James David Smillie
mes David Smillie was born in New York City on January 16, 1833. His father, a noted engraver, had a major influence on nineteenth century American engraving and etching and is probably best known for his banknote engraving with Rawden, Wright and Hatch, and for his engravings after Thomas Cole's painting series, Voyage of Life.
James D. Smillie studied at the Poughkeepsie Collegiate School and later at the University of New York. Young James learned the art of engraving from his father and when he was eight years old produced his first etching on copper, a visiting card plate. He was employed as a bank note engraver before he and his father started their own engraving business; they specialized in banknotes but also produced the engravings for the 1857 Mexican Boundary Survey Report.
James D. Smillie’s first etching is dated March 22, 1846, and his first published print dates to 1849. He continued in his profession as an engraver in steel and was hired in 1859 by the American Bank-Note Company. This same year he made his first creative or "free-hand" etching, which was portrait of Washington Irving.
James D. Smillie exhibited in the spring exhibition of the National Academy of Design in 1864, and also exhibited at the Brooklyn Art Association, the Boston Athenaeum, the Artists Fund Society, the Metropolitan Sanitary Fair (to raise funds for the Union wounded), and the Yonkers Sanitary Fair. He was made an associate member of the National Academy of Design in 1865 and taught at the Academy in 1868.
In 1866, he co-founded the American Society of Painters in Water Colors (the American Water-Color Society), later serving as its president from 1873 to 1879. He was elected a full Academician in the National Academy of Design in 1876, and served as treasurer between 1894 and 1898.
Even after Smillie turned toward painting and drawing, he continued to earn most of his income as an illustrative engraver. Within a few years, his fortune changed and, between 1874 and 1876, he was producing more than thirty-five paintings in watercolor and oil each year.
Smillie headed the watercolor committee for the Centennial International Exhibition of 1876. Held in Philadelphia, it was the first official World’s Fair held in the United States and was a celebration of America’s hundredth anniversary of independence. Smillie was elevated to full Academician in the National Academy of Design in 1876. As early as 1870, he attempted to interest fellow etchers in forming an etching club in New York but had no luck. In 1877, he co-founded the New York Etching Club and the first meeting was held in his studio. In 1881, he was elected as one of the “original fellows” of the London Society of Painter-Etchers.
Between 1888 and 1896, he produced a body of very painterly florals in drypoint, mezzotint, and roulette. In 1894, he conducted the first etching class at the National Academy of Design and continued to teach there until 1903.
Smillie’s last years were spent traveling and working as a consultant to Frank Weitenkampf, head of the New York Public Library Art Department, in designing print storage at the new Fifth Avenue New York Public Library. Smillie donated his father’s engravings and his own etchings to the library’s collection. Besides the New York Public Library, his works are represented in the collections of the Amon Carter Museum, Boston Museum of Fine Art, Carnegie Library, Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Gallery of Art, Oakland Museum of California, and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art.
James David Smillie died on September 14, 1909, in New York City. A memorial exhibition was held in 1910 at the New York Century Club.