Charles Augustus Smith Biography

April 23, 2017

  

Portrait of Charles Augustus Smith by Cornelia Cotton 

 

Charles Augustus Smith was an artist whose work played a notable role in the emergence of modern art in post-WWII 20th Century and who continues to be recognized for his unique talents even into the 21st Century.  He was born on January 11, 1897 in Hempstead, Long Island, New York.  His mother had come to the United States as a governess from County Galway, Ireland.  His father was a native of Hempstead who had an inn called Whaley House on Main Street.  (At the beginning of the 19th Century, Smith’s great grandmother had a farm in Oceanside, Long Island.)  Smith started his education at a private school, The Fleet School.  It was there he was introduced to the beauty of nature by the two women who ran the school.  These women were nature lovers who had beautiful gardens to which Smith was exposed.  However, it was in public school where he became interested in art and won First and Second prizes for works he entered in the Mineola State Fair.  But after being adorned with ecstatic kisses from his proud teachers, Smith was so mortified he stopped painting for two years.

 

Smith left public school at age fourteen and went to work at John Wanamaker department store but continued his schooling at Wanamaker’s Commercial Institute, where workers were taught finance, bookkeeping, math and English. He attended the Institute for four years and continued working for the department store for twelve years, from 1912 until 1924.  He worked as a messenger in the upholstering department, then was promoted to stock boy in the wallpaper department, then advanced to junior clerk in the accounting department and, finally, was made a decorator.  He decorated lampshades and the like.  Smith spent just two weeks at the National Academy (founded in New York City as the National Academy of Design) but could not remain as he had to continue to find work to earn a living.  He also took one year of life classes in 1915 at the Brooklyn studio of Francis Mueller and went on to attend the New York School of Industrial Arts, five nights a week and Saturdays, for eight years from 1916 until 1924.  Said Smith himself, he initially had no use for painting, instead wanting to be a famous commercial artist.  One of his instructors was Carl Link, the German-American artist and commercial illustrator.

 

Smith opened his first studio to do freelance commercial work at 244 West 14th Street in New York City’s Greenwich Village.  While he believed he wasn’t strong enough an artist to sustain freelance work and wanted instead to land a steady job, he ended up becoming successful to the point of being unable to handle all the work.  Smith was doing mostly fashion illustration at this time.  He designed wedding gowns for Marshall Field department store and illustrations for Vogue’s pattern book.  Later in life he said he was almost sorry he didn’t go into millinery design.  Smith also illustrated for The Rainbow Room, Rumpelmayer’s—the famous café and ice cream parlor in New York’s Hotel St. Moritz, Casino on the Park in the Essex House and for the Terrace Room in the Hotel New Yorker. He also illustrated greeting cards.

 

 "In the Name of the Bee"

Circa 1940's

Charles Augustus Smith

Held in a Private Collection in New Jersey

 

But, in mid-career, the focus of Smith’s work shifted dramatically.  For it was then he happened upon a volume of Emily Dickinson’s poems.  The exposure to the details of her life and work so profoundly moved him that he changed his earlier attitude about painting and began creating works inspired by Dickinson.  Smith said, “...I found myself spending hour after hour, going over her poems and reading about her life in Amherst, Massachusetts.  Soon, I wanted to do on canvas what she had done on paper.”[1]  His many paintings were titled with lines from Dickinson’s works: “In the Name of the Bee”, “Forever is Composed of Nows”, “And When I Looked Again”, “Behind Me Dips Eternity” and many, many more.  Smith later explained, “I paint from memory, and all my work is inspired by the life and poetry of Emily Dickinson... I have no desire to imitate or illustrate Emily’s art.  Through my own, I hope to capture her spirit.”[2]  Smith’s work became an examination of inner space, and as artist and gallery owner Cornelia Cotton said of it in 1977, “The result was an outpouring of romantic paintings, lyrical and elegiac.” When describing the act of painting to longtime friend Peter Flaum in an interview, Smith explained, “It is the mistake of thousands, painting what they see.  The painter’s reality is what he feels.” 

