James Smillie


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(1807–85). Printmaker. His engraved reproductions of major mid-nineteenth-century paintings interpret the originals with such sensitivity and technical finesse that they have been considered works of art in their own right. His prints included numerous landscapes after Hudson River School artists, including Asher B. Durand and John Kensett, as well as Thomas Cole's Voyage of Life. Smillie's perfectionism culminated in a masterful rendition (1863–66) of Albert Bierstadt's celebrated The Rocky Mountains, Lander's Peak. Here, he combined etching, engraving, and aquatint to convey the original's tonal and atmospheric effects, no less than its extensive detail. Smillie was born in Edinburgh and received his first artistic instruction during an apprenticeship to a silver engraver. In 1821 he moved with his family to Quebec. Largely on his own, there and on a subsequent sojourn in London and Edinburgh he developed his abilities as a draftsman and engraver. After returning to Quebec in 1828, he relocated to New York about two years later. Although artists admired his skill, financially Smillie found it necessary throughout his career to pursue more lucrative aspects of his profession, engraving bank notes and illustrations for books and periodicals. Smillie visited Europe for some months in 1862. Two or three years later he began spending periods of time in Poughkeepsie, New York, where he subsequently made his home and eventually died.

As painters, two sons extended their father's artistic legacy. Born in New York, both are remembered chiefly as landscapists, rooted in a pastoral Hudson River School approach. By the 1880s their styles accommodated the shifting taste toward more personally expressive and less detailed views. After beginning his career as an assistant to his father, James David Smillie (1833–1909) remained active also as a printmaker. In the wake of their trip together to Europe in 1862, he turned his attention primarily to fine art, continuing as a commercial engraver only as financial necessity demanded. Trips to the West in 1871 and to Europe in 1884 and on later occasions provided subjects for his art, as did travels in New England and the mid-Atlantic states. In the 1870s he began regularly visiting Montrose, Pennsylvania, about fifty miles northwest of Philadelphia. There in 1881–82 he built a substantial vacation house of his own design, while he later summered at an Adirondack cabin. An active participant in the watercolor movement and the etching revival, he died in New York. George Henry Smillie (1840–1921) picked up the rudiments of art in his father's studio before studying painting with James MacDougal Hart. He subsequently worked in tandem with his older brother and, like him, became an accomplished watercolorist. They regularly worked in adjacent studios and sketched together during summer trips, including the 1871 excursion through the West and the 1884 trip to France and England. He lived in Ridgefield, Connecticut, for a time before moving to Bronxville, New York, where he died. His wife, Helen Sheldon Jacobs Smillie (1854–1926), known as Nellie, also a painter, was known especially for floral still lifes. Trained at the National Academy of Design and Cooper Union, she studied privately with her husband's brother before her 1881 marriage.

From The Oxford Dictionary of American Art and Artists in Oxford Reference.

Subjects: Art.

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