George Henry Smillie (1840-1921)

George Henry Smillie (1840-1921)

Trained in the Hudson River School tradition, George Smillie was one of few artists in the late 19th century to transition smoothly alongside America’s changing tastes and interests in European trends. Over the course of his career, he would take the traditional skills he had learned from his teacher James McDougal Hart and transform them into paintings full of brushwork and contrasts in value, influenced more by the French Barbizon than the American Hudson River School. 

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George was the son of James H. Smillie (1807-1885), a highly regarded steel engraver and artist, but was often outshined by his older brother, James David Smillie (1833-1909). The two brothers traveled and painted together, shared adjacent studios, and even jointly taught courses and executed commissions. While George was the first son to devote himself fully to painting, life’s events seemed to constantly place him in his brother’s shadow. In 1864, for example, George was appointed an Associate Member of the National Academy, but luck had it that his acceptance was not publicly announced until he received his certificate of membership in 1869 alongside his brother. James was also accepted to the American Society of Painters in Water Colors one year prior to George, and was made a full National Academician eight years in advance.

James was a better businessman than George, and was more financially successful over the course of his career. George, however, was far more experimental in his work and achieved greater recognition as the Hudson River School dwindled in favor. By 1860 George was experimenting with luscious brushwork in scenes of the Catskills, western Pennsylvania, the Adirondacks and the Poughkeepsie area. Although they never outwardly discussed their sibling rivalry, George was heartbroken by his brother’s acceptance to the National Academy in 1875, and retreated to a relative’s home in Lexington, New York. The recent stock market crash added to a period of inactivity, but allowed George to develop his work in new directions. These emotionally charged landscapes were the products of the 1880s, a period when George was staying often in Poughkeepsie as a retreat from the pressures of New York City, where he maintained a studio on Fifth Avenue.

George first traveled abroad in 1884, and returned from his voyage with a brighter palette and a considerably strengthened style, finally having witnessed the French Barbizon first-hand. The next decade proved to be the very apex of his career, and George sold his works at an amazing rate. Views of the East Coast from Long Island up to Cohasset and Marblehead, Massachusetts, dominated his oils and watercolors, and he exhibited such works as A Showery Day on the Mass. Coast at the National Academy and September on the New England Coast at the American Art Association in 1885. George’s success would continue on to include becoming Secretary of the National Academy in 1892, a position reflective of his companions’ high regard for him. In 1890 he settled with his wife in Ridgefield, Connecticut, and continued to paint landscapes and seascapes of nearby locales.

References: Falk, Who Was Who in American Art; Brucia Witthoft, “George Smillie, N.A., The Life of an Artist,” American Art Review, Summer 1992; NAD exhibition records. 

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