Skip to main content

Biographical Note | A Finding Aid to the James D. Smillie and Smillie family papers, 1853-1957 | Digitized Collection

James D. Smillie and Smillie family papers, 1853-1957

Biographical Note

James D. Smillie and the Smillie family members were active in New York City and the New England area as engravers and landscape painters during the nineteenth century. Members of the Smillie Family of artists include James Smillie (1807-1885), his sons James D. (1833-1909) and George Smillie (1854-1924), and George's wife Helen 'Nellie' Jacobs Smillie (1855-1926).
Born in Edinburgh, Scotland to David and Elizabeth Smillie, James Smillie immigrated to Quebec, Canada. James must have learned engraving from his father who worked with jewelry and silver. Upon his father's death in 1827, Smillie travelled to London and eventually to New York City, where he embarked on a career of creating engravings of paintings by other artists. By 1831, he had established his reputation primarily as an engraver of American landscape paintings. The portability of James Smillie's engravings helped to bring to the American public the grand landscapes by Albert Bierstadt, Thomas Cole, and Asher Durand. Smillie also worked for the American Banknote Company.
James Smillie married Catherine Van Valkenburg in 1832, and two of their sons, James David and George Henry also became artists. Elder son James D. assisted his father with engraving and later explored his own artistic talents in prints of the American landscape. Among his many subjects were the Sierra Nevada, Adirondack, Rocky, White, and Catskill Mountains. James D. Smillie was a founding member of the American Watercolor Society and served as its president from 1873 to 1879. Additionally, he was an early member of the New York Etching Club and the first meeting was held in his studio in 1877. James D. also wrote about art for various periodicals.
Like his older brother, George Henry Smillie learned engraving from his father, but turned to painting early in his career. By 1862, he had his own studio in New York City and exhibited with the National Academy of Design in 1864. George travelled throughout the United States sketching and painting landscapes inspired by Long Island, the Adirondack Mountains, the Rocky Mountains, and New England. Many of George's paintings of the American West were influenced by the Hudson River School. George married one of his brother's pupils, Helen Sheldon Jacobs.
Helen Jacobs Smillie, known as Nellie, was born in New York City to Samuel and Helen Jacobs. She received art instruction at Cooper Union and the National Academy of Design and was a pupil of James D. Smillie and J. O. Eaton. She married George Smillie in 1881, with whom she had three sons, Sheldon, Charles, and Gordon. Nellie was a member of the American Watercolor Society along with her husband and brother-in-law, and painted in the Hudson River School style.