Joseph Lindon Smith – Interpreter of the Past (1863-1950)

Biography

Copyright © 2008 by Diana Wolfe Larkin

Early in his career, the painter Joseph Lindon Smith did a bravura demonstration of artistic technique in front of a lecture audience. He brought out a canvas with a study he had done of a young Italian boy. Then he transformed it. He changed the skin tone and brightened the sky, turning his work into a portrait in the manner of Titian. Next, he simplified the planes and toned down the color contrast, until he had a totally different style, suitable for a mural. The exercise seems emblematic for this artist, who put his talents at observation and mimicry to good use throughout his life. A passion for the distant past would drive him to spend much of his life recording, in oil on canvas, the artistic heritage of other cultures. An ongoing interest in the theater gave him another outlet for engaging with and recreating history. He devised, staged, and acted in many plays and pageants. This native New Englander became a world citizen whose imagination crossed geographical and temporal boundaries.

Born and raised in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, Smith was the son of Henry Francis Smith, a lumber merchant, and Emma Greenleaf Smith, a woman with a pastime of writing and producing amateur plays. To train as an artist, young Joe attended the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston from 1880 to1882, and then continued his studies at the Academie Julian in Paris from 1883 to 1885. Like other art students of the time, he was required to copy from masterworks of sculpture and painting before progressing to sketches from live models.

In Paris, Smith shared lodgings with Frank Benson, a friend and fellow student whose greater height prompted the two pals to be known as "the long and short of it" (Fig. 1). Benson would soon favor an Impressionist manner for his own work, while Smith's restless energy kept him in an exploratory mode. He even experimented with his name, trying out both "Lindon" and "Linden" for his middle name, to the consternation of later dealers, before settling on the former.

Getting Established

Upon returning from Europe in 1885, Smith set up a studio in Boston, devoting himself at first to portrait painting. He soon began exhibiting his work. A show at the Boston Art Club included a painting that caught the eye of Denman Ross, a professor of fine arts at Harvard. Ross became a mentor, and the two made several trips to Europe to paint together. Cultural sights on these and other trips early in his career inspired Smith to revisit historical styles through his own painted versions of works he admired from the past, especially from the Italian Renaissance and Classical Greece. On a trip to Venice in 1892, he met the collector and art patron Isabella Stewart Gardner, who welcomed him into her circle of proteges.

By 1898, Smith had served as an instructor in decorative arts at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts (1887-1891) and painted portraits for a growing clientele from among Boston's elite (Fig. 2). The portraits ranged from examples with loose brushstrokes in a contemporary manner to treatments influenced by styles he had observed at European museums. Smith's theatrical impulse shows through in paintings where he clothed his sitters in period costumes. During this phase, he accrued a few commissions for murals at public buildings. Visitors to the Boston Public Library can still view his Venetian-themed alcove (1895), not far from a room with walls decorated by John Singer Sargent, while an exterior mural Smith painted around the same time for Philadelphia's Horticultural Hall is, along with the building, no longer extant. Smith also turned out some closely observed landscape paintings, though he seems to have preferred rendering the human form, either directly or through the veil of history.

While still in his twenties, the artist began spending summers in Dublin, New Hampshire. One of his patrons, Mrs. John Singleton Copley Greene of Boston, introduced Smith to the town, where a vibrant arts colony was beginning to take hold. Smith first visited Dublin in 1888 to paint portraits of Mrs. Greene's grown children, Henry and Belle. The next year, by a deed dated December 26, 1889, Mrs. Greene conveyed to the young artist a tract of land at Loon Point on Dublin Lake. The land was "practically given to him," as he would later recall. In 1890, Smith and his father began building a house on the property. A regular summer resident from then on, Joe was accompanied initially by his parents and then eventually by his own wife and children. He met his future wife, Corinna Haven Putnam (1876-1965), daughter of New York publisher George Haven Putnam, at a wedding in Dublin in 1898.

