(active c. 1650–c. 1691).
Painter. The first resident painter whose name can be linked to specific works, he numbered among the earliest colonial artists to work in a style derived from naturalistic Renaissance-Baroque practice. His most important work, the first American self-portrait (Worcester [Massachusetts] Art Museum; probably c. 1690), stands among only five generally accepted attributions. Probably born in England, he is thought to have arrived around 1650 in Boston, presumably as a trained painter. Possibly also a sea captain, he has traditionally been known as Captain Thomas Smith. One datable work, Major Thomas Savage (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 1679), and one documentary reference from 1680 provide the only solid evidence concerning the period of his activity in Boston. In the half-length self-portrait, Smith wears somber black attire. Strong three-dimensional facial modeling emulates the distant sophistications of Baroque style, as does an emphatically rendered triangle of lace below the throat. A curtain drawn back with a tasseled cord and a glimpse into the distance (here, through a window) demonstrate Smith's familiarity with current international portrait conventions. Intriguingly, the remote view encompasses a naval battle, although its significance to the painter's life remains unknown. On the table before him, Smith's right hand rests on a human skull weighting a piece of paper displaying a poem. Long employed as reminders of death, skulls appeared often in European seventeenth-century still lifes. Smith's initials appended to the legible verses suggest that he wrote the poetry. Also a meditation on death, in style and theme it reflects the slightly earlier, ornate Metaphysical poetry of England. In the absence of additional biographical information about the artist, interpretation of this painting remains conjectural. Yet nothing comparable to its complex ambitions appeared in the colonies for another generation.