Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait miniature of Mrs. Russell, nee Cox 1781

John Smart (1741-1811)

Portrait miniature of Mrs. Russell, nee Cox, John Smart
Watercolour on ivory
18th Century
Oval, height 51 mm; 2 in.
Antrobus Collection, Hatfield
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From this example, it is easy to see why Smart has always been held in high esteem as an artist both in his lifetime and subsequently by collectors of his work. One cannot fail to admire his meticulous technique, in which he overcomes the technical challenges of ivory, using its smooth surface as a foil for his brilliant brushwork.

As a contemporary of Richard Cosway, the two men came head to head early on, when Cosway won first prize and Smart second in a competition for the under fourteens held at the Society of Arts. Throughout their careers the men remained in competition until Smart departed for India in 1785, returning after ten years. This miniature, dated 1781, of the delectable Mrs. Russell, ably demonstrates the talent that secured Smart’s patronage from the great and the good. This miniature also exhibits the qualities Smart’s clients had come to expect from his hand – where Cosway provided glamour with few strokes of his brush, Smart was concerned with an almost unnatural realism. Under magnification, one can make out her individually painted eyelashes and the hairs that make up the ermine trim on her gown. His miniatures were as close as his patrons would get to photography, decades away from its invention. His use of bright, jewel-like colours looks more to portrait enamels than to the grey-blue tones favoured by Cosway and Engleheart. This example has been particularly well-preserved thanks to the shagreen case that has survived with the miniature. This case also alludes to the purpose of the miniature, which has been further personalised by a lock of hair in the reverse, as Mr. Russell probably carried it when the couple were apart. Smart did, like all portrait painters, flatter his sitters to some extent. In the case of Mrs. Russell, however, one feels there would have been no need.

Smart was devoted to his chosen form of portraiture, advertising himself as a ‘Miniature Painter’ as opposed to his contemporary, Richard Cosway, who promoted himself as a ‘Portrait Painter’.
His obituary published in the Gentleman’s Magazine, 1811, reads “In his 70th year, after an illness of only nine days, John Smart, Esq., of Russell Place, Fitzroy Square, miniature painter. To most philanthropic and hospitable principles, he added great eminence as an artist; his surprising likenesses in miniature being justly admired both in his native country and the East Indies, where he practiced for some years with great and deserved reputation.”
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