The Discovery of Charles Augustus Smith
One of the best things about seeing what an estate sale client would like to sell or an appraisal client wants a valuation on is discovering an item or artist that prior to that had been unknown or undiscovered for a period of time. That discovery is usually followed by an exciting investigative process and ultimately an incredible learning experience. Such was the case with a painting by twentieth century artist Charles Augustus Smith.
A client of Dix & Doherty’s had discovered four paintings in a box in the back of a closet in the home of their deceased mother. There were two framed works of oil on Masonite board and two framed floral paintings on paper, one under glass. All four works were signed Chas Augustus Smith. An initial internet search by our client yielded only a single auction record for Smith: an oil work dubbed “Ethereal Cityscape” by the auction house, located in New York state, that sold in March of 2012. The client could obtain no other auction records without having a paid subscription to one of the auction record sites. Anxious to learn if the painting(s) had any value, they turned to Dix & Doherty for an appraisal.
We visited the client’s home for a free consultation and it was mutually decided that we would appraise one of the oils on board. It was a colorful, dreamlike depiction of an underwater seascape. So began the search: just who was Charles Augustus Smith?
Portrait of Charles Augustus Smith by Cornelia Cotton
An advanced search turned up two interesting leads. The first was a review in the New York Times of a group show entitled, “From the Garden” in Chappaqua, New York in which two of Smith’s works were featured. The article was dated July 2, 2000 and contained some very promising information: “The show, which consists of 30 works by nine local artists, contains more than a few surprises, most notably the work of Charles Augustus Smith. Besides his commercial work, Mr. Smith also managed to produce a large number of curious fine-art paintings. His works from the 1940’s, which mix the experimental approach of Max Ernst with the dreaminess of Odilon Redon’s imagery, was inspired by the poetry of Emily Dickinson”. So we knew now the time frame in which Smith worked and the fact that he had also been a commercial artist.
Our second lead was a link to a post featuring four photographs from the Mikhail Zakin Gallery dated August 6, 2007. The gallery had hosted a one-man show of the artist’s work entitled, “The Reemergence of Charles Augustus Smith” and a caption read: “This retrospective exhibition spans the 35 year career of Charles Augustus Smith. Eighteen oil paintings are on exhibit from the private collection of the artist's longtime friend, Peter Flaum.” Given the fact we knew Smith worked in the 1940’s, it was unlikely the artist was still alive in 2017. But now we had a possible contact, Peter Flaum, someone who had a private collection of Smith’s works. Our next goal was to find out who Peter Flaum was; how did he come to own a collection of Smith’s paintings and could he tell us more about Smith?
Photograph of Smith and Flaum likely taken in New York City
Unfortunately, we were saddened to discover via an online obituary that Flaum had passed away the year prior almost to the day of when we were making this inquiry. Since up to this point we had been unable to learn anything further about Smith, found no obituary for him, and knew nothing of his commercial work or biography, we felt it necessary to seek out relatives of Peter Flaum. We were eventually able to locate his widow and secure a phone number for her. We left a detailed message and, to our delight, not only did she respond but she graciously consented to our visiting her home and interviewing her about Charles Augustus Smith. She also made reference to having a large archive of Smith’s work, including his commercial work. This had the potential to be a major breakthrough!
Some examples of Smith's Commercial Work
What we knew prior to meeting Mrs. Flaum, was that her late husband had been a respected and well-known chiropractor and an artist as well, having turned his focus to painting after his retirement. During our interview, we learned that it was Flaum’s uncle, who was something of a Renaissance man, who first introduced the young Flaum to Charles Augustus Smith in New York City. Years later, finding himself back in downtown New York as an adult, Flaum remembered meeting Smith and sought him out. He called Smith, who invited Flaum over to his apartment, and thus began a close friendship that lasted until Smith’s passing in 1986.
Peter Flaum had been made executor of Smith’s estate and had inherited his works and archives. We had the privilege of examining and photographing these materials and seeing many of Smith’s beautiful and unique paintings during our interview with Mrs. Flaum. In addition to showing us examples of Smith’s earlier commercial graphics work which included assignments for The Rainbow Room, Rumpelmayer’s at the St. Moritz, Vogue’s pattern book and the creation of greeting cards, she provided us with the transcript of an interview her husband had conducted with Smith in 1970 in which Smith talked about his career, his work, his influences and his opinion of the state of the art world at that time. Invaluable among the archives were press releases, correspondence, newspaper articles and Smith’s own lists which made reference to the many exhibitions, both group and solo, in which he participated during his career.
The archives revealed he had shown at the famed Whitney Museum Annual three years in a row in 1947, ‘48 and ‘49, so off we went to the Whitney Museum Archives to examine supporting evidence. There we located the catalogs for all three years. The listings for Smith’s paintings were alongside such notables in the exhibitions as Marc Chagall, Jackson Pollock, Georgia O’Keeffe, Willem DeKooning and many, many more. We also learned Smith won the prestigious John Barton Payne Medal for his painting “Forever is Composed of Nows” at The Virginia Museum’s Sixth Biennial Exhibition of Contemporary American Paintings in 1948, beating out works by such well-known artists as Edward Hopper, Max Ernst, Ben Shahn and Max Weber. And it was a single line in a press release that led us to another great discovery. Apparently, Smith’s winning piece had made the cover of The Art Digest and we were able to find that actual magazine at The New York Public Library.
During our investigative process, we often rely on help from museum and gallery curatorial staff and this case was no different. We received prompt and helpful information from representatives of the both the Springfield Museum’s D’Amour Museum of Fine Arts & George Walter Vincent Smith Art Museum in Massachusetts and The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond, each confirming that they still had a Charles Augustus Smith painting in their permanent collections. This was even more interesting and exciting information to add to our findings.
So, what started out as an examination of paintings by an artist unknown to us, became the intriguing investigation and unfolding of a fascinating career, and exposure to the beautiful and often mysterious paintings of Charles Augustus Smith. We have included a link to a brief biography of the artist that we compiled from our inquiry. We hope you enjoy it!
Lombardi, D. Dominick, “Show of Floral Works, Some Inspired by Poetry”, The New York Times, July 2, 2000.