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Boston, 1828

Boston, 1828, John Rubens Smith, Watercolor with pen and ink

Boston, 1828 John Rubens Smith, London 1775-1849 New York, New York. Watercolor with pen and ink, 19 x 24 ½ in (frame). Inscribed in gouache at lower right: I. R. Smith, 1828. Gift of William B. and Nancy Osgood, 1995. 

This view of Boston from Roxbury is dated 1828, a particularly busy year for its creator, the energetic, British-born artist John Rubens Smith. After several years of residence in New York City, Smith returned to Boston in 1827, published an art manual, and opened a drawing academy in Cornhill Square. As taxing as his pedagogical duties must have been in 1828, Smith spent a significant amount of time on his long-held dream of drawing and publishing a series of American views. He traveled as far afield as Washington, D. C., and Pennsylvania, drawing rural landscapes and city views. Nearer to home, he went to the small town of Roxbury, Massachusetts, where he recorded the view from a promontory overlooking the Charles River Basin. Positioning himself near an old Revolutionary War fort in Highland Park, Smith had a dazzling view of the city of Boston with Bulfinch’s State House, the growing neighborhood of Beacon Hill, and the Boston Common in the distance. For the modern viewer, much of the interest in Smith’s watercolor lies in his depiction of the vast wasteland that forty years later would be transformed into the fashionable Back Bay district. The tidal flats of the Great Bay, as it was then known, are amply depicted in the middle ground of the watercolor with Gravelly Point to the left and the “neck” of Washington Street to the right. In the far left distance, the artist has lightly sketched in the new Mill Dam (today’s Beacon Street) that connected Boston to Brookline. The watercolor also provides a rare glimpse of the dike that once spanned the marshland between Fayette Street and Baldwin Mills on Gravelly Point.

As interesting as such features might be to the local historian, the focus of the watercolor is the bucolic town of Roxbury. In 1828 Roxbury’s population was fast approaching 5,000, and this once rural enclave was now home to a growing number of Bostonians hoping to escape the hubbub of city life. Roxbury’s development mirrored America’s evolution in the mid-nineteenth century from an agrarian, rural society to a country dominated by towns and cities.  This transformation was neatly, if unwittingly, captured in Smith’s watercolor view of Boston in 1828. The viewer’s eye moves from the pastoral setting of the immediate foreground, with a cow grazing idly in an empty field, to a suburban setting of elegant residences, to the bustling, ever-expanding city of Boston in the distance. Certainly one of Smith’s objects was to document faithfully the scene in front of his eyes – contemporary viewers would have demanded as much – but he was also following current artistic rules governing the depictions of landscapes. Rules were important to Smith and he spent much of his life enforcing them as an artist, teacher, author, and critic.[1]

Unlike many aspiring immigrant artists, Smith had the advantage of his English connections. He arrived in Boston from England in 1806 carrying letters of recommendation addressed to Gilbert Stuart, Thomas Sully, and Washington Allston. The signatory of the letters was Benjamin West, the dean of Anglo-American artists, and this connection quickly propelled Smith to the forefront of Boston’s small artistic community. Within a year, he had opened his own drawing school where the socially well connected sent their sons and daughters. Unlike Smith’s native London, Federalist Boston had few resources for artists. The recently founded Boston Athenæum was not yet sufficiently equipped to meet the demands of local artists, and in 1809 Smith established a subscription library that circulated prints, drawings, and art books from his own private collection. Privileges were accorded to the wealthy few who could afford the five-dollar deposit and the two-dollar monthly fee. A year later, Smith invited several Boston artists, including Gilbert Stuart, Washington Allston, John R. Penniman, and Bass Otis, to a meeting at his drawing school. Lamenting the lack of a professional organization for artists, the group established the Probationary Academy of Arts, taking as its model the Royal Academy of Arts, but it never developed beyond its initial conception. These failures may have contributed to Smith’s decision to leave Boston for New York City in 1814.

John Rubens Smith, Plate XX, 1822. Engraving. From "The Juvenile Drawing Book: Being the Rudiments of the Arts Explained in a Series of Easy Progressive Lessons..." (NY, 1822).In New York, Smith quickly established another drawing academy and in 1822 he published his first drawing manual, The Juvenile Drawing Book. It was the first of six art instruction books Smith would publish throughout his career. As a teacher, Smith was reputed to be of “the highest order of excellence,” and many American artists, including Sanford Robinson Gifford (1823-1880) and Emanuel Leutze (1816-1868), benefited from his instruction. But even in the classroom, Smith’s critical and pugnacious temperament alienated many of his students. He quarreled openly with many members of the American Academy of Fine Arts in New York and was denied membership in the newer National Academy of Design on the grounds of his “violent temper and unaccountably quarrelsome disposition.”[2] If his tongue was harsh, his pen was acerbic; his critical assessments of his fellow artists, published in the New York press as “Neutral Tint,” were caustic and vindictive.  Even a friend conceded that he was the most “severe” of critics, “often giving bitter offense” to those whom he could least afford to alienate.[3]

Towards the end of his life, Smith found “to his sorrow that his own temper had been his worst enemy and ruin.” In 1834 the artist William Dunlap, himself a victim of Smith’s criticism, published his influential A History of the Rise and Progress of the Arts of Design in the United States, in which he dismissed Smith’s work as a “lamentable failure” and the man himself as “abrupt, pretending, at times dictatorial.” Smith’s watercolors, his engravings, and his art manuals all give ample evidence of the inaccuracy of Dunlap’s assessment, proving that he was an artist of enormous, if somewhat conventional, talent.  But so widespread was Dunlap’s influence in the nineteenth century that Smith’s reputation languished for several decades following his death in 1849. In the late 1850s, the prominent Boston lithographic firm of J. H. Bufford published a series of chromolithographs entitled “Old Boston” that were based on Smith’s 1811 drawings of the excavation of Beacon Hill. The images have remained popular over the years and have served to keep Smith’s name alive but, by and large, it was left to later generations to re-discover the work of John Rubens Smith.[4]


Catharina Slautterback, from, from Stanley Ellis Cushing and David B. Dearinger, eds., Acquired Tastes: 200 Years of Collecting for the Boston Athenæum (2006): 299-301. Copyright © The Boston Athenæum.

[1] Edward S. Smith, “John Rubens Smith: An Anglo-American Artist,” Connoisseur 85 (May 1930), 300-307.
[2] Thomas S. Cummings, Historic Annals of the National Academy of Design (Philadelphia: George W. Childs, 1865), 32.
[3] R., “Reminiscences of John R. Smith,” Crayon, 2 (November 7, 1855), 287.
[4] The Library also owns three engraved images of his watercolor of Boston. The three prints were engraved and published by local firms in the late 1820s, indicating the image’s popularity with local inhabitants. In 1829 Smith exhibited a number of watercolors at the Boston Athenæum’s annual exhibition, including a watercolor entitled View of Boston, possibly the one donated by the Osgoods 166 years later.