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 Houghton Cranford Smith  (1887 - 1983)

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Lived/Active: New York/Kansas/New Jersey      Known for: landscape, coastal views and genre painting

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Houghton Cranford Smith
An example of work by Houghton Cranford Smith
Artwork images are copyright of the artist or assignee
This biography from the Archives of AskART:
The following biography is from the artist's grand daughter, Sandy Karls:

We called him Baba.  He spent every summer on the ocean, Cape Cod first, then Paulie's Island and then two different lots on Long Beach Island, Long Beach New Jersey. I have many memories of course, but a few regarding him as an artist.

One funny memory was in the last New Jersey summer house. Baba and Nammy (Laura) had mandatory cocktail attendance every day around the family gathered for wonderful conversation. This was a continental habit he probably started in France, having a very late dinner later in the evening.

One day Baba had the TV on and a young artist was featured who was creating high priced pieces of "art" by crushing old auto parts in a junk yard compactor. After the story ended, the TV went off. Without a word, Baba got up and pushed a wicker chair over in the middle of the room. Then he silently piled piece upon piece on top of it until he had quite a creative stack. Then he hung a sign on it, "art" and sat back down nursing his coctail. No words were necessary.

Another memory I have is very endearing. In one of my last visits with him at the beach house, Baba had gotten shaky in his hands and couldn't paint anymore. He had a painting on the easel and since I had done oils, I offered to mix and apply paint according to his direction if he wanted to. To my surprise he said yes. We went up into his studio and he had me put out the right colors. Then we picked an area to start on. His style was to apply each stroke very deliberately with pre-mixed paint and very precisely lay one stroke next to the other. I thought the main task would be mixing the right color, as application looked easy.

Throughout the few hours we worked I came to appreciate Baba's skill much more. His colors were much more complex than I had thought. The picture we were working on was on paper. It was a salmon colored church steeple and we did not finish it. But I felt very loved that he would let me touch his work that one time and that we could have that memory together.

Baba was a full-time artist. He went into the studio most of the day, coming out to socialize at mealtimes and for family time. His paintings looked simple to people, but the tranquility of composition, subject and color took many years of careful calculations and study to do. Some called him a "primitive" because he made trees look like cotton balls, but everything in his paintings were compositional elements for him to play with. He'd paint a little guy on a horse on a piece of old cigarette pack and stick it here and there on a painting until it was just in the right place and the right value for the whole composition. He had trained his eye to his visual environment so much that we three grand daughters learned not to cross our legs and bounce our feet up and down in his presence. Movement like that disturbed his visual environment. He wasn't nasty about it at all. It was just hard to turn off the eye.

He he put blue grey frames on so many of his pieces. That's what he loved, and they looked awesome against the dark green walls of the beach house living room. I never heard Baba express any concern with what frames other people would like.

So much of the information about Baba is sterile historical stuff, so I thought a few personal vignettes would show him more as a person.

Exhibition Record (Museums, Institutions and Awards):
Midwestern Artists’ Exhibition, 1922; Midwestern Artists’ Exhibition, 1923; Midwestern Artists’ Exhibition, 1924.
Provincetown Art Association.

This biography from the Archives of AskART:
"Houghton Cranford Smith, The Purist Landscapes" by Adrienne Goering. Published in 2001 by Richard York Gallery, New York

"...Smith's artistic career up to 1930 paralleled that of many American artists growing up in the wake of Impressionism. After displaying an artistic proclivity during his early education in Brooklyn and New Jersey, Smith enrolled in the Art Students League in New York. Shortly thereafter, he attended the Cape Cod School of Art in Provincetown, Massachusetts, which provided his artistic mentors: Charles W. Hawthorne, the school's founder, and E. Ambrose Webster. The influence of his Provincetown education is reflected in Smith's Impressionistic landscapes created with bold brushstrokes and vibrant color combinations. Born into a family of considerable means, Smith was able to comfortably pursue an artistic career and to travel extensively, which provided him a repertoire of terrain to paint...Throughout these early years, Smith's style remained Impressionistic.

