Henri-Joseph Johns’s James Smithson

Meet the Artists of Alexander von Humboldt and the United States: Art, Nature, and Culture

A portrait of a man sitting.

Henri-Joseph Johns, James Smithson, May 11, 1816, gouache on ivory, 3 x 2 3/4 in., National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; transfer from the National Museum of American History, Conserved with funds from the Smithsonian Women's Committee, NPG.85.44.

About this Artwork

James Smithson had just spent close to a year in Paris, socializing with Humboldt and his fellow scientists, when he had this portrait made. A talented chemist, Smithson had caught Humboldt’s attention in 1790 when the two men first met in London. With his bequest, Smithson founded what Humboldt called “the admirable Smithsonian institution.” The Smithsonian, in turn, made sure Humboldt received all of the institution’s publications, communicating with him through Humboldt’s hand-picked ambassador to the United States, Johann Gottfried Flügel, who was also the Smithsonian’s agent in Europe.