Egypt Beckons

The year 1898 was a turning point for Smith not only because of meeting Corinna that October, a week before he turned thirty-five, but also because his first trip to Egypt sparked him to take a firmer direction in his career. He arrived in Alexandria in December and soon found himself traveling up the Nile, gazing at ancient monuments made of stone. He was fascinated – and hooked.

Smith began painting views of temples and sculptures, carrying his easel south to Luxor, where he saw "many superb subjects" that rushed at him "shouting 'Paint me,'" and on upstream to the island of Philae. There, he recorded a "magnificent doorway" (Fig. 3) and delighted in the novelty of going about his work while a "small boy sat beside [him] and brushed away flies." His southernmost stop was at Abu Simbel in Nubia. At the temple of Ramesses II, massive royal statues on the façade dwarf visitors. The experience of painting studies of these statues helped Smith recognize his growing desire to concentrate on work based on ancient art. He was to write, "I was not altogether happy in portraiture. My sitters were never on time, they invariably wriggled, and always had husbands or wives, mothers, and other relatives, each of whom had some criticism of the mouth, the nose, or the chin. Now Ramesses the Great is posing for me, and he is the sort of a sitter I enjoy. He will always be on time, he won't wriggle, and his relatives, like himself, are in stone."

Luckily, a strong market existed in Smith's era for artists' renditions of cultural landmarks. Artists could offer precious images with a feature that photography could not yet provide – color. Although inventors were to make steady progress with the science of color processing over the first half of the twentieth century, it was not until after Smith's death in 1950 that photos printed in color came into widespread use.

Back in the U.S. after his first exhilarating venture on the Nile, Smith married Corinna Putnam in the fall of 1899. The couple spent that winter in Egypt. Corinna relished traveling as much as her husband did and often accompanied him on his journeys when family responsibilities allowed. They were to have three daughters. Stays in New Hampshire and Boston would punctuate his – or their – forays to the Nile valley and to other distant destinations.

Life at Loon Point in the summers was filled with a relaxing round of social gatherings and pageants. In the shadow of Mount Monadnock, the Smiths entertained such luminaries as Isabella Stewart Gardner, John Singer Sargent, Ethel Barrymore, Mark Twain, and Amelia Earhart (wife of Corinna's cousin), and Joe produced plays with friends and family members as the actors. When winter came, he was eager to paint pictures of sand-scraped ruins again. He would return to Egypt to paint almost every year for the rest of his long life.

Art in the Service of Archaeology

One enticement pulling Smith toward Egypt was the chance to work alongside archaeologists. During his first seasons there, he painted with the hope of selling paintings to private clients back home, and indeed he garnered success that way and by selling to other travelers. But he soon made connections among excavators working at Thebes and was invited to paint in freshly discovered tombs there, an experience that fired his imagination. A meeting with George Andrew Reisner, who was to become the foremost American archaeologist of his day, also propelled him forward. Smith met Reisner through one of the wealthy female patrons he so easily attracted. Mrs. Phoebe Apperson Hearst of California had come across Smith at Abu Simbel early in 1899, on his first trip, and had bought several paintings from him on the spot. Later, in Cairo, she introduced the two men. Reisner greatly admired Smith's work. "You've accomplished the impossible," he said. "Each painting is an archaeological record correct in details, but beautiful as a picture." Reisner encouraged Smith to do a study series for museums, and the two became longtime friends and colleagues.

Reisner's primary excavations were at tombs near the Giza pyramids. From 1902 to 1905, he was director of the Hearst Expedition to Giza, funded by Mrs. Hearst from her late husband's fortune in the mining industry. In 1905, backing for Reisner's expedition shifted to Harvard University and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and soon Reisner was also curator of that museum's Egyptian Department. Around 1907, he started buying paintings by Smith for the museum, and by 1910 or 1911 had entered into an arrangement with the artist to acquire a selection of his annual output in Egypt. The paintings were to hang on the museum walls behind excavated objects, giving a sense of the context of the original works. The arrangement continued until Reisner's death in 1942. Smith was to produce many paintings for the museum; he also continued work on his own and for other clients.

