Painter and Philanthropist

Clarice Smith’s Works to be Shown at Cosmos Club

Paintings by local Jewish artist Clarice Smith will be shown this fall at the Cosmos Club, a private club near D.C.’s Dupont Circle.

The upcoming show provides a good opportunity to consider the strengths of a painter who happens to be more famous in the local Jewish community for her family’s philanthropy than for her output as an artist.  Her work generally can be characterized as realistic depictions of people, still lifes, horses, and exterior scenes.

Few, if any, families have made more financial contributions to the local Jewish community than the Smiths.  Their fortune, which has been estimated to be in the upper nine figures, derives from the commercial real estate empire founded by their late patriarch, Charles E. Smith.  In addition to being the namesake of the highly regarded Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville, Maryland, his charitable endeavors included being the driving force behind the Rockville “campus” that includes the Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington and  the Hebrew Home of Greater Washington.

Ms. Smith, a native Washingtonian, was married to “Papa Charlie’s” son, the late real estate developer and philanthropist Robert H. Smith, for over fifty-five years.

The family — which includes Charles Smith’s daughter Arlene Kogod, her husband Robert Kogod, and Ms. Smith’s daughter Michelle and son David — also has been extremely generous in their support of local educational institutions.  The University of Maryland’s College Park campus, for instance, is the home of the Robert H. Smith School of Business and the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center.

Has the munificence of Ms. Smith’s family somehow had the effect of obscuring the impressiveness of her accomplishments as a painter?  Very possibly so.  Critics and other taste-makers in the art world may find it difficult to wrap their brains around the notion that someone who’s a fabulously wealthy philanthropist can also be capable of producing important paintings.

Another possible explanation for why Ms. Smith hasn’t received the local acclaim that she arguably deserves is the fact that she isn’t represented by an area gallery.  If art lovers were able to visit, for instance, a Dupont Circle gallery whenever they felt like looking at examples of her work — or whenever they just wanted to schmooze with her dealer about the latest paintings she’s working on or about upcoming exhibitions of her work — then the number of her admirers and collectors could be expected to grow in tandem with her reputation.

But ever since the Rockville JCC’s Goldman Fine Arts Gallery in 1984 mounted her first one-woman show, she’s been affiliated with galleries based in Manhattan.

Her first New York show was at Wildenstein & Co. in 1986.  Around thirty-five of the nearly 40 paintings in that show were sold, she once told me.

She also recounted to me how the show was visited by Leah Rabin, who happened to be in New York during the show’s run.  At the time, her husband Yithak was the former prime minister of Israel, having been in office from 1974 to 1977.  (His second stint as prime minister lasted from 1992 until his murder in 1995.)  Mrs. Rabin was so impressed by the show that she set the wheels in motion that led to an exhibition of thirty-one of Ms. Smith’s paintings at Jerusalem’s Israel Museum in 1988.

After the Wildenstein show, Kennedy Galleries in New York began representing her, and continued to do so for over a decade.  Now she’s repped by New York’s Gerald Peters Gallery.

The Need for a Book

The fact that a book on Ms. Smith’s oeuvre has never been published explains to some extent why her body of work hasn’t received the local or national attention it would seem to merit.  While a number of modestly sized catalogs have been published in conjunction with the one-woman exhibitions she’s had over the years, there’s no single volume that provides critics, collectors, curators and plain art lovers with an overview of her entire career.

If one were to be published, it wouldn’t necessarily need to be a catalogue raisonne that documents every single painting she’s ever produced — although such a publication would be welcome.  It would just have to provide lots of large, high-quality reproductions of her paintings.  Even a coffee-table book, despite the fact that this publishing genre is often mocked for lacking substance, would do the trick.

The bottom line is that her best paintings are easy to embrace and can put a smile on your face.  They’re pleasing to the eye, nourishing to the brain, and stimulating to the emotions.  A book that reproduces them would provide lots of pleasurable experiences to those who peruse it — and do wonders for her career.