In 1930, however, the artist's landscapes evidence a radical and seemingly antithetical change. The staccato brushwork of the earlier paintings is replaced by a meticulously applied, textured surface, and formerly bright, mottled colors become broad expanses of unmodulated pigment. Natural forms, previously described with loosely applied dabs of paint, are reduced to their barest geometric essentials and are articulated with unbroken contours. This dramatic metamorphosis took place, essentially, in less than one year's time. It began at the Academie de Montparnasse in Paris, where the artist attended the classes of Andre Lhote, who encouraged experimentation with Cubism and Fauvism. More importantly, however, Smith began studying with Amedee Ozenfant, whose purist aesthetic became the foundation for all Smith's subsequent work... By 1930, when Smith encountered him, Ozenfant had developed a technique of building up his canvases with many small brushstrokes. As Smith embraced the purist doctrines, he also adopted this unique method of paint application, which became one of his most significant artistic breakthroughs...

Although the Purist practices of careful brushstrokes and calculated geometric forms were seemingly in opposition to the underlying principles of Impressionism, Smith felt his new method of painting was a natural progression of his work up to that point...

IN 1933, Smith returned to New York City, not only because of the increasingly tense political climate in Europe, but also due to a unique housing opportunity. H is father, Daniel Cranford Smith, had donated a portion of his 12th Street property to the New School for Social Research, with the stipulation that permanent living quarters be built for his family. From 1934-1946, the artist, his parents, his wife, and their three children occupied the entire sixth floor of the school, and Smith was provided his own studio....

Smith had spent five years in Chile during War World I and had met his first wife, Elena, there. After Elena's death in 1938, the artist's fondness for Chile remained, and he continued to paint visions of the country in his purist style for years afterward...

After a 1941 honeymoon in Guatemala with his second wife, Laura, Smith never left America again. Although he made a few trips within the United States, and summered in New Jersey, he remained based in New York until his death in 1983...

This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Born Arlington, NJ, Feb. 12, 1887; died New York, NY, Feb. 1983. Painter, specialized in scenes of Chile, landscapes, coastal views. Teacher. Studied at the Pratt Institute in 1902, the Art Students League in 1908 as a pupil of George Bridgeman and Jean Paul Laurens, and attended the Cape Cod (MA) School of Art studying with Charles W. Hawthorne and E. Ambrose Webster. Spent five years in Chile during World War I. Worked as an instructor of drawing and painting at University of Kansas, Lawrence, in 1921-26 living at 913 W. 6th St., Lawrence, in 1923. Studied at the Academie de Montparnasse in Paris with Andre L’Hote and studied with Amedee Ozenfant in 1930. Returned to New York in 1933 where he lived and had a studio above the New School for Social Research.
Butler Institute of American Art; Greenville Museum of Art; Wichita Art Museum.

Provincetown Art Association.

