rectangle, which presumably represents a window. Visible in this scene is a naval battle and a fortress. The battle features three ships, the nearest of which lists in the water, presumably vanquished by one or both of the other vessels. The closest of the two upright ships is turned nearly in profile for the viewer, revealing at least ten gun portals. At the stern of this ship flies a red flag with a loosely painted white design in its field. The distant ship is parallel to the middle ground ship and flies three flags—a rectangular flag with a red, white, and blue stripe at the stern and at the top of the middle mast and a blue pennant on the next mast forward. Orange flames rise up between the two ships, suggesting that they are engaged in battle with each other or with another vessel beyond view. A touch of blue is visible in the sky, which is mainly filled with large clouds that blend with the smoke. A red flag on the lower portion of the fort in the foreground features three crescents and a small circle in the concave curve of each crescent. A plain red flag flies on top of the fort's highest tower.

Details of the life of Thomas Smith are nearly impossible to sort out, since about a dozen men with the same name lived in Boston in the late seventeenth century. The battle scene in the background of the portrait suggests that Smith was a mariner and perhaps a naval officer. The one document that remains connected to the painter Thomas Smith with certainty is a record in the accounts of Harvard College in 1680. In an entry dated June 2, 1680, Smith was paid 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."1 That portrait is thought to have been destroyed by fire in 1764.2 The title major supports the conjecture that Smith was in the military, though it is unclear whether the title refers to his rank in the colonial militia or some other service.

The initials T S inscribed in a monogram at the end of the poem are the closest thing to a signature on a seventeenth-century New England painting. Based on style, a group of paintings have been ascribed to Smith Captain George Curwin (about 1675, Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Massachusetts), Portrait of a Man (Probably Elisha Hutchinson) (1675–90, Harvard University Portrait Collection, Cambridge, Massachusetts), 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).3 Additionally, by the mid-nineteenth century Smith's self-portrait had descended through the family along with two other said to be his work, those of his wife (now unlocated) and daughter Maria Catherina (about 1690–93, American Antiquarian Society, Worcester, Massachusetts).4

Commissions for portraits of Hutchinson and Savage, officers prominent in the Massachusetts militia outfit known as the Ancient and Honorable Artillery Company, offer further circumstantial evidence of Smith's military career. In 1678 a Thomas Smith became a member of the Ancient and Honorable Artillery Company. His sureties included Captain Hutchinson, providing another possible link between the artist and one of his sitters.5 As with everything about Thomas Smith, this remains a tenuous connection, since the painting now thought to represent Hutchinson has also been identified as a portrait of George Downing (1624–1684).6

The most thorough search for the identity of the painter Thomas Smith was conducted by the Reverend Frederick Lewis Weis. He 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.7 At least three of the men identified by Weis had careers associated with the sea. The Smith who died in 1688 prepared his will on October 30 of that year, and he was the one who seemed most likely to Weis to have been the artist.8 The Boston diarist Samuel Sewall recorded the death of a "Capt. Tho. Smith" on November 8, 1688, just nine days after the aforementioned will was prepared.9 However, his probate inventory was not prepared until April 25, 1691, supporting the possibility that Sewall's Captain Smith was another man.10 The Thomas Smith whose probate was entered in 1691 was a man of wealth, and it has long been assumed that Smith was a gentleman-artist. However, none of the five children mentioned in his will were named Maria Catherina, nor does the inventory give any hint of painting materials or pictures in his possession. Despite the lack of a clear link to the painter called Thomas Smith, several art historians have embraced this Captain Smith as the likely mariner-artist whose self-portrait and a handful of other portraits have survived.11 For instance, the art historian David Tatham explains the absence of Maria Catherina Smith from Thomas Smith's will by arguing that she was probably his granddaughter. This supposition is unlikely, however, because Weis's Thomas Smith did not live to see his grandchildren. The heirs mentioned in his will were Ann, Thomas (b. 1678), John (b. 1681), Elisabeth, and Rebecca (b. 1683), none of whom, the will implies, had yet reached the age of twenty-one. Moreover, that Thomas Smith's wife was still of child-bearing age, as Smith named "such other Child as my wife may now be conceived of" as a beneficiary of his will, further weakens Tatham's theory. While Smith could have been much older than his wife, or Maria Catherina could have been a daughter by a previous marriage, it seems just as likely that this mariner is not the same one as the portraitist.

