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Joseph Smith
Salon No. 12

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Untitled, Portrait of Galileo
by Joseph Smith, 1824

Pokerwork on wood panel,
18.75 in. by 13.75 in. (unframed)

Digital image by the owner

Untitled, Portrait of Galileo
detail of the signature

by Joseph Smith, 1824

Inscription on the verso reads:

Pokerwork on wood panel,
18.75 in. by 13.75 in. (unframed)

Digital image thanks to the owner

Untitled, Portrait of Galileo,
detail of the figure

by Joseph Smith, 1824

Pokerwork on wood panel,
18.75 in. by 13.75 in. (unframed)

Digital image thanks to the owner

From the private collection of Richard and Linn Hart is this 1824 panel by English artist Joseph Smith. The panel bears an inscription burnt on the back—"Smith, Pyrographist, 1824"—and nothing further that would indicate the subject or the title or after whose painting it was done.

This work has been passed down through the family of the owner Linn Hart from her late father who had inherited it from her grandfather to whom it was given around the turn of the century in Dunsmore, Buckinghamshire. For this reason, we have an oral history affirming that the panel was given to her grandfather for a job he had done, and the portrait was said to be of Galileo.

Research by Susan Millis revealed that the panel is not done after a Rembrandt painting but did adapt the main figure from one, which is the "Old Man in an Arm Chair." Because the Smith figure is a mirror image of the other, it is believed that Smith worked from an engraving of the painting. The globe in the foreground that the subject is contemplating and the bookcase in the background with what look like, among other things, perhaps a microscope and an astrolabe, seem to be original to this work, as they do not appear in Rembrandt's painting.

Because the ermine robe is not typical of the garb pictured in other portraits of Galileo, the subject was in question. However, the fact that Smith seems to have "borrowed" the figure from a Rembrandt would explain such a discrepancy. On the other hand, because there does not seem to be a telescope among the accoutrements pictured, there is still some doubt about the subject of this excellent portrait, at least in the opinion of the E-Museum's curator.

The panel also has another intriguing aspect. According to Linn, there is an eye pyroengraved on a knot in the wood on the back of the panel above the inscription. It was done in such a way that it would appear to follow you around wherever you stood.

In the Pinto Collection at the Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery in England, there is an 1810 full-length portrait by Joseph Smith of John Jeffreys (after a painting by Hoppner). An article entitled The Pinto Collection: Important 19th C. Pyrographic Artists highlights research and notes by conservator Susan Millis on that collection.

If you have either any questions to ask or any information to offer regarding the Joseph Smith work displayed here, please e-mail Richard and Linn Hart and the E-Museum Curator.

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© 2009 Kathleen M. Garvey Menéndez, all rights reserved
30 June 2009; last updated 9 November 2009.