Susan Craig, "Biographical Dictionary of Kansas Artists (active before 1945)"
American Art Annual. New York: American Federation of Arts, 1898-194719/20/22; Topeka Cap & Topeka J (Topeka Capital, Topeka J (aka Topeka J) newspapers—usually reports of the Kansas Artists Exhibition 1st= Topeka Cap Nov. 11, 1925 9th= Topeka J Nov. 11, 1933 2nd= Topeka Cap Nov. 10, 1926 10th= Topeka J Nov. 10, 1934 3rd= Topeka J Nov. 19, 1927 11th= Topeka J Jan. 7, 1936 4th= Topeka J Nov. 3, 1928 12th= Topeka J Nov. 11 & 14, 1936 5th= Topeka J Nov. 2, 1929 14th= Topeka J Jan. 22, 1938 6th= Topeka J Oct. 18 & Nov. 1, 1930 15th= Topeka J Mar. 10, 1939 7th= Topeka J Oct. 24, 1931 16th= Topeka J Feb. 2 & 10, 1940 8th= Topeka J Oct. 22, 1932 17th= Topeka J Mar. 8 & 17, 1941)ital (Feb. 2, 1922).; Midwestern Artists’ Exhibition (Kansas City: Kansas City Art Institute, 1920-1942 Mines, Cynthia. For the Sake of Art: The Story of an Art Movement in Kansas. s.l. Mines, 1979.) 1922-24; Goering, Adrienne. Houghton Cranford Smith: The Purist Landscape. (NY: Richard York Gallery, 2001); AskArt,, accessed Dec. 23, 2005; ; Family Search. Version 2.5.0. Salt Lake City: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, 2002. accessed July 17, 2006; KU Archives File (Faculty & Staff at the University of Kansas, card catalog file located in the Spencer Research Library); Houghton Cranford Smith: The Purist Landscapes. (New York: Richard York Gallery, 2001); Dawdy 3: Dawdy, Doris Ostrander. Artists of the American West: A Biographical Dictionary. Volume 3. Chicago: Swallow Press, 1985..
This and over 1,750 other biographies can be found in Biographical Dictionary of Kansas Artists (active before 1945) compiled by Susan V. Craig, Art & Architecture Librarian at University of Kansas.

Biography from David Findlay Jr. Gallery:
When Houghton Cranford Smith strolled the beach at Pawley’s Island in the summer of 1954, he was always alive to opportunities to sketch. Besides the numerous paintings he created during the three summers he spent at Pawley’s Island (1952-1954), many of these small rough sketches, hastily scribbled on whatever surface was available, made their way into his paintings for the rest of his life.
Smith loved to paint outside and was intensely interested in landscape and color. Typical of his method, Smith referred to sketches made years before to create his colorful canvasses. A worldwide traveler whose interest in seeing the world was driven primarily by his passion for painting, Smith’s inveterate sketching provided material for painting during the last 40 years of his life, long after his travels were over.

“He didn’t leave the country again (after his honeymoon in Guatemala with his second wife) because he didn’t feel he needed to,” says Florence Cranford Smith Shepard, the eldest of Smith’s three children. Smith also had two sons, Houghton Jr. who lives in Michigan and Gerrit who passed away in 1997. “He understood the paintings he needed to do. He was perfectly content to stay at home and paint.”
Smith’s life as an artist and a man was charmed. His parents, Nina Van Dorn Lane and Daniel Cranford Smith of Brooklyn, New York, recognized and encouraged his talent early on. Smith fondly remembered learning how to draw in his father’s lap at the age of five.

His early art education included studies at the Nantucket School of Design and the Arts Students League in New York where he studied with George Bridgman, William Merritt Chase and Kenneth Hayes Miller. He learned critical lessons about the use of color and the relationship between colors from Ambrose Webster, and Charles Webster Hawthorne at Hawthorne’s Cape Cod School of Art in 1908 and 1909. Smith was instrumental in starting the Provincetown Art Association in 1914, an arts community that was a mainstay in Smith’s life for a decade after his initial visit in the summer of 1908.

His trip to Chile in 1916 resulted in an extended stay of four years due to the German blockade, and a marriage. He brought his bride, Elena Peralta of Santiago, back to the United States in 1920.

After a three-year stint as an assistant art professor at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, Smith answered a question of his father of what he really wanted to do.  Smith gave him an answer that changed his life.

“My father responded that he would like to go back to France and study. His father footed the bill for the same salary my father was making at the University of Kansas,” remembers Shepard.

Passionately committed to his art, Smith traveled and studied in France and Spain during the 1920s and 30s, working with Jean-Paul Laurens and later with Andre Lhote and Amedee Ozenfant in the early 1930s. His daughter, who was born in Nice, remembers living in a Paris apartment in the winters and summering in Le Brusc in Southern France on the Mediterranean Sea. Smith’s charm opened many doors for him.

