Frank Vining Smith

Archive for February, 2010

Frank Vining Smith: Maritime Painting in the 20th Century

by on Feb.15, 2010, under Frank Vining Smith Paintings

Frank Vining Smith, Ancient Mariner


With an astounding body of work that traverses both World War I and II, the maritime paintings of Frank Vining Smith embody a surge of American pride, patriotism and a love of American craftsmanship and naval pursuits. While painters at the turn of the century  were depicting land and seascapes in the newly introduced Impressionistic style,  Smith, hailing from Cape Cod, was able to augment the maritime scene by way of Impressionism in a very unique way. Spanning his entire career, his unique application of color and stroke, clarity of light and playful palette, gave what would have been a very staid and common scene of antiquity, a vibrancy that was undoubtedly modern.  Smith celebrated with the nation its nostalgia and admiration for the great outdoors, sportsmanship, naval vessels and the sea.

With historical and biographical information keenly woven in place by author James A. Craig and a concise and thought-provoking analysis of Vining Smith’s artistic career by Peter Williams, Frank Vining Smith: Maritime Painting in the 20th Century is the definitive survey of America’s last true marine artist.  Divided into eight chapters, text is supported with over 70 color plates, photographs and reproductions of Smith’s work from childhood illustrations, print and advertising work that appeared in magazines and newspapers, to full page reproductions of Smith’s watercolor and oil paintings.

Born in Whitman, Massachusetts in 1879, Vining Smith was influenced by his surroundings and, from an early age, rendered in pencil and paper his encounters with nature in the family’s backyard. Having spent many a summer at Monument Beach in Falmouth, his heart was captivated by the sea and all things nautical. When hopes to enter the Navy were quickly dashed due to poor eyesight, he reverted to his natural artistic talents and wisely incorporated his passion for painting with his love of vessels and the seashore. Subject defined, he headed for the Boston Museum of Fine Arts (where he studied under Frank Benson, Philip L. Hale & Edmund C. Tarbell), then to Canada for a time where he attended the Central Ontario School of Art and finally, to New York City where he signed for classes at the Art Students League.

In 1903, at the age of twenty three, he was hired as an illustrator for the Boston Herald and even did advertising work for the Boston Journal. An outstanding illustrator, Smith won several prizes for his magazine and newspaper illustrations depicting a variety of outdoor themes that ran in Outdoors, Field & Stream, and Yachting. Smith’s first major solo exhibition came in 1921 at the Doll and Richards Gallery in Boston and, following consistent sales and journalistic praise, Smith was finally in a position to leave his newspaper career and paint full time in 1926 with a great deal of success, weathering this, the time of the Great Depression.

With the onset of World War II, came a surge of patriotism and, for Smith, a blossoming list of patrons and commissions. From numerous calendars, books, and postcards to prestigious museums, the wardrooms of United States Navy warships and the offices of America’s industrial giants, his art was to be found hanging proudly. His clients included such captains of industry as Josiah K. Lilly Jr. (of Eli Lilly Pharmaceuticals fame), fine art connoisseur and museum founder Julian de Cordova, and President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. After paying a high price for The Seventh Wave, it was Julian de Cordova, founder of the de Cordova Museum in Lincoln, Massachusetts (the first American museum to focus on contemporary New England artists) who asserted to Smith that although he had works “by the most collected American and Foreign artists, none…match your artistic genius.” In the late forties, his fortunes soared, but Smith’s personality remained solid and unchanged with a “quiet humor,” and an admirable “patient love of his fellow man.” Frank Vining Smith died in 1967.

Smith’s success was in his unique ability to find the balance of confidence and calm in his painting. He set out not to depict the confrontation or outcome of a battle but to display these grand vessels majestically, with flawless accuracy and detail. Smith’s canvases, visual articulations of the stealth of America’s military and the bravura of its people, embody a timeless patriotism that continue to command our attention today.

This comprehensive exhibition is scheduled to debut at the Heritage Museum Opening June 26 through October 31, 2010

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A Fresh Look at the Paintings of Frank Vining Smith

by on Feb.04, 2010, under Frank Vining Smith Paintings

To understand the importance of  Frank Vining Smith as an artist, one must first appreciate the huge impact that nineteenth century French painting had on Boston collectors, artists, and their teachers at the turn of the last century, when Smith was an art student in that city. The work of Monet was especially interesting to Bostonians, as attested by Trevor J. Fairbrother, a former curator of paintings at the  Museum of Fine Arts, Boston:

The seriousness of the Bostonians who had begun to collect Impressionist art was confirmed in 1892 when the St. Botolph Club exhibited twenty-one landscape paintings by Monet, all borrowed from local collectors… Two more Monet exhibitions were organized by the St. Botolph Club in 1895 and in 1899, and in 1905 the Copley Society showed ninety-five paintings by Monet and eleven sculptures by Rodin. All these events confirmed that Monet was the Impressionist most Bostonians admired.[1]

Boston artists such as John Singer Sargent, Dennis Bunker, Theodore Wendell, Lila Cabot Perry, John Leslie Breck flocked to France to paint with Monet at Giverny.  Smith’s painting teachers at the Museum School, Frank Weston and Edmund Tarbell, went to study in Paris at the Academie Julian where they learned drawing and paint from live models in natural light.  Smith’s teachers helped him learn the Impressionist way of seeing light and paint using the new French methods.

By 1892, Monet had executed of series of paintings of the Rouen Cathedral depicting the shifting spectrum of colors and casts of light  at specific times of day. For Frank Vining Smith, the nineteenth century clipper ship, like the cathedral of the Middle Ages, was one of man’s most glorious accomplishments and, as Monet had done with the cathedral, Smith now painted the ship at different angles and at different times of day. In much the same way that his teachers Tarbell and Benson painted women clad in white dresses strolling and basking in the sun,  Smith devoted his attention to the figure of the majestic clipper ship and her billowing dress-like white sails with remarkable variation. Unlike his teachers and contemporaries who chose a stationery object or scene, Frank Vining Smith became a master of an added challenge:  the effective incorporation of movement on a two dimensional surface.   Painting in his studio, Smith relied on his visual memory of his subjects at sea,  paying special attention to color, shadows and light.

Sam Wakeman, a shipbuilder and former Cornell varsity football player stood before a Clipper plowing through heavy seas and declared: “Smith knew the wave movements of a big ship going through the water.” With this ultimate pronouncement, there was no higher authority. The decree was final.

On behalf of those (including myself) who have found the work of Frank Vining Smith to be a daily inspiration for so many years, I wish to thank author Jim Craig for writing this worthy volume.

Peter Williams, Paintings Conservator

Boston, Massachusetts

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