Henry Pember Smith
Very often, history is unkind to artists who seem to have settled for a successful formula and repeated it throughout much of their career. Is it limited imagination, laziness, financial pressure to pro- duce what sells, or perhaps all of these factors? Henry Pember Smith is an artist we seem to know just well enough to construct the what and where of his career but not the why. I responded to his dis- tinctive technique, especially his earlier paintings of the 1880s, and accepted his repetition of Connecticut rural farm scenes with a similar-style home, pond, often a figure in a rowboat, and a dirt path occasionally with ducks or geese milling about. His second constant theme was images of Venice, a popular subject with many American artists. A closet full of raincoats and other bad weather gear provided my first, and truly extraordinary, small oil on thick wood panel. A visit to Vose Gallery in 1974 unearthed an unframed and dirty panel lying in the back corner of a clothes closet. I fished it out and asked Robert Vose its price, which seemed pretty fair at $450. I really learned with this piece (and a second coastal marine painting) that Smith’s pic- tures often have an uncanny quality to improve when professionally cleaned, more dramatically than most other artists. This small Barbizon- inspired landscape with figure gathering wood became magical. Similarly with the surf picture off the Manchester coast, pure aqua blues and greens permeate the waves. The better examples of Henry Pember Smith’s work are now generating the acceptance and respect they deserve.