Bold, Urgent Brushstrokes

The paintings of Matthew Smith have the drive of preliminary sketches

IN R.H. Wilenski's ``An Outline of English Painting,'' artist Matthew Smith receives somewhat curt attention. That author merely mentions him in passing: ``...the semi-aesthetic art of Sir Matthew Smith (1879-1958) who lived for years in Paris and can be considered an 'ecole de Paris painter.'' At the very least this amounts to a rather ill-considered assessment. It is, nevertheless, based on some grains of truth. There is no doubt that this Yorkshire-born artist was not only very much at home working in France, he was also an eager student of French art.

After a difficult struggle with parental limitations imposed on his ambition to be a painter, and after some inappropriate art school training in Britain, Smith found his way to Paul Gauguin's old stomping ground, Pont-Aven in Brittany, and there he felt free and individual as an artist. Later he spent a very brief time in Henri Matisse's atelier in Paris, just before its doors closed. And he frequented different parts of France throughout his career.

It is also arguably the case that certain ``givens'' of French art became taken-for-granted aspects of Smith's art. This is particularly true of his motifs. Reclining women, clothed or nude, still life subjects composed of unexceptional, but repeatedly rearranged studio props and fruit, occasional portraits, flowers in vases, and landscapes were the objects of his art, just as they had been for Pierre Auguste Renoir and Matisse. But subject matter wasn't really a central question; it wasn't the area in which Smith's originality lay.

Nor do such subjects belong solely to French art. Smith's reclining women were doubtless 20th-century descendents of the figures of Fran,cois Boucher, the French 18th-century painter; but they are also unimaginable without the example of the 16th century Venetians, of Veronese, Titian, Tintoretto, much studied by Smith. The Flemish 17th-century artist Rubens, also, was far from forgotten in Smith's development. He also shares characteristics with some of his British contemporaries painting in London, such as Harold Gilman, and was praised by Walter Sickert.

There is about Smith's painting a robustness, a no-holds-barred speed of execution, almost a carelessness. This approach not only expresses his impulsive nature as a painter, (which those who knew him have pointed out was in contrast to his reticent, quiet character and appearance), but is not ``French'' at all. His work has a rigor, a matter-of-factness, that is North European.

Smith's love of an exotic heaviness of color and brushwork, paradoxically, is Northern also. It is closer to such German painters as Lovis Corinth or Emil Nolde, than to French artists like Albert Marquet or Maurice de Vlaminck. It is full color, dense and shadowy. Unlike Matisse's color, his painting is forced and forceful, though applied to the canvas with easeful relish. Even in its relentless Mediterranean warmth it is a Northerner's sensuous celebration of Southernness - which a true Southerner would take much more lightly and freshly for granted.

Smith's color and brushwork do relate back to one particular 19th-century French artist: Eug`ene Delacroix. Delacroix once wrote in his journal - discussing the relationship of sketch to finished painting: ``The precise quality that renders the sketch the highest expression of the idea is not the suppression of details, but their subordination to the great sweeping lines that come before everything else....''

Delacroix must have appealed to Smith as much as he did because Smith innately believed in the sweeping power of the ``first moment of inspiration,'' to quote another Delacroix phrase. When Smith was an art student at the Slade School in London, his professor, Henry Tonks, commented about one of his efforts: ``Not a single part do I like, but I like the whole.''

AT one period in his career Smith was painting as many as three pictures in a single day. That sort of overflowing urgency, that impatience, must have had to do with a need to arrive as quickly as possible at the whole image. Surging movements of the brush, large areas of strong color, boldly stated forms, predominate over detail. Smith's art has the driving force of the preliminary sketch, the grasping of the idea, the wholeness. But with Smith this seems to have been the be-all and end-all, not just the starting point.

With many artists this subordination of part to whole can lead to sloppiness or to a formula facility - a dashing kind of manual dexterity - that is repeated rather mindlessly. But Smith's raw observation, the deliberateness of his brush, and the underlying structure of his paintings, prevented this occurring in his art.

In its extension of the tradition of the Venetians, Rubens, and Delacroix, Smith's art places itself firmly in the ``colorist'' camp. But he felt that when people praised his color it was often as if it were all there was to his paintings. He knew otherwise.

To concentrate on color would inevitably mean a relative slackness of form, line, and structure - or so Delacroix believed.

Delacroix, for example, criticized the neo-Classical, linear draughtsman Jean Ingres and accused him of being without imagination, of merely making ``tracings of outward appearances.'' But Matthew Smith was a great admirer of both these rival artists. One only has to look at a Smith painting reproduced in monochrome to see just how much line and contour it has, and how important tone - the contrast of light and shadow, however summarily painted - was to him.

SMITH'S color is very individually his own. He may have learned the essence of being a colorist from Delacroix and Matisse - that colors are what distinguish objects from each other, not light and shadow, and that colors in juxtaposition have a vivid abstract life of their own, separate from description. But his color has a magical, dark, twilit glow that is unlike any other artist's.

Some writers have tried to characterize Smith's use of color in terms of Paul C'ezanne - color as the means of constructing space and form without lines and shading. But the paintings contradict this. Like Matisse, when Smith needed a line he simply drew it, with the brush.

The color of his unusual Cornish landscapes painted in 1920 doesn't, by itself, construct the space between near and far. In fact the landscape has a linear structure as emphatic as the leading in stained glass windows. But the opulent strangeness of his colors, their choice and placing, gives these landscapes an extraordinary, all-pervasive light.

By the time of the later painting ``Laura the Parrot,'' Smith's color has become less somber and more integrated, the application of paint much freer and more confident. At first sight the picture seems loose and almost untempered in its exuberance. But the symbol of an exotic bird in a cage is apt: Smith's luxuriant colors, for all there apparent abandon, are never allowed to simply escape chaotically from the boundaries of the painting's basic form. He color is bounded - not rigidly though - and this adds to its potency.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to Bold, Urgent Brushstrokes
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today