Born in Edinburgh, Scotland, from 1702 to 1709, he was apprenticed to a house painter & plasterer there. In 1709, he left for London. He worked between Edinburgh and London for the next 10 years.
As the economy grew grim in Edinburgh, he decided to visit Paris and Italy. He arrived in Italy in 1719, copied master paintings in Florence and Rome before returning to London. In Italy, he met Dean George Berkeley (1685-1753) who invited Smibert to go to the colonies to help establish a scholarly community and academy.
By 1722, Smibert had a studio in London and was considered a leading portraitist. By this time, Kneller was sick and no longer painting, so there was room for new portraitists to emerge. In 1725, Smibert moved his studio into the heart of London's arts district in Covent Garden, but he eventually decided to join Gerorge Berkeley in his colonial adventure.
Smibert arrived in Boston in 1728, as part of Berkeley's venture to establish an academy in Bermuda, where Smibert was to be the professor of painting. The proposed scholarly adventure was commemorated with his influential group portrait 1728 Bermuda Group painting. The visionary utopian scholarly academy, however, never materialized. Berkeley left, but Smibert remained in the colonies.
Smibert made his living as the portraitist of Boston's leading citizens & as the owner of a shop that sold prints and artists' supplies. He is said to be the first academically trained painter to carve out a career as a portraitist in colonial America.
In 1729, Smibert moved to Boston, where he married Mary Williams, a wealthy heiress with solid social connections. He became a quick success with some of his clients coming from Old South Church, a powerful Congregational church, where he worshipped. In the first 5 years of his residency, he completed almost 100 portraits, each one earning him 40 guineas.
However, there was little opportunity for further art training in Boston in those days, and as his painting continued, he became formulaic, predictable, and less popular. In 1734, he opened a shop, which he ran for the next 30 years, where he sold artist colors, catering to hobbyists, young painters, and even house painters. His 1734 announcement stated: "John Smibert, painter, sells all sorts of colours, dry or ground, with oils and brushes...Wholesale or retail at reasonable rates, at his house in Queen-Street, between the Town-House and the orange tree, Boston."
He also sold copies of Old Master paintings, sculptures, and engravings; did renditions of coats of arms; and gave some art instruction to hopeful young artists including John Trumbull (1756-1843).