Thomas Smith's Self-Portrait carries the dual distinctions of being the only seventeenth-century New England painting that is clearly linked to a known painter and the earliest extant American self-portrait.12 While at least fourteen seventeenth-century painters are named in deeds, wills, and other period documents, only Smith can be linked to a specific surviving canvas.13 The identification of the painting as a self-representation is based on family history, the monogram signature, the especially strong psychological presence of the sitter, and the unusual manner in which the painting appears to sum up the sitter's life and philosophy.

This painting and the others by Thomas Smith mark a shift in American art from the Elizabethan style employed by the unknown painter of the Freake family to the baroque style that replaced it in Britain and the colonies. Smith's baroque style employs light and shadow to render the illusion of objects in space, most evident in the exaggerated modeling of the sitter's head and wrinkles, the folds of the lace neck cloth, and the attempt at trompe l'oeil in the bent sheet of paper at the bottom left. Baroque paint handling was bolder than Elizabethan brushwork, and was sometimes applied in broad passages, as in the landscape's smoke and clouds. Smith's version of the court style of Peter Lely (1617–1680) and Godfrey Kneller (1648–1723), however, lacks the finesse of either of the British painters. In the words of one art historian, Smith "rewrote the string quartets of the British court painter Sir Peter Lely for some wild back-country instrument."14

Despite its stylistic shift toward the baroque, Smith's self-portrait maintains a connection to the emblematic tradition of medieval painting. Emblematic paintings used words and images to convey a complex allegorical whole. Within that tradition the elements were understood symbolically rather than literally and were not meant to pertain narrowly to an individual's life. In Smith's self-portrait, the naval battle scene in the background may thus be interpreted to stand for the trials of life, the skull for mortality, and the poem for the Christian promise of resurrection.

While the window might be understood as a symbol of earthly conflict, it may also represent an actual event or compression of several events in Smith's naval career. On the symbolic level the battle scene is reinforced by the opening lines of the poem:

Why why should I the World be minding
therein a World of Evils Finding.
     Then Farwell World: Farwell thy Jarres
     thy Joies thy Toies thy Wiles thy Warrs

The art historian Roger Stein proposes that the battle and the related section of the poem could represent political and religious rivals to the Protestant faith.15 Perhaps the battle is even a reference to the waning Puritan fervor in Boston. Smith painted with enough specificity to suggest a particular biographical episode, though it has not yet been identified. The two upright ships fly Dutch and British flags, while the sinking vessel is unidentified. The fortress in the foreground of the vignette displays red flags with three crescents, which are presumed to represent the Barbary States or some other Muslim power. Stein has also suggested that the vignette could refer to Sir Robert Blake's attack on Tunis in 1655.16 Alternatively, the scene may represent Smith's participation in one of the Anglo-Dutch Wars, specifically the combined attack of the British and Dutch navies on Cape Spartel on the northwest coast of Morocco in August 1670.17 Smith has not been confirmed to have been present at any of those confrontations.

Figure 1. Steven van der Meulen, British, born in the Netherlands, active 1543–68, John Farnham, Gentleman-Pensioner to Elizabeth I, 1563, oil on panel, 43 1/2 x 32 5/8 in. (110.5 x 83 cm), Worcester Art Museum, Charlotte E.W. Buffington Fund, 1993.36.

Allegorical depictions of battle are found in Elizabethan portraits of aristocratic soldiers and even of the monarch. In the well-known "Armada portrait" of Elizabeth I by George Gower (about 1588, Woburn Abbey, Bedfordshire), there are two windows divided by a drapery. To the left the British fleet presides over peaceful waters; to the right the same fleet conquers the Spanish Armada. This precedent is important because it shows how such images of naval battle functioned in British portraiture. In this case, the paired vignettes signify Elizabeth's successful reign as well as the Protestant defeat of a Catholic enemy. Roger Stein pushes the interpretation further, arguing that the Armada portrait represents the conquest of the Antichrist.18 Steven van der Meulen's portrait John Farnham, Gentleman-Pensioner to Elizabeth I (fig. 1) also includes an emblematic vignette. The battle scene at the upper right may represent an actual conflict, but it also has elements that are clearly allegorical rather than literal. The most important of those elements is the allegorical figure of Fortune standing on a sphere with the inscription "DO CASU NO[N] CO[N]SILIO" (I give by chance, not by reason). The painter drew attention to Fortune by placing her in the foreground of the window and at the intersection of the roads in the landscape.

