In her will, the mother of the subject of this portrait named the likenesses of
Samuel and Mary Pemberton (B.72.8) by John Smibert as personal bequests, in addition
to those of jewelry and silver. Considering the vast estate of the wealthy Pembertons to be disposed, the specific mention of these portraits testifies to the esteem in which the family held them, as specimens of the work of a celebrated artist and as tokens of affection for family members. According to contemporary beliefs about the function of portraiture, portraits helped to nurture and sustain a set of hierarchical family relations, a
point these portraits illustrate.
As the heir to family fortune, the son held a privileged place within the eighteenth-century family. In the case of the Pembertons, Bostonians whose wealth derived from merchant trade and real estate, Samuel (1723-1779) was the first child to be painted by Smibert. Several months later, Smibert painted portraits of Samuel’s elder sisters, Hannah, aged nineteen (1734, MMA), and Mary (1717-1763). The elder Pemberton son, however, was not Samuel but James (1713-1756), who was painted by Smibert three years later, in 1737. It is likely that when James’s siblings were painted, he, at age twenty-one, was no longer part of the household. It is not certain that Smibert initially received the commission to paint all three children; the parents, evidently pleased with the portrait of Samuel, may have asked Smibert to paint the two daughters several months later. The three portraits likely hung together, with Samuel at center, flanked by his sisters on either side: Mary at right, wearing a blue dress ornamented by a pink ribbon, and Hannah at left, wearing red.
Smibert portrays young Samuel as a bewigged gentleman in a soft gray suit, proudly erect, with an alert expression, his large eyes enhanced by exquisitely rendered eyelashes. A great deal of attention and care has been lavished on painting the graceful swirls of his wig, the braid and buttons of his coat and waistcoat, and the ruffle of his stock. Despite the formulaic composition, Smibert’s portrait of Samuel has considerable charm and verve, whereas the portrait of his sister Mary is slightly less appealing. She wears a dress Smibert painted ad infinitum, a type likely borrowed from mezzotints after Sir Godfrey Kneller.
John Smibert arrived in the colonies from London in 1729, whereupon he quickly became a celebrated, successful Boston artist. Born in Edinburgh, Smibert moved to London to work as a coach painter and picture dealer copyist. In 1719, he left London to take the Grand Tour so that he could study the great masterpieces of Europe, particularly of Italy. After three years, he returned to London, where he began his portrait business. Part of a society that believed in the westward expansion of culture and the progress of civilization, Smibert received and accepted the call to travel to the colonies to found a university in Bermuda with the renowned philosopher Dean George Berkeley. Once arrived in the colonies, Smibert found himself at loose ends when the project stalled, and in the interim, he traveled to Boston to paint portraits. He became an overnight sensation, for he was the best-trained artist the New England colonies had ever seen. Furthermore, he did much to foster the arts in the colonies, for his studio and color shop in Boston, even long after he died, served as a gathering place for aspiring artists eager to learn a profession that had, as yet, no academy in the colonies.
RELATED EXAMPLES: Hannah Pemberton, 1734, MMA. Smibert often repeated the pose, oval format, and dress of the sitter in related portraits. Interesting examples of portraits conceived as pendants are Smibert’s portrait of Lydia Henchman (1730, Colby College Museum of Art, Waterville, Maine) and that depicting her fiance, Thomas Hancock (1730, MFA, Boston).
Book excerpt: Warren, David B., Michael K. Brown, Elizabeth Ann Coleman, and Emily Ballew Neff. American Decorative Arts and Paintings in the Bayou Bend Collection. Houston: Princeton Univ. Press, 1998.
Cataloguing data may change with further research.
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John Smibert, American, 1688–1751
Portrait of Samuel Pemberton
- Oil on canvas
- Canvas: 30 1/8 × 25 1/2 in. (76.5 × 64.8 cm)
- Credit Line
The Bayou Bend Collection, museum purchase funded by Miss Ima Hogg
- Current Location
The Audrey Jones Beck Building
107 KILROY GALLERY
- Accession Number
Sitter's parents, James and Hannah Penhallow Pemberton until 1757, at which point sitter was bequeathed his portrait; to his nie ce, Mrs. Ephraim Ward (Mary Colman), to 1809; to her son, Benjamin Colman Ward; to his unmarried daughters, Ellen Maria Ward and Julia Elizabeth Ward, to c.1900; to their cousin, George H. Davenport, Boston, to 1932; to his daughter Mrs. William Truman Aldrich, to 1949; to George Aldrich; to Vose Galleries, Boston, in 1972; to Miss Ima Hogg May 24, 1972.