GLADYS NELSON SMITH is an all-but-forgotten Washington artist who lived in Chevy Chase from 1941 until her death four years ago at age 90.
Opening Saturday at the Corcoran, a retrospective of her work rediscovers her -- and marks the first of a series of shows the gallery plans on obscure local artists, supported by a memorial fund named for her.
Smith was a representational artist when it was falling from fashion: She painted portraits, landscapes and still lifes, with a love of color. Among the 66 paintings, pastels and drawings on display, the landscapes are often flat and the flower paintings reminiscent of tole tea trays, but the portraits stand out.
Smith had already sold paintings and experienced some small acclaim when she moved from Kansas to Washington in the 1920s. Here, she studied at the Corcoran School. In the '30s, she and her husband Errett, a lawyer, lived near Dupont Circle on St. Matthews Court, then an artists' enclave. She produced her best work there, and exhibited extensively.
She focused on local scenes -- a Georgetown stoop, a picnic at Great Falls, Rock Creek Park in the rain. Of the people she painted in her portraits then, many remain unidentified. There are no celebrities here, only the ice man, who stopped by to take "Time Out," and "The Tippler," who was perhaps a neighbor, enjoying his carafe of wine.
In a letter she wrote in 1939, Smith decried modern art as "this madness." The Smiths' move to Chevy Chase sealed her disenchantment with the art world. Bridge parties occasionally caught her interest. Becoming reclusive in her art, she turned inward, found homier subjects. Husband Errett is often depicted in his bathrobe.
But though her later subjects are a bit precious -- the couple gardening, children playing, cats lounging -- they are without affectation. Later in her life, Parkinson's disease, then blindness, brought an end to her painting.
Curiously, Smith's self-portraits are the most appealing, at whatever age she found herself. A handsome woman, she confronts the viewer, while in other portraits her subjects look to the side. In a self-portrait done in the '20s or '30s, she captures her own lusty youth, touched with innocence and a soft glow, as from lamplight, on her cheek.
GLADYS NELSON SMITH, 1890-1980 -- From Saturday through January 20, 1985, at the Corcoran Gallery.