John Rubens Smith (American, 17751849)
Watercolor, gouache, and graphite on smooth surfaced off–white wove paper; 8 7/8 x 6 3/4 in. (22.6 x 17.2 cm)
Bequest of Charlotte E. Hoadley, 1946 (46.192.4)
In his novel Pierre, or, The Ambiguities (1852), Herman Melville fictionalized this portrait of his father, describing the subject as the father of Pierre, the hero of the tale. The portrait so fascinated the younger Melville that an entire chapter, and much of the novel's theme, turns upon the mystery of the sitter's character, concealed by his youth, informality, and apparent candor. The portraitist Smith never exceeded his mastery here of exacting technique in the service of expression. The artist's métier in such cabinet-sized watercolor portraits stems from miniature painting and the related art of "stained drawings" developed in England in the late eighteenth century. Smith undoubtedly also derived this technique from his father, John Raphael Smith, who specialized in stipple engravings of portraits and genre scenes in his native London.