ALBERT ALEXANDER SMITH, the son of parents who immigrated from Bermuda, was born in New York City on September 17, 1896. He was the most prolific of all the African-American artists who expatriated to France between the two World Wars of the 20th Century, producing at least 220 prints, drawings, and paintings. He is further distinguished as the only African-American artist who was a printmaker during this time and the only one who made his living as a musician. His works are significant for their social commentary on racism, their themes of global racial uplift, and their exploration of human types and stereotypes.
From an early age, his parents encouraged his artistic talents, paying for music lessons. Eventually he became a proficient banjo-player and guitarist, which he would later put to use as a jazz musician and singer while a member of various bands and orchestras in Europe.
Smith began his formal training in art in 1913, when he became the first African-American to earn a scholarship to attend the High School for Ethical Culture, where he studied drawing, watercolor painting, poster design, sculpture and basket making. In 1915, he became the first African-American student at the prestigious National Academy of Design. There he won several awards and medals for his efforts in a poster competition and for his charcoal work. Unfortunately, none of his works from this period seem to have survived.
When the United States entered World War 1 in 1917, Smith enlisted in the 807 Pioneer Band and served overseas for two and half months. He was one of 30,000 black combat troops who saw action in France. While there he visited cathedrals in France and Belgium, and worked as a cartoonist. Only one work from this period has survived, a pen and ink drawing titled ‘The Fall of the Castle’, in which a crowd of black men ascend a steep hill on top of which is perched a castle bearing the label ‘PREJUDICE’. Many believe that this work represents his belief in the determination of black people to overcome racism not only in the United States, but throughout the world.
In 1919 he received an honorable discharge from the army and returned to the National Academy of Design, where he won prizes in painting and etching. In 1920 his work shifted from the world of allegory to the world of African-Americans in the South. His etching, ‘Plantation Melodies’, striking in its portrayal of southern black musicians as ordinary people performing for their own pleasure rather than as outlandish caricatures performing for whites, immediately won Smith acclaim. It was published in August, 1920, in the NAACP’S magazine, ‘Crisis’, a magazine for which he would become a regular contributor. Another work, ‘The Reason’, a pen and ink on paper, was published in Crisis in March, 1920, and depicts a horrifying image of the American South. In it, a black man in coat and tie hurries away from another black man who is hanging from a tree – a lynching victim. A banner streaming from the lapel of the man in coat and tie indicates his destination: TO THE NORTH. Smith was aware that participants in the Great Migration of southern blacks to the North would find that discrimination was rampant in the North as well. His own experiences with discrimination while back in New York may have been one of the reasons why, on June 12, 1920, Smith set sail for Europe, never to live in the United States again.
From 1920 to 1926 Smith travelled throughout Europe, while maintaining an apartment in Paris. He worked as a musician with various bands, and the art he produced was mostly tourist scenes of streets, bridges, ports and marketplaces in France and Luxembourg. Some of these etchings were exhibited in the New York Public Library in 1921 an 1922, and in the Tanner Art League Exhibition, Washington, D.C., in 1922, where he won a gold medal. He spent the first half of 1922 in Italy, performing music and studying art, and continuing to produce tourist scenes. About this time, his art took on a new direction, and began to celebrate black achievements and racial uplift. This is evident in his print ‘Rene Maran’, a half-length portrait of the noted black French author dressed in a suit and wearing wire-rimmed glasses. The painted version of this print appeared on the cover of ‘Crisis’ magazine in May 1922. While in Paris Smith executed a series of portrait etchings of great black leaders, probably at the request of his patron, Walter Schomburg, a New York based collector and dealer. He also conducted research at the Bibliotheque National for Schomburg, obtaining information for him on African-American artists who lived and worked in Europe.
During most of 1922 and 1923 Smith lived in Belgium, where he played the banjo in a band and studied art. He also studied etching and lithography at the Academie des Beaux-Arts in LIege, and some of the prints executed during this time were exhibited at the Brooklyn Society of Etchers.
