Her job description didn't do her justice. At the National Gallery of Art, where she'd worked for three decades, Frances Smyth-Ravenel was identified officially, and also unpoetically, as "editor in chief."
"Minister in charge of the afterlife of art shows" is closer to the mark.
The grandest of exhibitions do not live for long. After a few vivid weeks of entrancing a broad public, great exhibits die. Their bright lights are extinguished, their wall labels discarded, their works of art dispersed. Then great exhibits go wherever it might be that great exhibits go. Nothing here remains. Except for fading memories--and a book on a shelf.
Frances Smyth-Ravenel, "Franny" to her colleagues, was the person most responsible for the illustrated catalogues--and give-away brochures, and coffee-table volumes, and CD-ROMs, and annual reports, and academic tomes--that have poured into the world from the museum on the Mall.
She was 59 years old when she died at home in Georgetown on Wednesday afternoon, succumbing to the breast cancer she had battled for 10 years.
Her books weren't jazzy. That's not the National Gallery's style. They were conservative and decorous and easy on the eye. They were gently democratic--as accessible to scholars poring through their footnotes as they were to children looking merely at the pictures--and that was like her, too. She detested condescending prose and hated verbal mush. Smyth-Ravenel published the "Treasure Houses of Britain" catalogue and "Circa 1492" and the Winslow Homer catalogue, the Mark Rothko catalogue and more than 100 others. In 1987 someone took the trouble to weigh the teetering pile of books that her in-house shop had issued in 1986: 62 pounds.
In recent years the gallery has lost three of its guiding spirits.
Paul Mellon, who died in February, was the courtly philanthropist who gave to the museum hundreds of its pictures, and millions of its dollars, and largely set its mood.
Gaillard Fitzsimons Ravenel II, "Gil" to all his colleagues, was the scholarly creator who (with Mark Leithauser, his pal and partner) designed the gallery's installations, sequenced their art objects, chose the colors and the textures and gave the place its look.
He was a largely anonymous artist. So was Smyth-Ravenel, his widow. Millions of observers who were awed by his exhibits, and stood in line to see them, and kept coming back for more, never knew his name. She shared his anonymity. Crowds bought her catalogues, and took them home, and treasured them, without knowing she existed.
They were a memorable couple. Both were perfectionists. Both loved art. But he was a hotblooded Southerner, roughly dressed and prickly as sandpaper. She was not like that at all.
The term is out of favor, but Smyth-Ravenel was ladylike. Her manner was a blend of England's and New England's. Her father was an Englishman, a Cambridge physician, and there was something of that nation in his daughter's stance, in the precision of her speech and the flush upon her cheek.
Kirk Varnedoe, the chief curator of painting and sculpture at Manhattan's Museum of Modern Art, once called Smyth-Ravenel "a walking Gainsborough of a woman."
But her mother was American, and the daughter showed that, too. Something in her bearing called to mind the presence, watchful and forgiving, of a Winslow Homer schoolmarm. Smyth-Ravenel, although English-born (on Jan. 24, 1940), was brought here as an infant and did most of her growing up in the sea air of Cape Cod.
Anne Elwes, her older sister, said yesterday that Smyth-Ravenel showed signs of being an art historian when still a little girl. When handed a piece of silverware she'd decipher the hallmarks.
She was educated at what was then the Northampton School for Girls in Massachusetts, and later at Vassar College. In 1962, the year she graduated with a degree in art history, she took a job here at the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service, working for SITES first as a registrar, then as an exhibits coordinator and finally as assistant director before joining the gallery as an associate editor in 1970. She became editor in chief there in 1981.
The catalogue publishing business has changed enormously since she entered it, and she as much as anyone participated in its transformation.
Most museum catalogues in those days were little more than booklet-scaled lists. Their illustrations were scant and their prose was unforgiving--largely because most of it was written for academics by academics. Wide readership was seldom considered. An art historian in those days might have published his doctoral thesis in a tiny edition--one typed carbon copy for the university library, one for his mom and one for his thesis adviser.
Things are different now. Today's catalogues, even those containing the most original and up-to-date scholarship, are multipurpose books simultaneously directed at the generalist and the specialist and the viewer off the street.
"Some of her best," said Leithauser yesterday, "are coffee-table books, with all that that implies.
"Children can't resist them, though they don't read the text blocks, they just page through the pictures. Museum-goers take them home, sometimes as Christmas presents, sometimes as exhibition souvenirs. The most careful art dealers and academics buy them and annotate them. Everybody in the business has Franny's books. They have them and they use them."
"She was the most meticulous prose editor," said MoMA's Varnedoe. "She would never miss a dropped comma or a piece of broken type, but she was also an artist with a gracious sense of design and a fine feeling for proportion. Her books are recognizably hers. Though written by others they bear her stamp, and she did it all without ever being a tyrant. People loved her. She had immense curiosity. She had the bearing of a grande dame; she was as mischievous as a girl."
Her peers knew just how good she was. During her tenure her office received awards from the American Association of Museums, the Council for Advancement and Support of Education, the Art Directors Club of New York and the International Center of Photography. In 1989 her shop was given the Presidential Design Award for "Piranesi: The Early Architectural Fantasies" and "American Furniture From the Kaufman Collection." In 1995 the gallery received the Federal Design Achievement Award for publications produced between 1990 and 1995.
Books may have been her business but she was far too athletic to be thought a bookish person. She was a competitive dinghy racer. After her cancer was diagnosed she took up ocean kayaking as well.
Her 1983 catalogue for "Alfred Stieglitz: Photographs & Writings" was described by the New York Times Book Review as "the most beautiful book devoted to his work." It won numerous awards, including the American Book Award, and is being reissued this fall by the National Gallery. The original publication was supported by a grant from Stieglitz's wife, Georgia O'Keeffe.
The last book she edited was O'Keeffe's own catalogue raisonne, a summarizing work, in two volumes, which will include illustrations of, and detailed entries on, more than 2,000 works of art. Smyth-Ravenel's last catalogue will be published in October. It will be dedicated to her.
CAPTION: Frances Smyth-Ravenel produced award-winning catalogues for the National Gallery of Art.