Born in Boston in 1727, John Greenwood began his artistic career in 1742 as an apprentice to Thomas Johnston, who taught him to engrave bookplates and heraldic devices. He began painting portraits by 1747. The approximately fifty paintings that he made in the Boston area during the next five years represent formally posed sitters in attitudes and settings reminiscent of the work of English painter John Smibert, who had settled in Boston in 1730. The colors of some of Greenwood's portraits suggest that he also knew the work of Robert Feke.
Greenwood's later work has not been fully studied. He left Boston in 1752 for the Dutch colony of Surinam, in South America, where he painted 115 portraits of residents and of the New England sea captains who visited the port. He recorded these in a memorandum book (New-York Historical Society). None of his work from these years is located today (1993), with the exception of Sea Captains Carousing at Surinam (c. 1758; The Saint Louis Art Museum), which reveals in its lampooning content the direct influence of William Hogarth's engraving, A Midnight Modern Conversation. In 1758 Greenwood went to Amsterdam, where he worked as a portrait painter and engraver for five years and also became an auctioneer and dealer. In the 1760's he settled in London, where he became a member of the Society of Artists of Great Britain and exhibited at the members' annual exhibition from 1764 to 1776. In 1770, realizing that he would not return to America, he commissioned John Singleton Copley to paint a portrait of his mother, Mrs. Humphrey Devereux (National Gallery of Art, Wellington, New Zealand), one of Copley's most sympathetic portraits. Greenwood became a successful dealer and auctioneer and spent the rest of his life in London. He died in Margate, England, in 1792. [This is an edited version of the artist's biography published in the NGA Systematic Catalogue]
Greenwood, Isaac John. The Greenwood Family of Norwich, England, in America. Concord, New Hampshire, 1934: 57-67.
Burroughs, Alan. John Greenwood in America, 1745-1752. Andover, Massachusetts, 1943.
Saunders and Miles 1987, 170-175.
Miles, Ellen G. American Paintings of the Eighteenth Century. The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue. Washington, D.C., 1995: 104-105.