Although painted in London, this set of elegant portraits [with 1993.75] of a young pair of British aristocrats displays all the traits that would make Scottish-born John Smibert the leading painter in colonial America after he immigrated to the New World in 1729.The artist presents Edward and Eleanor Nightingale as confident, young, attractive, and fashionable, from Eleanor’s glistening silk wrapper to Edward’s relaxed Turkish robe and headdress (18th-century gentlemen left their powdered wigs off at home or among friends). Smibert trained in the studio of Sir Godfrey Kneller, leading court painter of the early 18th-century. From him, he mastered the conventions of high society portraiture, shown here not just by the Nightingales’ informal dress but also by their poses, as well as the background accessories that situate them as cultured sitters.
Smibert came to America inadvertently. Persuaded to join the faculty of a projected missionary college in Bermuda, he made it as far as Rhode Island when royal funds for the institution never materialized. Smibert settled in Boston, where his influence as the first fully professionally trained artist in America had far-reaching effects. Not only did other artists soon imitate Smibert’s compositions but the copies of old masters he had intended to use as teaching resources in the abortive school—as well as his other studio contents—exposed a generation of young native-born artists to examples of European art.