THE art collection at Smith College in Northampton, Mass., contains over 18,000 items and has continued for more than 100 years, very respectable statistics for such an institution. Eclectic in nature, it includes many schools from a number of countries; among its treasures are some notable pictures and objects. A selection of these, largely French and American, from the late 18th to the early 20th century, was recently shown in New York at the IBM Gallery. Among the more immediately striking of Smith's paintings is Georges Seurat's brilliant small ``Lady with a Monkey,'' a real tour de force, the handsome girl with the monkey at her feet seen against a vivid stretch of green grass. Another is a beautiful Willard Metcalf, ``Willows in March,'' with its delicacy and linear emphasis. The purity of the snow, the light sky, and a certain almost tremulous tenderness combine here to touch unseen chords, beyond the grace of the willows. Metcalf, a successful American artist, is better known for his seascapes and yachting scenes.
There is a well-known Charles Sheeler, ``Rolling Power,'' the direct pure lines of the locomotive plain but evocative, breathing force, the more dynamic because it is controlled. The portrait of Mrs. Edith Mahon by Thomas Eakins, painted in 1904, is wonderfully accomplished and expert but almost too tragic to gaze upon, her grief is so piercing.
One of the most interesting and unexpected studies is a portrait of the Duc d'Estr'ees by Hyacinthe Rigaud (1659-1743), an important French artist. Born in Perpignan, Rigaud went to Paris as a young man and studied with Charles le Brun, soon winning the Prix de Rome. His great gifts were so apparent that he was advised to remain in the capital, and make his career there; following this council, he would become the best known portrait painter of Louis XIV. The king sat for him twice, in 1694 and in 1701; with such patronage he never lacked commissions.
His famous royal portrait of the king in his sumptuous coronation robes is now in the Louvre. Having achieved this success his name became known outside France, and he painted a roster of ambassadors, clerics, princes. He himself enormously admired Anthony Van Dyck, who was the model for such art everywhere in Europe. Rigaud divided the work to be done in his studio into categories, having painters who specialized in battle scenes, landscapes, or still lifes. He planned the compositions and did the faces - the actual portraiture.
Rigaud disliked painting women, who, he thought, demanded flattery, but he made a beautiful portrait of his mother, showing her in three aspects. It is said that his art marks the transition from the 17th to the 18th century; from those grand and impressive poses royalty liked to assume to the easier and more natural outlook of the coming age of enlightenment. His portrait of the young Louis XV, which is graceful and unaffected, illustrates such a claim.
The portrait shown here of the Duc d'Estr'ee bears witness to the artist's perception of his subject - the piercing eyes in the calm, alert face, set off by its black hair and dark costume, so that everything is focused on the countenance, which is so vital and alive that it seems almost as though the duke himself were present in the room with us. His cool, calculating gaze would range over the fine array of pictures, one feels, with discrimination, without surprise, so timeless is art herself.