Over time, Smith honed a distinctive style for his Egyptian work. At first, as he became acquainted with Egypt's monuments, he painted sweeping views. Selecting a pillared hall, a tall gateway, or a colossal statue as his focus, he would anchor his subject in space by including a patch of sky or some aspect of setting beyond a main feature in the foreground. Soon, however, close-up views predominated.

His specialty became replica paintings based on scenes carved in relief on temple and tomb walls (Fig. 4). Striving to bring out the forms so convincingly that viewers would think they were looking at carved stone and not a flat surface, he became masterful with shadows and highlights. He also took care to reproduce bat droppings, discolorations, abrasions, cracks, and other signs of the accumulated damage of the centuries. Setting aside the watercolors that he favored on his first trips to Egypt, he concentrated almost exclusively on oil on canvas, using a dry brush technique that minimized brushstrokes that would identify his work as modern. In order not to distract from the illusion of antiquity, he also stopped dating his paintings. For further authenticity, he chose same-size replicas, making his painted figures of Egyptian gods, kings, officials, and workers match the scale of the carved originals.

He was still an artist, but simultaneously an educator who could serve as an intermediary for the intellectual and aesthetic journey of others. His works would help teach about the artistic legacy of the past. Because museum visitors were the intended audience of the works he did for Reisner's expedition, his work had a slightly different purpose than that of other archaeological artists of the time. Expeditions frequently had staff artists, charged with doing precise drawings or paintings of wall scenes and inscriptions, and those facsimiles were typically intended for use in the eventual scholarly publication of the excavation. Reisner understood the potential thrill that Smith's remarkable full-scale copies could offer viewers who saw them in the galleries. The works captured their ancient models and provided the chance for an emotional experience akin to being in front of the original.

The Wider World

Smith's curiosity about other cultures spurred him to travel all over the world. Although Egypt became his chief destination, he also made multiple visits to Asia and Central America and ventured throughout the Middle East. He went wherever he could see interesting architecture or sculpture in a local traditional style. He took it all in: a Japanese pavilion with a curving roof (Fig. 5), Buddhist temples, Maya ruins, an intricate relief on a monument at Borobudur in Indonesia, a façade at Petra in Jordan (then Transjordania), a sculpture dedicated to this god or that, on one side of the globe or the other. Sometimes he received invitations from archaeologists to visit monuments they were uncovering – Leonard Woolley at Ur, in Mesopotamia, or Sylvanus Morley at Chichen Itza in the Yucatan, for example – and sometimes he had commissions to fulfill, but mostly he traveled for the chance to delight his eyes and imagination. On he went, by ship, train, bus, horse, donkey, or any means available, hauling a paint box and rolled canvas to desert, jungle, forest, or town square.

When he got out his brushes, he selected an artistic approach. If he came across a relief that lent itself to being handled with the technique he perfected for painting ancient Egyptian wall scenes, he would do a close-up treatment, producing a painted replica that required a viewer to look twice to see that the image was not in stone. He was also drawn to broader vistas, however, and would paint architectural views or views of free-standing statuary when he found a subject he wanted to share or remember.

A Parallel Career

Joseph Lindon Smith had two lives, both pursued at full-tilt: he took one path as a painter and another with his work in the theater. Some of his energy for the theater bubbled forth in New Hampshire, where his pleasure at creating pageants for friends at his summer home on Loon Point led him to build not one but two outdoor theaters. He also worked, figuratively, on a wider stage. Beginning in the 1890s, if not earlier, he designed and produced pageants for countless private parties, civic occasions, and fundraising benefits. Wealthy individuals in Boston, Newport, New York, and elsewhere would hire him to devise theatrical interludes to entertain their guests. Towns would enlist him to help celebrate anniversaries. Clubs and museums wanted his services. Benefit performances he organized raised money for war efforts (Spanish American, World Wars I and II), the Red Cross, the U.N., and the poor. The art colony at Cornish, New Hampshire, got to see a pageant of Smith's. If not for illness that struck cast members after the dress rehearsal, his archaeologist colleagues would have been treated to a play in Egypt about King Akhenaten. The painter-dramatist relished blaming the mishap on "the curse of Amon-Ra."

