George Henry Smillie: Artist of Old Ridgefield

Artist George Henry Smillie

Artist George Henry Smillie

Contributed / Hearst Connecticut Media

One trip to the West gave George Smillie years of inspiration. And so did Ridgefield.

A leading American landscape artist at the turn of the 20th Century, George Henry Smillie lived many years on Main Street in the house just south of the Keeler Tavern. Here he painted scenes both local and quite distant.

Born in New York City in 1840, Smillie (rhymes with Millie) belonged to an influential family in the city’s art circles. His father was an engraver who transferred many landscape paintings of noted contemporary artists into engravings, which were popular in the 19th Century. His older brother, James David Smillie, was also a painter and instructor with a fine reputation.

George studied in Europe and under James McDougal Hart, a well-known American landscape artist.

In 1871 Smillie headed west, sketching and painting, particularly the Rockies and California’s Yosemite Valley. Many sketches served as models for years of oil and watercolor landscapes he was to paint in New York City, Ridgefield and Bronxville, N.Y., where he lived over the years. Many of the resulting paintings showed mountain scenes as well as American Indians.

He also painted scenes he saw locally; one of his most interesting Ridgefield works is a view of the old Stebbins homestead, painted in 1892 shortly before the house was torn down to make way for the Casagmo mansion (which itself was torn down).

However, probably his best-known local picture is “Mill Pond at Ridgefield.” Another, called simply “Near Ridgefield,” is also an excellent example of his work. Both are in private collections.

His work is in the collections of many major museums including the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Brooklyn Museum, and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. His paintings have fetched as much as $130,000 at recent auctions.

Smillie exhibited extensively including at such major venues as the Boston Athenaeum, the Salmagundi Club, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, and the Corcoran Gallery at Washington. The Society of American Artists honored him with a medal in 1907.

In 1881 Smillie married Nellie Sheldon Jacobs (b. 1854-1926), a painter of genre pictures, who had been a student of his brother. He died in 1921 in Bronxville.

The National Gallery of Art in Washington, which owns several of his works, said Smillie “was less interested in objectively rendering optical effects than in conveying feelings and moods through his strikingly simplified compositions. He marveled at the fact that while landscape painting could be defined as a horizon crossed by a diagonal, it was a formula capable of expressing an endless variety of emotions.” —Jack Sanders