Jennifer Lee's entry on Alfred Hart's portrait of Berkeley blends a solid understanding of the historical aspects of this image with contemporary references that help place why the desire for this copy would have been especially appealing for the Redwood Library collection.
Alfred A. Hart, Reverend George Berkeley (after Smibert), ca. 1858, oil on canvas, 30 x 25 (76.2 x 63.5 cm)
Gift of Charles H. Olmsted
Painted in 1858, Alfred A. Hart’s Bishop George Berkeley is a testament to the continued importance of Berkley’s legacy to Newport as an economic and cultural center in Colonial America. Born in Killerin, Ireland, writer and philosopher George Berkeley (1685-1753) gained considerable notoriety for his An Essay Toward a New Theory of Vision (1709), A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge (1710), and Three Dialogues Between Hylas and Philonous (1713). By the 1720s—and fearful the England was falling to ruin—Berkeley had begun formulating plans to start a Christian community outside of England where he could establish a college. He chose the colony of Bermuda due to its agreeable climate and abundance of resources; a royal charter was granted in 1725 and Berkeley and his entourage sailed in 1728. Determined to create an area of study where he could educate the “savages” on Christianity, but lacking the necessary funding to begin, Berkeley and his shipmates—including the painter John Smibert—remained in Newport from 1729-1731.
Although Berkeley’s residence made Newport an intellectual and artistic center, it was Smibert’s painting that announced this forcefully and heralded the arrival of the fine arts to a colonial culture largely devoid of trained painters. During Berkeley’s brief tenure he introduced the fine arts to America and helped found the Newport Philosophical Society, the forerunner of the Redwood Library. Alfred Hart’s painting, which used Smibert’s depiction of Berkeley from The Bermuda Group (1729-1731) as its model, demonstrates the painting’s popularity and importance even to a nineteenth century audience. Hart would have seen The Bermuda Group on display at the Yale College where it had been since 1808. More than just simply a record of Berkeley’s visit, the painting came to stand for the beginning of the fine arts in America and secured Newport’s importance as a colonial port.
Smibert’s reputation, both in the United States and England, was indebted to his travels with Berkeley and The Bermuda Group and the painting was revered as a singular contribution to the evolution of the arts in America. As early as 1762, in his Anecdotes of Painting in England, Horace Walpole remarked on Smibert’s time with Berkeley’s “uncertain but amusing scheme.” By 1818, antiquarian Gulian Verplanck noted that while the painting was “not one of Smibert’s best” he presumed “it is the first painting of more than a single figure ever painted in the United States.” By 1855, just around the time that Hart executed his copy, the critic and historian Henry Tuckerman informed readers that “The visit of Smibert and associates Berkeley’s name with the dawn of art in America.” Berkeley’s importance to Newport’s legacy and The Bermuda Group’s stature as a painting would have resonated with audiences and made this a particularly fitting image for the library’s collection.
Annals of the Redwood Library and Athenaeum, Newport, R.I.: Redwood Library, 1891.
Berkeley, George. The Works of George Berkeley Part One. Whitefish: Kessinger Publishing, 2004.
Gaustad, Edwin S. “George Berkeley and New World Community.” Church History 48 (March 1979).
Tuckerman, Henry T. “Berkeley’s Visit to America.” Home Journal 2 (January 1855).