Smith's alternate career had some dazzling – and colorful – moments. In 1913, Louis Comfort Tiffany invited Smith to stage a pageant at the Tiffany Studios showroom in New York. For this Egyptian fête, which was followed by an eight-course dinner, the host donned the attire of a Middle Eastern potentate. Performers included legendary dancer Ruth St. Denis, who requested Smith as her dance partner. A few months later, at the behest of railroad magnate Arthur Curtiss James and his wife, Smith staged a blue-themed masque at a party in Newport celebrating Mrs. James's Blue Garden. In the spring of 1914, the city of St. Louis celebrated its 150th anniversary by putting on the Pageant and Masque of St. Louis. This was one of the largest theatrical events ever staged, with a cast of 7,000 and audiences of more than ten times that number for each of four performances. Smith and Percy Mackaye, a playwright and poet, collaborated on the "masque" portion of the spectacle, creating a sweep through history told in pantomime and dance. Some of Smith's vivid sketches for costumes survive, along with plans showing the movements of large groups of dancers and the changing positions for thirty drums and thirty cymbals. He designed scenery as well, dashing off for one backdrop a "temple" based on architecture he had seen and painted at Chichen Itza.

Smith produced several pageants for Isabella Stewart Gardner at Fenway Court, the grand home she built in Boston for the eventual public display of her art collection. In 1933, three decades after the museum bearing her name opened and nearly a decade after her death, Smith staged a fantasy there that illustrates his verve for jumping across time. The Royal Gift brought to life artists of different periods, from a Maya sculptor to Titian in Venice and Velasquez in Madrid. Each artist was shown before his own work of art that royal patrons and other important individuals would admire. The story culminated in a scene with priestesses of the arts decking an altar before Titian's Europa, which hangs on a wall of the Gardner Museum to this day. Smith was in his element, making the most of the chance to combine art, history, and theater.

No wonder he built a second amphitheater at Loon Point. He needed to be able to accommodate the many friends and acquaintances who were eager to see his performances. The intimate Teatro Bambino, created in 1897, was too small, so he later transformed a patch of land facing Dublin Lake into a wide stage and a spacious seating area with grassy terraces. This became the Teatro Laguno.

The New Hampshire pageants were often highly informal. Smith would concoct a plot and ideas for costumes, props, scenery, and stage directions, and would direct his performers in shows that relied heavily on pantomime or used minimal dialogue, leaving room for improvisation. Themes covered all the cultures and periods the artist encountered in his painting life, along with non-historical topics such as "Jack Frost at Midsummer." The staging could be quite elaborate. The action in Smith's Japanese Water Pantomime of 1898 took place off shore on a raft. With help from his parents, Joe prepared for the event by creating an artificial island from a raft topped with loam, small trees, moss, rocks, and a pagoda, and by fashioning tall clogs that made one of the performers appear to walk on water when she moved about on submerged planks. Much later, for his Watteau Fête of 1931 (Fig. 6), Smith animated the Teatro Laguno with characters parading in eighteenth-century costumes. The plays ranged in tone from high-minded to broad comedy.

For the dramas he staged away from New Hampshire, the performers were mostly adults. At Dublin, especially after Joe and Corinna's three daughters were born (Rebecca, the eldest, came along in 1902), both children and adults were important participants. Children from the summer community pranced and cavorted in Smith's productions at Loon Point and also at the nearby Dublin Lake Club, founded in 1901. That recreational club had tennis courts, a beach for swimmers, a clubhouse for talks and receptions, and a lawn nicely suited for pageants. The ever-energetic Smith, who served as the club's president from a few years after its founding until his death in 1950, would organize annual pageants there, with a cast drawn from the membership. Many summers, local friends could attend a pageant at the club at Independence Day and another at Loon Point later in the season.

