George Smillie is one of the most widely known American landscape painters whose long and celebrated career began before the Civil War and ended after the First World War. Smillie was the third of four sons and fifth child of noted line engraver James Smillie (1807-1885). Each of the sons was a talented artist in his own right. George though, being the youngest did not receive the same nurturing of these talents from his father as did his older siblings. For instance, James David Smillie (1833-1909), the oldest, was trained from infancy to follow in his father’s profession. Many of his earliest drawings were carefully saved. In contrast, none of George’s early work survives and little is known of his early childhood.
Despite this rather unpromising environment George’s artist leanings did come to the fore. At the age of twenty-one, he entered the Brooklyn, New York studio of James McDougal Hart (1828-1901). Hart is one of the more important artists of the second generation of Hudson River School painters. The two most likely met in James Smillie’s engraving studio where Hart’s work was frequently reproduced.
In 1861, George Smillie began his long association with the National Academy of Design with his first exhibition. He would exhibit there every year until his death. At about 1863 George and his oldest brother James David began to work very closely together. They traveled to the same picturesque locations around the country and Europe during the summers. In New York they occupied adjacent studios and lived together for a time. Such was their closeness and relative lack of competitiveness they worked on each other’s paintings, provided sketches for one another and shared joint commissions from patrons who ordered a painting from both. When one was sick the other would take over teaching duties and prepare the other’s paintings for exhibition. In this way the two brothers spent almost twenty years before they each married within weeks of each other. Although married the brothers did remain close and supportive until James David’s death in 1909.
In 1898, when Springtime on the River was painted, Smillie made his last trip to Europe and England in specific. He left in April and returned in October of the same year. It may be that this painting is one of the three that he exhibited in the annual exhibition at the National Academy of Design of the same year and titled A Spring Idyl.
By the 1890’s George Smillie’s style shifted ever so slightly from the tight and controlled brush work of his earlier painting. While Smillie would not have called himself an impressionist he did however begin to let his brush move about with more freedom and vigor. His palette became brighter and higher keyed though not garish. Springtime on the River is a fine example of Smillie’s evolution from the formality of mid-century painting to a more subtle and evocative treatment of the landscape. Smillie defined his basis of landscape composition as a horizontal line crossed by a diagonal just as we have here. He said of this arrangement, “Yet what diversity of expression may be got out of [these two line] and how much tragedy and sentiment may be told by them!… The longer a man lives the simpler grows his composition.”
Private Collection, Rye, NY