Smith's use of the window as a device for adding landscapes or narratives related to the biography of a portrait subject followed such Elizabethan examples and set a precedent in American painting that was followed in the eighteenth century by John Singleton Copley, Charles Willson Peale , and Ralph Earl, among others. Smith also used the device in his portraits Major Thomas Savage and Captain Richard Patteshall. In the former Smith employed the vignette to show Savage's role as a military leader and in the latter to depict Patteshall's commercial endeavors. Neither scene appears to carry the additional symbolic level of meaning that he used in his self-portrait, however. Copley, Peale, and Earl appear to have rediscovered this European tradition from imported mezzotints, from emigrant artists, and from studies in England rather than from Smith's paintings.

The vanitas still life in the foreground of Smith's self-portrait is among the first of its kind in American art, though it too stems from a European tradition.19 Vanitas still lifes were a reminder of the mortality of humankind; in Self-Portrait this motif is made especially evident by the contrast of the pink but wrinkled flesh of Smith's face with the gray skull on the table. The absence of the skull's lower jaw is a further sign of the inevitable decay of flesh and bones. Because elegance and the assertion of wealth and power were more common motivations for portraiture, vanitas references were never popular in American or European art. However, the vanitas theme is found in British and Northern European portraits that express religious devotion. Much as Smith mirrors life and death in one canvas, Northern European paintings sometime paired a life portrait on one panel with an image of death on a facing panel.20 A skull might also be a sign of medical achievement, as in Dr. John Clark (about 1664, Francis A. Countway Library, Harvard Medical School) by an unidentified American artist.21 Since the painting was created at the end of Clark's life, it may have been intended as a dual reference to his career and his mortality.

Figure 2. Gravestone of Sarah Baker, about 1700, Copp's Hill Burial Ground, Boston.
Skulls were more common motifs in early American gravestone carving (fig. 2) than in paintings, a fitting parallel to the depiction of life and death in Smith's Self-Portrait.22 Skulls, skeletons, coffins, and candle flames were common images in gravestone carvings of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries.23 The closing lines of Smith's poem summarize the Puritan attitude towards death:

Truth Sounds Retreat: I am not sorye.
     The Eternall Drawes to him my heart
     By Faith (which can thy Force Subvert)
To Crowne me (after Grace) with Glory.

Death was not be feared, for it delivered earthly saints, as Puritans understood themselves, from an imperfect world into the kingdom of heaven. Similarly, early New England gravestones often paired references to death with images of redemption and afterlife—wings to suggest transcendence, fruit and flowers to symbolize rebirth, and the sun and moon to indicate the perpetual rhythm of life and death. For Self-Portrait, Roger Stein finds yet another level of meaning in the poem and death's head, arguing that the skull above and the text below mirror the format of a gravestone. Stein reads this reminder of death as giving "permission to an expanding capitalist society and to imperial ambition to live in the world" at the same time that it moralizes on those themes.24 Finally, it should be noted that seventeenth-century painters were called upon to create death's heads and other symbols of mourning for funeral processions of prominent figures.25

Although drapery is a conventional element in portraiture, it appears to complement the memento mori theme in this painting. Unlike the curtain in the background of Elizabeth Clarke Freake (Mrs. John Freake) and Baby Mary, where it serves strictly as a compositional device to balance the woman and child as well as a decorative flourish in an otherwise empty background, the tassel and drapery in Smith's Self-Portrait may have been intended as another reference to the end of life. Like the skull, this is a motif found on early colonial gravestones in Massachusetts.26

The inclusion of the signed poem presents Smith not only as mariner and painter but also as poet, intellectual, and Christian. The poem is written in the three-part structure of the Puritan meditation.27 In the opening section of such meditations, the poet typically posed a problem. For Smith, that problem is the statement, "Why why should I the World be minding/therein a World of Evils Finding." In the second section, the person meditating comes to an intellectual understanding of the problem. In the middle of Smith's poem, he comes to terms with the hardships and pleasures he has experienced and accepts the inevitability of death. The final section of a Puritan meditation is supposed to reflect a deeper spiritual understanding of the problem. Smith closes his poem with the following lines: "The Eternall Drawes to him my heart/By Faith (which can thy Force Subvert)/To Crowne me (after Grace) with Glory." Smith borrows language both from earthly metaphors of warfare—the trumpets of retreat ("Death Sounds Retreat")—as well as from biblical language of redemption. Stein has shown that Smith's references to being crowned with glory derive from passages in both the Old and New Testaments and that Smith is therefore participating in the Puritan belief in typology.28 That is, what is written in the Old Testament prophesies the events of the New Testament, which in turn prefigure contemporary experience.