For the Dublin arts colony, Joseph Lindon Smith was a central figure. Not only did his pageants serve as a focus for the social and cultural life of the summer community, but his extensive travels, his cosmopolitan experience, and his connections made him a magnetic force. Even his house was a draw. In 1903, the Smiths built a new house close by the 1890 structure, which the family had outgrown. The house had a Della Robbia plaque over the mantel, assorted works of art from the artist's travels, and an Italianate garden with urns and formal plantings. Joe dreamed and invented, and Corinna attended to practicalities behind the scenes, helping to make diverse projects happen. "Uncle Joe" and "Aunt Corinna," as they were known, both loved to entertain. Together, they helped make life at the summer community a remarkable experience for both residents and visitors.

A Man for All Seasons

How did he fit it all in – the art, the theater, and everything else? Smith was a charismatic public speaker, on demand on the lecture circuit for talks about his experiences in Egypt. He knew how to write, too. In the 1940s, when the Second World War prevented him from traveling to Egypt, he prepared a memoir that Corinna later edited. Published posthumously in 1956 as Tombs, Temples, and Ancient Art, it contains first-hand descriptions of life in Egypt at a time when important new tombs were being discovered every year. The book also zips through Smith's early life and touches on his travels around the globe. Several diaries and plentiful letters to his family add to the documentary record. Like the book, they are filled with amusing anecdotes, lyrical descriptions, and lively comments on people and places. Sometimes they confide personal details unsuitable for the later book, such as an assertion about Howard Carter that "the poor man can't help being a cad." Smith knew all the major figures involved in excavations in his era: Reisner, of course, and Carter, Georges Legrain, Theodore M. Davis, and many others.

During his lifetime, Smith's paintings appeared on public display at the Museum of Fine Arts and in scattered shows elsewhere. The largest shows outside of Boston were a major display of his Maya-themed paintings at the Carnegie Institution of Washington, D.C. in 1940, and an exhibition of more than fifty of his Egyptian paintings at the Smithsonian Institution in the spring of 1950. Smith also had the signal honor of having his paintings exhibited at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. At the time, he was the only living artist ever to have his work shown there. He had four shows at the museum in successive years beginning in 1947. Those were years when he was still turning up in Egypt to paint, having rushed back after the war ended.

Smith kept up his passion for his work until the very end. His final season of painting in Egypt took place in 1950, the year he died. When he got home, it was not summer yet, and there was still a pageant to think about. He produced his last pageant that July and passed away in Dublin, New Hampshire, on October 19, shortly after his eighty-seventh birthday.

Selected References

Publications:

  • Lesko, Barbara S., and Diana Wolfe Larkin, Joseph Lindon Smith: Paintings from Egypt. Providence: Brown University, 1998.
  • McCaulay, Elizabeth Anne, et al. Gondola Days: Isabella Stewart Gardner and the Palazzo Barbaro Circle. Boston: Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, 2004.
  • Perkins, Mary Coolidge. Once I Was Very Young. Originally published 1960; new edition with introduction by Woodard D. Openo, Portsmouth, NH: Peter E. Randall Publisher, 2000. [Contains an account of Smith's Japanese Water Pantomime.]
  • Smith, Corinna Lindon. Interesting People: Eighty Years with the Great and Near-Great. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1962.
  • Smith, Joseph Lindon. Tombs, Temples, and Ancient Art. Edited by Corinna Lindon Smith. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1956.

Archival materials:

  • Joseph Lindon Smith Papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.
  • Joseph Lindon Smith Papers, Archives of the Dublin Historical Society, Dublin, New Hampshire.
  • The author wishes to thank Joseph Lindon Smith's descendants for their generosity in making available additional documents beyond those in public collections and for kindly allowing access to paintings in their collections.

Further viewing:

The Fitchburg Art Museum in Fitchburg, Massachusetts, has an extensive collection of Smith's Egyptian paintings on long-term loan from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. These are on permanent display.

 

Note:  Images appear courtesy of owners. All rights reserved.

Historic Dublin Painters:


Abbott Handerson Thayer

George de Forest Brush

Richard Sumner Meryman

Frank Weston Benson

Joseph Lindon Smith

Barry Faulkner

Alexander James

Martha Silsbee

William Preston Phelps

Albert Duvall Quigley

Gouri Ivanov-Rinov

Onni Saari

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