 

It was this very attitude of exploring spontaneity and automatism, creating through free association, mining the deep subconscious and examining the act of painting itself that in the post-war years of the mid-1940’s was emerging in the contemporary art world and would come to lay the foundation for the modern art explosion of the second half of the 20th century.  Beginning with the group of Surrealist emigres who had escaped the tyranny of Hitler in Europe by coming to the United States and later with their influence on the pioneering American Abstract Expressionists, these years were described by Martica Sawin in her book, Surrealism in Exile and the Beginning of the New York School, as “a golden age in modern American art.”  Explains Sawin, “...the milieu in which these two groups of artists connected with each other—that is, art dealers, curators, patrons, critics and a diversified intellectual community—provided feedback and a support system that reinforced the experimental directions in which the young Americans were moving.” Charles Augustus Smith was there in the midst of all that, both literally and figuratively.  Having moved to a fifth floor walk-up on East 15th Street, Smith was neighbor to these influential artists:  Marcel Duchamp and William Baziotes lived on 14th Street, Andre Breton on 11th Street.  Roberto Matta was on 9th Street, Jackson Pollock on 8th Street and Arshile Gorky was on Union Square.  Robert Motherwell and Gerome Kamrowski were also residents of Greenwich Village.[3]  More importantly, Smith was also surrounded by these greats as his work hung alongside theirs in some of the most important exhibitions of the period.  For three years running, 1947-1949, his work was accepted into the Whitney Museum’s Annual Exhibition of Contemporary American Painting.  Smith’s “Between Eternity and Time” was submitted in 1947, “And Mists Are Carved Away” in 1948 and in 1949, “In the Name of the Bee”.  The list of artists who also showed at the Whitney Annual those years reads like a who’s who of the modern art movement: Gorky, Baziotes, Willem deKooning, Max Ernst, Adolph Gottlieb, Matta, Charles Seliger, Kurt Seligmann, Yves Tanguy, Theodoros Stamos, Jimmy Ernst, Hans Hofmann, Max Beckmann, Boris Margo, Motherwell, Kamrowski, Pollock, Georgia O’Keefe, Mark Rothko, John Sennhauser; the list goes on.  Smith also exhibited at the Corcoran Gallery Biennial in 1947.

 

 Smith’s work has been alternately described as surrealistic, expressionistic, and abstract.  It is clear that it defies categorization.  But it is quite evident that he has explored the same themes and techniques as his Post-War contemporaries: the telluric—relating to the earth—like Andre Masson, Matta and Max Ernst, the biomorphic examination of plant forms like Kamrowski, Seliger and Jimmy Ernst, the study of morphology, referring to “...the form and structure of an organism considered as a whole, that is, inner and outer, as it evolves and changes”[4], again, as did Roberto Matta.  When two of his works appeared in a group show titled “From the Garden” at the Chappaqua Library Gallery in 2000, the New York Times said, “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...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”.[5]

 

Other renowned venues which exhibited works by Smith included The New York Historical Society, The National Academy, The National Arts Club, The Pennsylvania Academy, The Carnegie Institute, The Toledo Museum, The Rochester Memorial Art Gallery, The Delgado Museum and The American Academy of Arts and Letters.  In 1948, Smith’s painting “Forever is Composed of Nows” was the John Barton Payne Medal winner at The Virginia Museum’s Sixth Biennial Exhibition of Contemporary American Paintings, beating out works by such well-known artists as Edward Hopper, Max Ernst, Ben Shahn and Max Weber.  The selection jury recommended the museum purchase Smith’s painting and it graced the cover of the May 1, 1948 issue of The Art Digest.  (Though, in what must have been a huge disappointment, the magazine got Smith’s first name wrong on the cover.)  Inside the issue, Alonzo Lansford described “Forever...” as an “extraordinarily fine” work.  To this day, it remains with The Virginia Museum of Art as part of their permanent collection.  Smith’s painting “And When I Looked Again” is also in the permanent collection of the George Walter Vincent Smith Museum in Springfield, Massachusetts after having been presented to the institution following Smith’s one man show there in 1953.  Smith had numerous other one man shows including at Regina Gallery (1955) and Fleischman Gallery (1959) in New York City, Wave Hill Center in Riverdale, New York City (1977), as well as a unique solo exhibition on NBC-TV’s “The Today Show” on August 27, 1971, when stage and screen actress Marian Seldes recited the title poems of Emily Dickinson as Smith’s images were displayed.