Similar sentiments can be found in late seventeenth-century Boston wills, such as the one written by Smith's contemporary and possible relative Thomas Clarke in 1679. After designating his desired distribution of worldly goods, Clarke wrote:

Soe farewell the world ever adeiu [sic]
Welcome everlasting mansions & glorious kingdom too
Where I shall reign and triumph over Sin
And spend my time in praises of my King—29

Clarke was the father of Elizabeth Freake, whose portrait had been painted by an unknown artist just a few years before Smith's Self-Portrait. Among the beneficiaries of Clarke's will were his cousin Thomas Smith, whom Clarke gave forty pounds outright and another ten pounds for helping to execute his will. Whether this Smith is the same one who was an artist remains to be determined.

Despite Smith's poetic assertion that he valued the everlasting more than the here and now, he included visual references to his own prosperity. His costume is decorated with an expensive piece of imported lace, and he sits in a leather upholstered chair with large brass studs. The Thomas Smith whose probate inventory was prepared in 1691 left "6: Old Rushia Leather Chaires" valued at 1/10 and another "6: Old Calves Leather Chaires" worth fifteen shillings. Moreover, there were many textiles among the Smith inventory, including eight yards of Bone Lace and a remnant of ribbon worth four shillings. "Tho:s Smith's wareing Clothes in a Chest" were valued at ten pounds. Smith also owned several valuable looking glasses, a possession implied by the self-representational nature of the portrait.30 While it remains uncertain whether this probate enumerates the possessions of the same Captain Smith who painted this self-portrait, the painting itself hints that the artist possessed material comforts and luxuries. Even the pigments with which Smith chose to paint his image reflect wealth. His eyes and the blue section of the flags in the distance were painted with ultramarine, a color made from crushed semiprecious lapis lazuli stones.31 Indeed, Smith's Self-Portrait is the only seventeenth-century American painting known to include this expensive material. But the painting stops short of the Puritan sin of vanity. Smith's visage is weathered by the "Jarres" and "Warrs" of his existence. He has rejected the wigs then worn by gentlemen in Boston, nor does his own gray hair fall in a fashionable coif as in the nearly contemporary portrait of John Freake.

Thomas Smith's Self-Portrait stands as a landmark in American painting. It represents the first of many stylistic shifts undertaken in colonial America to stay current with British taste. The painting is the first known attempt of an American painter to depict himself, the earliest work in New England that can be linked to a specific artist, and perhaps the first American painting to reflect explicitly on the inevitability of death. In spite of the frustration of trying to separate the artist Thomas Smith from the fourteen or so men by the same name in late-seventeenth-century Boston, the painting tells students of American culture a great deal about Puritan attitudes toward timeless considerations of life and death. Perhaps the paradox of gaining so much understanding from the painting while knowing so little about the individual who created it adds to the compelling presence of Self-Portrait as a memento mori.

1. Clapp 1923, 80.

2. Ibid., 82.

3. Dresser 1935, 62–66, 108–11, 130–38; Fairbanks 1982, III, 419, 468–75.

4. Dresser 1935, 139–40.

5. Roberts, I, 1895, 250.

6. Fairbanks 1982, III, 473.

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

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

9. Sewall 1973, I, 183.

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

11. Fairbanks 1982, III, 474; Miller 1984, 172–73; Tatham, 1996, 887.

12. Fairbanks 1982, III, 474.

13. Ibid., 455.

14. Flexner 1947, 19.

15. Stein 1984, 320.

16. Stein 1984, 320.

17. Dresser 1935, 135.

18. Stein 1984, 320.

19. Gerdts and Burke 1971, 20.

20. Hirsh 1981, 85.

21. Dresser 1935, 50–53, and Gerdts 1981, 36. Here the skull refers to Dr. Clark's pioneering use of the trepan, a surgical instrument used to cut pieces from a fractured skull.

22. Tashjian and Tashjian 1974, 109, and Wilmerding 1976, 12.

23. For seventeenth-century examples, see Ludwig 1966, 83–84 and pls. 14–15, 25–29, 54–55, 65.

24. Stein 1984, 321.

25. Fairbanks 1982, III, 413–14.

26. Tashjian and Tashjian 1974, 109.

27. Allard 1976, 346–47; and Stein 1984, 322–24.

28. Stein 1984, 323–24. Stein cites, for example, Heb. 1:2, 3, and 2:9, Prov. 4:9 and 16:31, and Ps. 8:4–5.

29. Thomas Clarke, Will, Suffolk County Probate, Boston, vol. 6, p. 404, record no. 1274.

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

31. Fairbanks 1982, III, 451, 474.