Besides that, Captain Thomas' style was so very unique compared to other colonial painters. In the portrait, we don't see the the typical Elizabethan court (Tudor) approach but instead, we see somber colors, attention to detail and a clear mastery of light and shadow. All indicators of the Baroque style.
|Supper at Emmaus, Caravaggio, 1601
Classical Biblical tale of Jesus' visitation
Up in the north country however, particularly the Dutch, the Protestant artists and patrons were not interested in religious themes, instead they were celebrating their new found wealth and independence. We are talking here about the new middle class merchants who had the money to buy the finest houses, clothes and lifestyle. These folks weren't going to settle on some religious thesis. Instead they wanted portraits, genre painting (paintings of everyday life) and still life on moderately sized canvases or panels. This was the beginning of their Golden Age (1610-1680) and the
|The Milkmaid, c.1658 Jan Vemeer
Classic example of genre painting
Returning to Captain Thomas Smith, one can see the Baroque influence in his self-portrait. While certainly not as brilliantly accomplished as the other painters, Smith's painting has all the earmarks of the European style--from the lighting to the detail of the clothes he is wearing. If you look a little bit closer, you'll see the painting behind his portrait-- ships at battle with Dutch and British flags unfurled. You can see that he is a man of substance and rather confident with his striking pose.
Notice also his hand resting on the skull, usually a symbol of aging, death or vanity, and then just underneath is a poem scratched out for all to see (there's that Baroque detail for you). If the painting doesn't say anything to the viewer, then perhaps the poem will:
Therein a World of Evils Finding.
Then Farwell World: Farwell thy Jarres
thy Joies thy Toies thy wiles thy Warrs
Truth Sounds Retreat: I am not sorye.
The Eternall Drawes to him my heart
By Faith (which can thy Force Subvert)
To Crowne me (after Grace) with Glory
There's not much known about the man. Most historians believe he was a well-traveled mariner who came to New England in 1650 from Bermuda. Five other paintings (one as a commission for Harvard) have been attributed to him based on the style used in the self-portrait. Perhaps through his travels he was able to get some training in the Netherlands or at the very least get his hands on copies of the then current-day masters.
Obviously Captain Smith was older and was making no illusions to what was up ahead for him as is evident with the skull and poem. Some say that his painting "career" occurred sometime between 1675 and 1690. But no one really knows for sure. What we do know is that he was the first to spend time on a self-portrait in a style unknown to the colonies at that time. Rather courageous and inventive, I'd say.
To find out more about colonial art don't miss out on next month's issue.
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