Green-Wood Collects: Smillies

The Green-Wood Historic Fund continues to collect items that help us tell the stories of the cemetery’s history and its permanent residents.

Just weeks ago, we were able to purchase four carte de visite photographs of members of the Smillie family. As you will read below, these were important purchases for our collections.

Green-Wood was chartered by New York State on April 18, 1838. Less than a decade later, in 1846, its first history, Green-Wood Illustrated, written by Nehemiah Cleaveland and illustrated by James Smillie (1807-1885), was published. Smillie’s work was described on the title page of that book as “highly finished line engraving from drawings taken on the spot by James Smillie.” Smillie, who was born and trained as an engraver in Scotland, specialized in landscapes, but also worked extensively engraving bank-notes. He was elected to the National Academy of Design in 1851. Here are two of Smillie’s fine illustrations for Green-Wood Illustrated:

This is James Smillie's "View From Battle Hill," published in 1846. That hill, a key part of Green-Wood today, now offers a spectacular view of the Manhattan skyline and New York Harbor.
James Smillie's engraving of Green-Wood's "Ocean Hill."

And that’s where we pick up the Smillie trail. James Smillie purchased his lot 1275 on Ocean Hill at Green-Wood in 1846. Did he purchase a lot right near where the above drawing was made because he was taken by the view from this last of the hills at Green-Wood, from which the flatlands of Brooklyn may be viewed? Did he purchase this lot in 1846 with the payment for his engravings for Green-Wood Illustrated? Perhaps–we don’t know.

Here is the carte de visite photograph of James Smillie that we just have purchased:

Engraver James Smillie. Unfortunately, someone did a very poor "repair" to his mouth in this image.

And here’s what the Smillie Family Lot looks like today:

The Smillie Family Lot, 300 square feet, was purchased in 1846, the same year that "Green-Wood Illustrated," featuring James Smillie's engravings, was published. Note the green-blue roof of the Whitney Tomb at top left, just above the large Smillie stone.

Smillie married Catherine Van Valkenburg , who is also interred in that lot. Here is her carte de visite:

Catherine Van Valkenburg Smillie (1809-1887), wife of engraver James Smillie and mother of artists James David Smillie and George Henry Smillie.

And here’s a photograph of their gravestones–wife and husband, side by side:

The gravestones of Catherine and James Smillie.

Two of their children became artists. This is one of them, James David Smillie (1833-1909), as shown in the carte de visite we recently purchased of him:

Painter James David Smillie.

James David Smillie studied engraving with his father and art at the National Academy of Design. He was elected to the National Academy in 1876 and was a founder and president of the National Water Color Society. And here is one of his paintings, from our Historic Fund Collections:

This painting by James David Smillie is in The Green-Wood Historic Fund's Collections.

Another son, George Henry Smillie (1840-1921), also was an artist. George was taught by his father and painter James M. Hart (who also is interred at Green-Wood). He was elected to the National Academy of Design in 1882. He specialized in scenes of the New England coast. This is George:

Painter George Henry Smillie.

And, one of his paintings from our Historic Fund Collections:

A good example of George Henry Smillie's work.

Quite a family of artists!


4 thoughts on “Green-Wood Collects: Smillies”

  1. Love your blog! Each month I learn something new about art, history etc. Particularly enjoyed your story on John La Farge. I went to BC with Bill Varieka and remember well his enthusiasm when telling me about his discovery of the stained glass artist who did the windows in Trinity Church, Boston. Who knew at the time it would become his life’s work! Of course, then I discovered Green Wood and felt like I was visiting an old friend when I saw his vault…Thanks for the story on the Smillies!

  2. Thanks! Glad you like the Green-Wood Discovery Blog. Much going on, much to discover, much more to come!

    • Hi Ralph! A friend of mine has a painting I believe to be painted by James Smillie (b. 1807). It is a copy of Thomas Cole’s Voyage of Life Youth (which I am aware he engraved). It is nearly identical to the oil painting in Vassar’s collection that is listed as being painted by James Smillie, though I can find no other evidence of James Smillie actually painting anything. I know his son was a painter. As a descendant, do you have any information on this? I can send a photo of the painting if you’d like.


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