James Smillie (1833-1909)

James Smillie (1833-1909)

While the great American steel-engraver James Smillie, Sr. (1807-1885) was a lifelong influence on his son, a brief tour of Europe in 1864 had the most lasting effect on James David Smillie’s artistic career. Until this point, James David had followed the path of his father, learning steel engraving as a nine year old, and later collaborating with his father on banknotes and illustrations for the Mexican Boundary Survey Report (1857).  Following his trip abroad, James abandoned his father’s legacy as a commercial artist to devote himself entirely to landscape painting, capturing the many peaks which he visited during his trips to the Catskills and Adirondacks, as well as the Sierra and Rocky Mountains during the 1870s.

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In 1868 he achieved associate membership to the National Academy of Design, and by 1876 had joined his father and brother George (1840-1921) as a full Academician.  Smillie continued to exhibit with the National Academy until 1905, just a few years before his death, and also showed with the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Boston Art Club and the Brooklyn Art Association.  His entries ranged from depictions of barnyards in Normandy to cathedrals in Etretat, sheep grazing in Marblehead, Massachusetts, to mountain paths in the Adirondacks.  All of his works, whether oils or etchings, illustrated his fondness for the natural world and all of its creatures, right down to the geological accuracy of each rock formation. 

Caught up in the etching revival of the late 19th century, Smillie was looked on as an expert in the field, and the Smithsonian Institute commissioned a number of works to use as examples in technique for other artists. Smillie’s works now belong in the permanent collections of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, the National Academy and the Corcoran Gallery.  His contributions to the arts remain also through his efforts in founding such associations as the American Water Color Society and the New York Etching Club.

Sources: American Paradise: The World of the Hudson River School, Metropolitan Museum of Art; Fair Wilderness:  American Paintings in the Collection of the Adirondack Museum, Patricia C. Mandel; Who Was Who in American Art, Peter Falk.

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