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James Smillie, a skilled and highly respected engraver, played a major role in the watercolor and etching revivals of the late nineteenth century. He also established a notable reputation as a landscape painter, drawing widespread acclaim for his meticulously rendered views of mountain scenery.
Smillie was born in New York City, the son of James Smillie, a noted engraver. Both Smillie and his younger brother George Smillie, who also became a painter, received their earliest art instruction from their father. After making his first engraving plate when he was eight, Smillie went on to work closely with his father, producing bank note vignettes as well as prints.
Smillie produced his first oil painting in 1864, after returning from a trip to Europe. He subsequently ended his collaboration with his father in order to devote the majority of his time to painting. He also began exploring the techniques of etching, dry point, lithography and aquatint.
Smillie began exhibiting his work at the National Academy of Design in 1864, and in the following year was elected an associate member. He became a full academician in 1876. During this period, he also participated in exhibitions at the Brooklyn Art Association and at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Smillie was also a founding member of the American Water Color Society (1866) and the New York Etching Club (1877).
Throughout the 1860s, Smillie made numerous sketching trips to the Catskill and Adirondack Mountains in upstate New York and to the White Mountains in New Hampshire. In 1871, accompanied by his brother, he travelled to the west coast, visiting sites such as Yosemite and the Sierra Nevadas. During the journey, Smillie produced many oil sketches and watercolors which were admired for their wealth of detail. In 1872, he contributed an article on the Yosemite Valley, as well as illustrations, to Picturesque America. Smillie made a second trip abroad in 1884. While in France, he painted many seascapes in and around Etretat.
James Smillie died in Bronxville, New York, in 1909. Representative examples of his work can be found in many important public collections, including the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., the Oakland Museum; and the Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth.
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