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 Rufus Way Smith  (1840 - 1900)

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Lived/Active: California/Ohio      Known for: plein-air wooded landscape, coastal paintings

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Apples and a Straw Hat
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These Notes from AskART represent the beginning of a possible future biography for this artist. Please click here if you wish to help in its development:
Rufus Way Smith (1840-1900).  Painter. 

Born in Cleveland, Ohio in 1840.  During the 1880s and 1890s Smith often spent winters in Los Angeles at the home of his daughter.  He died there in 1900. 

Exhibited: Blanchard Hall (Los Angeles), 1899.
Edan Hughes, "Artists in California, 1786-1940"
Nearly 20,000 biographies can be found in Artists in California 1786-1940 by Edan Hughes and is available for sale ($150). For a full book description and order information please click here.

Biography from Charleston Renaissance Gallery:
R. Way Smith, known as a landscape painter, exemplified the stereo-typical "Bohemian," a man who chanced living in poverty for the sake of art. Smith was a successful attorney with a wife and daughter when he decided that art was his real calling. He had displayed talent and an interest in art as a boy, and when he was ten his parents had allowed him to take lessons with Jarvis F. Hanks (1799-1853), a portrait painter who had come to Cleveland from the east coast. Hank's death in 1853 and his father's insistence that his son receive a "good" education, obliged Smith to get a degree from Hiram College and later a law degree. However, his love for painting never left him and in the 1870s he decided to go east and study art in New York and Philadelphia. (1)

He is listed as contributor of a landscape to the 1877 Cleveland Art Club exhibition. In the 1878 Loan Exhibition, he presented seven oil paintings, mostly landscapes. He became very active in the Cleveland Art Club, and in 1881, when the Art Club was reorganized and incorporated as The Cleveland Academy of Art, he was one of its incorporators.

In his early work Smith depicted romantic woodland scenes in a style reminiscent of American landscapist, Worthington Whittredge (1820-1910), rendering views from inside the woods in temperate colors. Like Whittredge, Smith sketched the American landscape directly out-of-doors. (2) He erected his easel in the woods around Cleveland, in Tinker's Creek Park near Bedford, or he took the train to Cuyahoga Falls with fellow club members. The "Cleveland Plain Dealer" reported in July, 1884:

"A large number of Cleveland artists, together with their friends, assembled at 9 o'clock this morning with their sketch books and lunch baskets in hand at the Valley Railway station where they took a special train to Cuyahoga Falls for a day's communion with nature. The party numbered about 200. Among the artists named were Willard, Evans, and R. W. Smith." (3)

Typical for Smith's work of the early 1880s are "A Summer Afternoon" (1882) in the Cleveland Museum of Art and "Autumn Landscape of Woods" in the Western Reserve Historical Society. For both paintings Smith selected a peaceful, sunny spot in the forest. In "A Summer Afternoon", a brook leads to a grassy clearing past mossy rocks and a decayed tree trunk. Two figures appear dwarfed below the towering beeches. In the background behind thick brush we see another clearing or the edge of the forest with cattle grazing.

"Autumn Landscape of Woods" depicts an afternoon in autumn. A bright yellow tree and an orange bush in front of it sparkle between branches and tree trunks that are cut off to fit the horizontal canvas. This makes the picture less awe-inspiring, yet more idyllic than the vertical format with its full-length trees. Like the artists of the Hudson River School whose paintings were exhibited in the 1878 Loan Exhibition, Smith paid great attention to details, showing leaves littered on the ground, wild flowers blooming at the edge of a pond in which trees are reflected, and a dog leaning over the water to take a drink.

In his later paintings, Smith gave more prominence to the animals in his landscapes: cattle in a pasture or sheep grazing at the edge of woods. A "Plain Dealer" art critic writing about the opening of the Brush and Palette Club exhibition of May 1895, praised Smith as one of the best local artists and maintained that he "excels in sheep pictures and they form a prominent feature of the pictures he has on line." (4)

Starting in 1889, perhaps inspired by trips to the coast of New England and by the luminist works of Martin Johnson Heade (1819-1904), (5) Smith painted light-filled, strongly horizontal coastal scenes and views of salt marshes dotted with haystacks. He executed these works both in oil in a watercolor; some are painterly, but many have the smooth quality of the luminists. The 13 x 29 inch watercolor "Marshes", with its receding distant view, the cool colors, and the crisp solid shape of the sailboat has many luminist characteristics. Landscape, an oil in a similar mode, might be a view at Lake Erie.

Occasionally Smith pictured genre scenes, such as "Treme Market, New Orleans", 1890. He probably started this painting on a five-week vacation to southern Louisiana in 1885, returning with many sketches; in 1890 he put the finishing touches on the market scene. (6) Here, too, Smith shows his concern with light. The long shadows of the weak morning sun form dark shapes on the pavement, while the building in the background is evenly illuminated.

Smith's artistic development reflects the influence of Cleveland's growing arts community at the end of the nineteenth century. Without the encouragement, camaraderie, and the learning opportunities offered by the Art Club, a frustrated lawyer like Smith would not have found the courage to become an artist. He became very successful, attracted many Cleveland patrons, and exhibited regularly not only in local shows but also in other states, particularly at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. In 1884, President Arthur appointed him one of the art commissioners of Ohio for the New Orleans World's fair and cotton Centennial.

Unfortunately Smith's career lasted only about 25 years. He is last mentioned in Cleveland newspapers in 1895. Apparently he suffered from ill health and went to live with his daughter in California, where he died in 1900.


(1) Most biographical data of Smith are taken from the Memorial Record of the County of Cuyahoga and the City of Cleveland (Chicago: The Lewis Publishing Co., 1894), 12-15. The Records do not give any specific information as to with whom or at which school Smith studied.

(2) Newspapers reported that he finished his paintings completely in the "open air." "Cleveland Plain Dealer" (May 20, 1888), 8, OAP.

(3) "Cleveland Plain Dealer" (July 23, 1884), 4, in Smith file, OAP.

(4) "Cleveland Plain Dealer" (Sunday, May 19, 1895), 2, OAP.

(5) Mrs. H. B. Hurlbut of Cleveland owned three paintings by M. J. Heade listed in the catalog of the 1878 Loan Exhibition. One was titled "High Tide on the Marshes".

(6) "Cleveland Plain Dealer" (January 10, 1885), 7. "R. Way Smith has just returned from a five weeks' sojourn in Southern Louisiana and brought with him a treasure in a way of well filled sketchbooks..."

F. C. Gottwald and the Old Bohemians (Cleveland, Ohio: Cleveland Artists Foundation, 1993), 26-29.

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