Mr. Smith came to Washington last night.

And to honor him, about 500 guests came to the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. They were previewing the exhibition "David Smith: Painter, Sculptor, Draftsman," a retrospective of the American master sculptor's work that opens today. The National Gallery will open its Smith show this weekend.

"I am an artist, too, an abstract painter, but of course, no one knew that when we were together," said Dorothy Dehner, Smith's first wife of 25 years.

"I was just back to New York from Europe when we met," said Dehner, resting beneath one of Smith's wildly colorful early paintings. "He came to my door and said 'I'm David Roland Smith and I want to be an artist and my landlady said you would know exactly what I should do.' I felt an extraordinary vitality in him. He had never heard a symphony orchestra, never been in an art museum, but he had a natural eagerness. I encouraged him and I always thought he would do something terrific because of his force of personality."

Dehner recalled Smith's first sculpture. "We were living in the Virgin Islands -- we decided to try to be like Gauguin but it was too expensive to go to the South Seas. David used to pick up coral, and that became his first sculpture. He was only painting up to that point. He started to carve the head of a Negro on a chunk of white coral. And he painted it a dark purplish-brown, because even then he was interested in painted sculpture. Then he carved a little torso, head, buttocks and breasts, to show it was a female sculpture."

Smith's two daughters by second wife Jean Smith also attended. Rebecca ("I'm a mother and a painter") and Candida ("I'm an aunt and a dancer") stood shyly by the sculptures, greeting friends and finishing each other's sentences.

"He would send us messages," Rebecca said. "Literally. He would weld our names into the works."

Candida: "Like the piece on Connecticut Avenue, near the Hilton, says 'Hi Candida, Hi Becca.' "

Rebecca: "It's a greeting, a hello."

Candida: "Not in a supernatural sense. In a personal way, like a family heirloom."

The two daughters stood near "Becca" (1965) a massive, shimmering stainless steel sculpture. "I don't think it looks like me, but you'd have to ask an art critic about that," said Rebecca, smiling.

In the middle of the crowd nibbling cheeses and bread, Olga Hirshhorn, widow of Joseph Hirshhorn, chatted with her son, John ("Chip") Cunningham, and international art dealer Carla Panicali. He teaches sculpture at Skidmore College and brought nine of his students to see the show.

"This is a very exciting show for me, since I had not seen Smith's early works and paintings," said Hirshhorn, who wore a large gold tennis racket pin encircled with diamonds. "I met him early, when I met Joe, when I knew very little about contemporary art. My one regret is that he never lived long enough to know Joe and I were married."

"Olga told Joe to buy four of the 'Voltri,' " said Panicali. "That was when they sold for $11,000 to $15,000. Now they're worth $1 million. She was very enthusiastic, she said 'Buy more! Buy more!' She was fantastic.

"I was David's dealer and his best friend," said Panicali, director of the Marlboro Gallery in Rome. "Sometimes we would go into New York to listen to jazz with critic Clem Greenberg. David was a big, warm man. I felt safe walking with him in New York."

Dehner recalled taking Smith's early sculptures around to museums and galleries.

"When we took work to the Museum of Modern Art, we'd take it on the subway -- I'd take two little pieces and he'd take two bigger ones. The late MOMA director Alfred Barr said, 'You'd better take it out of my office, David. I don't know what to do with it.'

"Then we went to Pierre Matisse's gallery and he said 'David, it looked better before it was unwrapped.' "

And, talking about their life together, Dehner was asked if she and Smith had had any children.

"We didn't have children. We had sculptures."