“Whatever place my father rented, the people adopted all of us so my father could go and paint wherever he was,” she recalls. “We went to Spain for the summer when the Spanish Revolution was beginning. We came back by ship and my father never went back to Europe.”

When the Smith family returned to the United States in 1933, they lived with Smith’s parents at The New School campus, a progressive school that Daniel Smith had donated his land to support.  When Smith’s wife Elena became ill and died in 1938 of cancer, Shepard recalls that her father seemed at loose ends, unsure of how to raise three children alone. 
But three years later, on a trip to Mexico, he met a woman from Lancaster, South Carolina, who was to be his wife, stepmother to his children and promoter of his art for the next 40 years.

“Laura Gilbert Williams was a teacher of the kind I wish they had more of,” Shepard remembers. Shepard credits the schoolteacher from South Carolina for saving her education.

“I had been going to a progressive school. When Laura came along, she was horrified. The other kids were reading things I couldn’t read.” Shepard switched to a boarding school where she eventually caught up to her peers. Later, after Shepard married and had three children, the Shepard family returned to live with Smith and Laura. Smith’s grandfathering of her two disabled children was reminiscent of the loving father he had been to his children.

“My father was marvelous with my children,” remembers Shepard. “We all gained from the two that are now gone because they were remarkable. My father realized that. Laura and my father were absolutely there for us.”

Shepard remembers Smith as full of fun, a marvelous mimic who could capture the essence of a person with a couple of props. Interested in art, literature and theatre, Smith and Laura had many friends and loved to throw parties. Smith frequently took the children to the theatre, museums and shopping. Shepard’s close relationship with her father during his latter years allowed her to witness firsthand the artist at work.
“When he was doing large paintings, he painted every day. He’d have his little routine: he’d paint something, then he’d sit back and smoke a cigarette and stare at his work and decided if it was the way he wanted it to be or not,” she recalls. ”If he didn’t like an area, he might cut out a little piece of paper or a rough drawing and stick it on the canvas and hold it for a second.”

Smith always did the sky first on his large canvasses. He did washes beforehand, carefully making corrections before he started on the final version. He took many months to do large paintings and he always painted in oil, although during his long career, he experimented with every medium available. Smith enjoyed painting to marching music because its rhythm matched his brushstrokes.
Smith’s passion has become Shepard’s passion.

“I discovered that my father had no order to any of his work. After his 90th birthday party, I sat down with my father and put things on the floor and asked him where he was and when he painted this. I made him sign everything,” Shepard says. In conjunction with Laura, Shepard set out to publicize Smith’s work, and has made much progress in the last 10 years with a number of prestigious exhibitions. All of his original papers are on microfilm at the National Archives of American Art in Washington, D.C.

“To me, to live with his paintings, they grow on you. I find them to be tranquil,” Shepard says. “I feel like I’m there.”

Smith died at the age of 96, his last words to Laura a lament that he hadn’t made it as an academician. Laura, with the blessing of Smith’s children, turned the trust over to Shepard. Laura died 10 years after Smith passed away.

“My father didn’t need much. As long as he had his paint brushes and oils, he was content,” remembers Shepard. “He didn’t promote himself, he painted. I can’t tell you how thrilled I am that this museum show is taking place in Laura’s home state.”

By Jan Scalisi

Biography from Charleston Renaissance Gallery:
Born in Arlington, New Jersey in 1887, Houghton Cranford Smith studied at New York's Art Students League and the Academie Julien, Paris. He later taught painting and continued his studies in South America, the Caribbean Islands and at the University of Kansas. In 1933 he first visited South Carolina, his wife's home, and began to paint landscape scenes there.

Smith died in New York City in 1983.

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Houghton Smith is also mentioned in these AskART essays:
Taos Pre 1940

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