Last Year’s D.C. Show

Her one-woman exhibition last fall at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in downtown D.C. showed just how impressive her best work can be.

“Elements of Nature:  Equines and Still Lifes by Clarice Smith”  consisted of nineteen oil paintings that primarily focused on either horses or floral arrangements.  An explosion of colors and positive feelings, it was the kind of show that could please anyone ranging from children to veteran art connoisseurs.  You left it feeling uplifted and refreshed.  Exposure to intense beauty can do that.

Two types of beauty were on display — the contemplative and the kinetic.

A painting titled “Dark Floral” exemplified the contemplative.  Two feet high and three feet wide, and painted in 2008, it depicted a luxurious arrangement of lavender, pink, and white flowers.  Painted against a black background, the flowers seemed to “pop up” off of the surface in such a dramatic way that one was tempted to praise Smith as much for her ability to create an optical illusion as for the point she was making about how pleasurable an act it can be to savor the details of a beautiful thing.

One reason why the flowers’ three-dimensionality seemed so pronounced was the expert way in which the painting was illuminated by Greg Angelone, the museum’s chief preparator.  He performed his lighting legerdemain under the supervision of the woman who selected the paintings for the show, its curator, Jordana Pomeroy, the museum’s chief curator.

The painting was displayed by itself outside the entrance to the exhibition, and this isolation seemed to augment its stunning beauty.  When I first saw it, I was stopped in my tracks.  My first thought was that I might want to spend all of my time at the show looking at just that one painting, since it seemed to contain as much beauty as I could take in for that day.  Of course, curiosity got the better of me and I finally went in to the exhibition proper, and was glad that I did.

A Communicative Horse

A painting titled “Dead Heat” exemplified the kinetic beauty in the show.  Nearly five feet high and about a yard wide, and painted in 1999, it deserved the blue ribbon for being the exhibition’s most outstanding painting.

If you stood five feet or so in front of it, you’d get the full effect of the optical illusion that was taking place — the sense that three racehorses were charging off of the canvas and right into your face.  It almost gave you sensory overload.  You felt like you weren’t just seeing the horses but hearing them too.

It didn’t take long to realize that the painting was about more than a fiercely competitive horse race.  It was also about the compelling, human-like personality of the brown horse on the right that was winning the race and taking up about half of the painting’s forefront.

This animal’s psyche was rendered with astonishing sympathy and complexity.  It was as though we could see the thoughts that were racing through its brain.  And the thoughts seemed to be an intriguing mixture of things.  On one hand, the horse  was obviously extremely determined to do everything possible to win the race.  But at the same time, there seemed to be something faintly contemplative about its mindset, as though it was thinking about the fact that ultimately this was only a race and there are lots of other more important things in life to worry about.

Deep down inside, this seemed to be an animal at peace with both itself and the world — even while running at full-tilt.  Or maybe the point was that in order for it to be truly contented, it HAD to be running all-out like that — because that’s the only way that it could give full expression to its highest self, and thereby live up to its fullest potential.  In which case, the message for viewers was clear — that each one of us should similarly be pursuing our own contentment by striving with the highest possible intensity to fulfill our individualized potential.

Ms. Smith was employing a sophisticated one-two punch of action and thought to get the painting’s messages across to us.  The first step was to capture our attention with the dramatic action of the race.  Then, once she had us hooked by the adrenaline-pumping excitement of the scene, she apparently calculated that it would be an easy, natural progression for us to be so transfixed by the lead horse’s expressive face that we’d begin to ponder the multitude of thoughts pulsating through its mind.

In addition, she seems to have anticipated that while we’d be engaged in the delicious process of trying to figure out what this magnificent animal was thinking, we’d unconsciously be letting down our guard and opening ourselves up to absorbing the philosophical points — about such themes as the path to fulfilling one’s potential and the bonds that exist between people and animals — that she wished to communicate to us.  The best teachers are often those who use the lightest of hands to teach their lessons.