In 1923, Smith expanded his study of racial uplift by depicting glorious views of Ethiopia, two of which, ‘Visions of Ethiopia’, and ‘The Builders of the Temple’, were featured on the cover of ‘Crisis’ magazine. At this time he also produced scenes of racial discrimination in the United States, many of them also appearing in ‘Crisis’, including what is viewed as perhaps his most eloquent statement on inequity in the United States, a drawing titled ‘Justice.
While back in France from 1924 through 1926, Smith continued working on his three themes of racial discrimination, racial uplift, and tourist sites. One of these drawings – now missing – titled ‘Place de Monnaie, Pau, France’, would win an honorable mention from the Harmon Foundation in 1928.
In 1926, Smith traveled throughout Spain, studying the works of Velazquez and Murillo at the Prado Museum, and creating scenes of local markets, streets, churches, ports, and bridges. He also depicted the common people of Spain in a series of works, several of them earning him a tie for a bronze medal at a Harmon Foundation exhibition in 1929. From 1926 through 1928 he produced genre scenes of peasant life in France, and two of them, ‘Fisherman in Trouville’, and ‘Apache, Montmartre’, were shown at the Brooklyn Society of Etchers in 1928. In 1927 he returned to the United States for an exhibition, but an art gallery on Fifth Avenue cancelled it, telling him it was impossible to put the show on.
In the early 1930s, Smith worked primarily in Paris, performing on radio and in hot spots such as the American hangout La Coupole, the trendy nightclub Zelli’s, and the elegant Cafe de Paris. Smith learned to play the newly fashionable banjo in just three weeks and enjoyed steady employment spreading the jazz craze throughout Europe. Beginning in 1930, Smith produced a series of works featuring stereotyped images of African-Americans playing the banjo. Several of these that stand out were the prints ‘Do That Thing’ and ‘Temptation’, and the paintings, ‘Dancing Time’ and ‘Old Man River’. Many white northeastern Americans responded favorably to the stereotyped images in ‘Dancing Time’. The work appeared in an exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and was reproduced in the magazine ‘Art and Archeology’. The question arises as to why Smith, a well-educated expatriate living in France who was born and raised in New York, would produce these stilted southern scenes of blatant racial stereotypes? The answer may lie in what was at the time a large public demand amongst white Americans for stereotypical images of black Americans. Many whites longed for a re-engagement with a romanticized past in which subservient African-Americans ‘happily’ served them; this countered the frightening realization that a new type of African-American was emerging and flooding the cities of the North. By catering to this mood amongst many white Americans, Smith, who was constantly struggling to make ends meet, was able to enhance his income. Besides, as the son of immigrants from Bermuda, Smith may not have regarded himself as African-American. He disassociated himself from other African-Americans even while living in Paris, and may have also envied other African-American artists who won success in the United States, writing disparagingly of other African-American artists such as Palmer Hayden and Archibald Motley, Jr. Smith was especially bitter about his defeats for Harmon and Guggenheim Foundation prizes in 1928 and 1929, believing he had been rejected because of animosity toward him on the part of a former professor.
In 1934, after a short trip to Italy to execute more etchings of tourist scenes, he applied to the Guggenheim Foundation for a travel grant, but was rejected. Crushed by yet another defeat, he spent his last five years in France mainly performing music. He seems to have produced little art from 1934 to 1936, yet he exhibited at the American Artists Professional League in Paris every year from 1935 to 1938. He spent most of his time during this period performing on-stage, doing work for radio, and making recordings.
In 1937, Smith produced another series of portraitures of great black historic leaders, this time in watercolor. Some of these works may have been featured in the Association of American Professional Artists in Paris.
In 1939, Smith produced images with Arabian themes. The titles of these lost works are ‘Arabian Knight’, ‘A Daughter of Allah’, and ‘Dictator’. The reasons he created these works are as yet unknown.
Shortly before his death, Smith wrote to Schomburg, “Well, every failure is a whip to drive me on to further heights. I used to feel discouraged, but that feeling is gone now and as I can see it’s a long and rough road, I must go on all the harder.” But in his zeal for success, he may have overworked himself. He died suddenly in France on April. 3rd, 1940, only forty-four years old.
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