 

Posthumous solo exhibits of Smith’s work included the show, “Inspirations by Emily Dickinson” in 1983 at the Herter Art Gallery at the University of Massachusetts, in Emily Dickinson’s hometown of Amherst, MA and most recently, “The Reemergence of Charles Augustus Smith” at the Mikhail Zakin Gallery at Old Church in Demarest, New Jersey in 2007.

 

Charles Augustus Smith died in 1986 at age 89 in New York City.  His easel and stool remain at the home of his longtime friend, the late Peter Flaum. As Flaum used to say to those he was bringing to see Smith’s work, “Be prepared to fall in love.”

 

 

Signature of Charles Augustus Smith  

 

 

 

[1] Leahy, Jack, “Mainly for Seniors: The Poetess and the Painter...a Love Story”, Publication Unknown, April 1970.

 

[2] Cotton, Cornelia, Press Release for “Charles Augustus Smith – Paintings” exhibition at Herter Art Gallery, Herter Hall, University of Massachusetts, MA, January 16-28, 1983.

 

[3] Sawin, Martica, Surrealism in Exile and the Beginning of the New York School, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MA, ISBN 0-262-19360-4, 1995.

 

[4]Sawin, Martica, Surrealism in Exile and the Beginning of the New York School, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MA, ISBN 0-262-19360-4, 1995

 

[5]Lombardi, D. Dominick, “Show of Floral Works, Some Inspired by Poetry”, The New York Times, July 2, 2000.

 

Sources:

Brown, Hunter, Jacobus, Rosenblum, Sokol, American Art: painting, sculpture, architecture, decorative arts, photography., Harry N. Abrams, Inc., New York, 1979.

 

Catalog for the “1947 Annual Exhibition of Contemporary American Painting” at the Whitney Museum of American Art, December 6, 1947-January 25, 1948.

 

Catalog for the “1948 Annual Exhibition of Contemporary American Painting” at the Whitney Museum of American Art, November 13, 1948-January 2, 1949.

 

Catalog for the “1949 Annual Exhibition of Contemporary American Painting” at the Whitney Museum of American Art, December 16, 1949-February 5, 1950.

 

Catalog for “Charles Augustus Smith” exhibition at The George Walter Vincent Smith Art Museum, Springfield, MA, October 4-25, 1953.

 

Catalog for “Exhibition of Contemporary American Painting by Non-Members” at The National Arts Club Galleries, New York, NY, March 6-April 7, 1946.

 

Clarke, Racquel, “An Abstract Artist Gets Due Respect”, The Record, August 8, 2007.

 

Cotton, Cornelia, Press Release for “Charles Augustus Smith – Paintings” exhibition at Herter Art Gallery, Herter Hall, University of Massachusetts, MA, January 16-28, 1983.

 

Faillace, Rachael, Press Release for “The Reemergence of Charles Augustus Smith” exhibition at the Mikhail Zakin Gallery at Old Church, Demarest, New Jersey, August 2-24, 2007.

 

Hingston, Sandy, “13 Things You Might Not Know About John Wanamaker”, Philadelphia Magazine, July 11, 2016, http://www.phillymag.com/news/2016/07/11/john-wanamaker-philadelphia-history/

 

Jenkins, Arya-Francesca, “An Exhibit Speaks to Friendship”, Northern Valley Suburbanite, July 11, 2007.

 

Lansford, Alonzo, “Virginia Biennial Presents Vital View of American Painting”, The Art Digest, Vol.22, No. 15, May 1, 1948.

 

Leahy, Jack, “Mainly for Seniors: The Poetess and the Painter...a Love Story”, Publication Unknown, April 1970.

 

Lombardi, D. Dominick, “Show of Floral Works, Some Inspired by Poetry”, The New York Times, July 2, 2000.

 

Sawin, Martica, Surrealism in Exile and the Beginning of the New York School, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MA, ISBN 0-262-19360-4, 1995.

 

Transcript of interview with Charles Augustus Smith conducted by Peter Flaum, 1970.

 

 

 

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