An Enigmatic Woman

None of Ms. Smith’s portraits were included in the exhibition, which meant that one of the most intellectually intense categories of her work was missing.  Her best portraits are able to do for people what “Dead Heat” does for that dignified horse — capture their personalities and evoke their thoughts.

One of her finest works is a charming, perhaps even haunting, portrait of  a woman that was included in her 1988 show at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.  Twenty-six inches high and twenty inches wide, and painted in 1984, its title is “Orient Express.”  According to the show’s catalog, it’s owned by Mr. and Mrs. Marvin Kay.  (This painting shouldn’t be confused with another painting with the same title, and featuring the same woman, that was included in the 1984 show at the JCC.  In that painting, the woman’s face gets partially obscured while she drinks from a glass.  In the one under discussion, her face is, fortunately, visible in its entirety.)

The attractive, well-dressed woman, who has brown hair and brown eyes and seems to be in her thirties, is sitting behind a table that’s covered by a white tablecloth.  One might be inclined to think that the scene is taking place inside  of a restaurant, except for the fact that the painting’s title informs us that the setting is actually a dining car of the luxurious Orient Express train.

A napkin is on her lap, and although we can’t see her right hand, we can sense that it’s resting upon the napkin.  Behind the napkin, we can see the top part of a black skirt.  Above that, she’s wearing a purple top.  A violet, lavender, and black scarf hangs around her neck, falling down her front torso to her waist.

Resting on her shoulders is a dark-brown fur that has so much presence that it almost seems to be cast as a secondary character.  Its texture expertly rendered, the fur both heightens the gravitas of the scene and underscores the formidable personality of the woman — who’s confidently looking into our eyes and allowing us to peer into hers.

This is a painting that’s all about personality, attitude, and mystery.

There’s a hint that the woman is smug, but be careful about coming to that conclusion.  After all, you might be mistaking self-sufficiency for smugness.  You can’t really be sure.

At first you might be telling yourself that you don’t want to cut this woman any slack because you don’t imagine her to be the type of person who would be cutting you any if the roles were reversed.  But despite the opportunity to interpret her persona in an unflattering light, you finally may be forced to admit that her beguiling qualities compel you to give her the benefit of the doubt on any close calls involving her character.

She seems like she’s always been able to get off the hook in the past by virtue of her looks and charm — and unless you’re unusually daring, you’re probably not going to want to be the first person to ever declare that her cockiness isn’t warranted by her gifts.

Sure, she won’t come out of the painting and seek vengeance on you if you do.  But, still, you might want to err on the side of caution and heed that little voice in the back of your head that’s advising you not to get on her bad side.

Ultimately, it’s very hard to decide what’s going on here.  Is she somehow subtly putting you down — the way she subtly puts down everyone else who looks at her?  There’s evidence to be found for that intepretation.  Or are you just imagining that there’s a negative side to her personality because you’re somehow intimidated by her beauty?  There’s evidence for that view as well.

Do you detect a hint of decadence?  Maybe.  You can’t say for sure, but speculating about it is a guilty pleasure, like reading a gossip column.  You sense that you shouldn’t be doing it, but you can’t help yourself.

All of this uncertainty works to the painting’s advantage, turning it into something that’s far more than just the likeness of a real-life woman, who happens to be Ms. Smith’s daughter, Michelle.

It takes guts and talent to paint a picture like this.


1.  Ms. Smith’s website, which is called “Clarice Smith: A World Through Paint,” is at

2.  The website of the Manhattan gallery that represents her, the Gerald Peters Gallery, is at

The site includes reproductions of fourteen paintings from a show titled “Diversity: Paintings and Painted Screens by Clarice Smith,” which was on view at the gallery from Feb. 12 to March 13, 2009.

To see these reproductions, go directly to

One of the best of these works is “Serenity,” a highly atmospheric 2008 oil painting, measuring 38 by 48 inches, of a charming riverscape.

Also notable is a 2007 oil painting, measuring 33 by 48 inches, titled “Jewish Cemetery, Prague,” a somber study of tombstones in that cemetery.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: