Robert Smith

Robert Smith was an American artist who died in 1985.  When I knew him, he already was an elderly man.  He lived with his teenage son in Kettering, Ohio in a French chateau-type building that seemed the height of romance to a high school kid, which was what I was when we met.

Smith was in the habit of employing high school students as apprentices.  I was one of 3-4 apprentices for about 6 months during my senior year.  We worked hard for Smith and in exchange, he gave drawing and painting lessons.  More than anything else, seeing a full-time artist busy working his craft was a tremendous experience—one of the foundational events of my youth.

Smith worked us hard, like I said.  We swept and mopped the studio, cleaned the fireplace, and chopped wood.  Smith used his own home-made oil paints so we ground the pigments into his ‘secret sauce’ medium, and got the paint ready for use.  He kept the ground paint in cellophane.  He also built his own frames using an ingenious system of cardboard, plaster, linen, and pigment.  We spent a lot of times making those frames.

I wasn’t with him long enough to receive painting lessons, and he was careful not to let any of us see him actually painting.  We did get daily drawing lessons which have stood me in good stead ever since.  He would place fruit, vegetables, and whatnot into a small tableau   We would set ourselves around the still-life and work earnestly over our drawing boards. Smith would circulate among us, making observations about our efforts.  He insisted that our drawings consist of a series of parallel lines—all running in the same direction.  Vertical lines and planes had to be constructed from horizontal lines, or vice-versa.

I will always remember how respectfully, almost as if he was holding a holy relic, he would take a book of reproductions from his modest library.  As he turned the book’s pages, he talked to us in hushed, reverent tones about the paintings before us.

The Dayton Art Institute has several of his works, one of which I reproduce here.  Don’t try to find information about Smith from the Art Institute’s web site.  Searching for him produces nothing, although this paining is in their permanent collection and is currently on display, which is how I was able to take this photograph.  The Art Institute’s web site must be the worst in the country.

This painting is from early in his career.  If memory serves, the museum also has a large work that is reminiscent of Thomas Hart Benton’s work from the ‘30’s.  During the time I knew him, he was painting landscapes that were somewhat like those of Corot or Homer.  The last painting I saw in progress was a landscape with a trout fisherman in a stream.  Like Corot often did, Smith put a dab of red in the middle of all that green (the fisherman’s hat).


I salute you, Master.



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