Smibert’s painting is a copy of a 1640 painting by the revered French painter Nicolas Poussin. Its subject derives from Roman history. During the Second Punic War, the Roman general Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus decided to return his war spoils, including the bride of his enemy Allucius, the young prince of the Celtiberians. Scipio’s moral fortitude presented an ideal subtext for Poussin’s classical interpretation. John Smibert, the copyist, was a portrait painter from Scotland who trained in London and later set out with Dean George Berkeley to found a college in Bermuda. This painting was intended to be part of the college’s teaching collection, but when that project fell through, Smibert exhibited it in his Boston studio and art supply store. In Boston it set an example for John Singleton Copley, who admired it. At Bowdoin College since James Bowdoin III’s bequest in 1813, the work has contributed to the education of countless generations of students.
John Smibert’s Exposure to Poussin
Smibert painted this picture in London between 1726 and 1728, soon after the original was acquired from a French collection by Sir Robert Walpole, one of the great art collectors of the eighteenth century. At the time it came into his possession, Walpole lived less than a mile from Smibert’s London studio. In 1726, Smibert recorded in his commissions notebook that he painted two miniatures for Walpole, along with a copy of a life-size portrait of him, yet for the latter he records no payment. It is possible that Smibert received permission to copy Poussin’s Continence of Scipio in exchange for painting a portrait for Walpole. Given Smibert’s Presbyterian background and emphasis on leading a moral life, he undoubtedly considered this picture particularly noteworthy. And as there were few original paintings by Poussin then in England, it made the work all the more desirable.
Director, Middlebury College Museum of Art, and Professor, History of Art and Architecture, Middlebury College
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