- The Washington Times - Friday, October 31, 2003

The exhibit “Clarice Smith: ReCollection 1978-2003,” a retrospective mix of old and new work by this distinguished local realist painter at the Art Gallery of the University of Maryland at College Park, dazzles at first glance.

Thirty-three traditional-style oil-on-canvas paintings line the walls of the dramatically lit 70-foot-long main gallery. Sensual, strongly brushed portraits of women line the wall to the left. A large enigmatic painting of a cocktail party is placed near the center back of the gallery, framed to the left by a Venetian gondola and at right by a gray Scottish landscape. Bunches of flower bouquets and vistas of empty patios and landscapes complete this part of the exhibit.

A smaller room behind the first gallery displays Mrs. Smith’s accomplished, often explosive, paintings of horses.

However, initial impressions can be deceiving. Although dazzling, the works convey deeper messages. These are no ordinary, happy realist paintings. It’s true Mrs. Smith shows what she calls “my world”: portraits of friends and acquaintances, scenes of travel to Europe, and flowers and horses from the Smith family farm in Upperville, Va. Surprisingly and effectively, however, she distills these images into silent works filled with mystery and solitude. They invite contemplation.

Even the portraits present figures that appear isolated and lonely, as if something is about to happen. The artist reveals their inner, rather than outer, lives. She dispenses with people altogether in her empty scenes of Venice, Scotland and unfilled outdoor tables and chairs on resort patios in France. The bunches of flowers, too, in full bloom imply their eventual disintegration and emptiness.

Martin Weyl, director of Jerusalem’s Israel Museum, where Mrs. Smith showed in 1988, said at the time that there was even more than mystery and loneliness in the exhibition. These qualities, he wrote in the exhibit’s catalog, spill over into “intimations of life and death.”

Now a mature artist and resident of Virginia, Mrs. Smith says she has loved painting since she was a child, but she put off serious painting until the 1970s, after she had raised her three children. She studied at George Washington University, where she earned her bachelor of fine arts and master of fine arts degrees. Her husband of 50 years is Robert H. Smith, a prominent real estate developer and arts philanthropist who just retired as president of the National Gallery of Art. In 1986, a traveling exhibition of Mrs. Smith’s art toured seven U.S. museums.

Mrs. Smith’s signature enigmatic magic infuses “Michelle,” a 1985 portrait — one of her most moving — of her daughter. Michelle, a young woman, stands alone in a woodland setting, silently lost in her thoughts. The painter places her in a three-quarter pose, looking out of the picture. Michelle wears light lavender slacks, a black shirt and a loose jacket topped by a round-brimmed light purple straw hat. She looks down, away from the viewer.

As contemplative as Michelle seems, the painting is about more than introspective reverie. Wildflowers and blossoms from water plants leaning diagonally from a tiny, gold-flecked pool create a charming background design. Mrs. Smith used a two-dimensional stylization, which resembles Japanese patternings, to create electrified tensions with the rounded, three-dimensional figure.

Much has been written about the artist’s inspirations from such 19th-century heavyweights as Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, Edouard Manet, John Singer Sargent and James McNeill Whistler. Art historian Lenore Miller writes in the exhibit catalog that Mrs. Smith modeled her arresting “Self Portrait” (1979) after Ingres’ “Mme. Paul-Sigisbert Moitessier, nee Marie-Clotilde-Ines de Foucauld, Standing,” an 1851 portrait in the collection of the National Gallery of Art.

Yes, there are Ingres’ contrasts of the background patterning and black dress of both “sitters.” Mrs. Smith also paints herself as a well-to-do woman of the world — like Ingres’ Mme. Moitessier — complete with folded dress-up fan, white gloves and jewels. But with the mesmerizing gaze of her “Self Portrait,” she puts her individual stamp on an old master. Engagement with self and direct involvement with the old masters ends here, and the subjects become loneliness and life quietly colliding with death.

In 1999, Mrs. Smith traveled to the Isle of Harris in Scotland and came away with renderings of its desolation and leaden, gray skies. Ten years earlier, she captured the threatening darkness of Venice’s canals in winter and created “Continuum,” a limited-edition artist book of Venetian scenes for the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Although the theme of isolation is strong, not all the paintings portray solitude. Mrs. Smith has a way with animals as well as people. She paints horses calmly grazing, as well as horses thundering directly at viewers in “Dead Heat” (1999) and “Two Jockey’s Front” (1995).

This has been an exhibition long in coming, a tribute to an exceptional artist

WHAT: “Clarice Smith: ReCollection 1978-2003”

WHERE: Art Gallery, University of Maryland, 1202 Art/Sociology Building, College Park

WHEN: 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Thursday through Dec. 13

TICKETS: Free

PHONE: 301/405-2763

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