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A Century of Giving

Françis-Xavier Fabre

Joseph Allen Smith seated above the Arno, contemplating Florence


oil on canvas, 70.9 x 90.5 cm

The Fitzwilliam Museum: PD.16-1984

This elegantly dressed gentleman, enjoying a view of Florence and the River Arno, is Joseph Allen Smith: an American who travelled extensively in Europe between 1793 and 1807. Allen Smith was an aspiring diplomat who travelled not just as a tourist, but as a representative of the world's first republic.

Surrounded by fragments of classical architecture, he relaxes against the base of a column decorated with hieroglyphics. His crisp profile and artfully arranged drapery suggest the effect of an antique cameo.

The artist, François-Xavier Fabre, was French - a pupil of the great neo-classical painter David - and one of a large group of foreign artists living and working in Italy who produced portraits for wealthy grand tourists.

Like their British aristocratic contemporaries - including the founder of the Fitzwilliam Museum itself - well-connected young Americans toured round Europe in order to form a 'correct taste' in the arts. After visiting Italy, Allen Smith is said to be the first documented American tourist to reach Russia and mainland Greece.

He was also the first American to form an art collection directly from Italian sources. Although much of this collection was sadly lost at sea, he gave the remainder to the newly founded Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia, with the intention that it should benefit the public.

The artist, Fabre, also donated his own substantial art collection to Montpelier, the town of his birth. It formed the basis of the Musée Fabre, which opened in 1828, with Fabre as its first Director.

This striking portrait, rich in contemporary cultural references, was given by the Friends of the Fitzwilliam in 1984 in celebration of their own 75th anniversary.

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