Portrait of General Keith MacAlister

c. 1800–1810
(British, 1741–1811)
Support: Cream(3) wove paper
Image: 13.2 x 11.4 cm (5 3/16 x 4 1/2 in.); Sheet: 17.4 x 14 cm (6 7/8 x 5 1/2 in.)
Location: not on view
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Did You Know?

Sketches helped John Smart work out the particulars of a portrait before commencing the miniature on ivory; they were useful in the event that a duplicate might later be required.


Although it is impossible to say if it was always part of the artist’s process to execute a preparatory sketch prior to painting each miniature, we do know that John Smart retained many hundreds of these sketches. A great number were inherited by his son John James Smart, who in turn left them to his daughter Mary Ann Bose. Upon her death in 1934, they were divided between three of her children: William Henry Bose, Lilian Dyer, and Mabel Annie Busteed.
General MacAlister is represented in three-quarter view, bust length, and facing the right. His eyes are blue, but the right eye is clouded and lighter in color than the left. There is no sign of isolated damage or fading, confirming that this color difference was among MacAlister’s physical attributes. He wears a brown coat; white, frilled vest edged in black; tall collar; and a white cravat tied in a bow. His closely cropped hair is powdered, and an unidentified rocky landscape through which a small river runs is painted in the background; it probably represents a place of personal significance in Scotland or India, possibly even Seringapatam and the Cauvery River. Smart depicted MacAlister inside of a penciled oval tromp l’oeil frame. The drawing is replete with physically informative details and is larger and more finished than drawings intended to function exclusively as preparatory sketches, though it may also have served this purpose. Beneath the elaborate penciled border is written in large graphite script “Genl Macalester.” This inscription is not in the artist’s hand and almost certainly a later addition. A Colnaghi label was removed from the verso after the work entered the museum’s collection.
The sitter is likely Major-General Keith MacAlister (1746–1820) of the Madras Cavalry. He was the eldest of three soldier brothers who served with distinction in India. MacAlister was born at Skerrinish in the Isle of Skye and ascended through the ranks rapidly following his appointment as cadet in 1777. He became captain in 1796; lieutenant-colonel in 1799; colonel in 1809; and major-general in 1812. He is celebrated particularly for his role in the 1799 storming and capture of Seringapatam, a decisive battleground in the Fourth Anglo-Mysore War, and for rescuing his brother Matthew from a long imprisonment in the same city. MacAlister was also instrumental in organizing the Madras Light Cavalry.5 Smart’s portrait of MacAlister would have been painted between 1800 and 1810, when the sitter was an older man and had returned to England before settling in Scotland.
The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art owns a Smart portrait on ivory called Keith Michael Alexander, dated 1810. Although he wears a military uniform rather than civilian clothes, the sitter is identical to the one in the Cleveland drawing—note in particular the differently colored eyes and the blue veins at the left temple. Although it was painted in 1810, possibly some years after the Cleveland sketch, the sitter’s hair loss is more pronounced in the earlier drawing. This inconsistency can be explained by the fact that Regency fashion called for men to comb their hair forward, thereby obscuring baldness, as seen here. Otherwise, the portraits are so similar that it is likely that Smart was consulting the earlier finished drawing when executing the 1810 miniature in ivory.
Both “General Macalister” and “Colonel Keith Michael Alexander” are listed by Daphne Foskett among Smart’s sitters, but she reproduces images only of the latter Nelson-Atkins miniature. No additional portraits of the period depicting gentlemen of either name have been discovered at this time. The Nelson-Atkins ivory has been called Keith Michael Alexander by tradition at least since it was in the Mr. and Mrs. John W. Starr collection before entering the museum in 1958. However, the miniature has not been removed from the frame since its acquisition, and there is no evidence of an inscription. It is likely that Keith Michael Alexander is a mistaken interpretation of the name Keith MacAlister, particularly because no record of a soldier by the name of Keith Michael Alexander has been discovered.
Portrait of General Keith MacAlister

Portrait of General Keith MacAlister

c. 1800–1810

John I Smart

(British, 1741–1811)
England, 18th century

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