Gladys Nelson Smith emerged from the nation’s heartland to study at three of the country’s leading art academies, eventually earning critical acclaim for her Impressionist canvases with a decidedly feminine sensibility. Her paintings of children, motherhood, and gardens were praised for their exquisite composition, classical use of color, and eloquence: “Her ability as a landscape painter is second only to that of painting children,” one reviewer wrote. “She loves to portray in her own special way the moods of nature, those subtle qualities in the coming storm, the roaring wind and the beautiful sunset, which most of us feel but cannot express.”
Having grown up with nine siblings on a Kansas farm, Gladys Nelson pursued her early passion for art as an undergraduate student in the fine arts program at the University of Kansas at Lawrence. Her college efforts reflect her teachers’ Impressionist bent, a style she followed for the rest of her active career. Soon after her marriage, her husband was drafted into military service, and Smith relocated to New York City to study at the Art Students League while she awaited his return from the European front. A series of moves prompted by Errett Smith’s legal career gave Smith the opportunity to study at the Art Institute of Chicago and, finally, at the Corcoran School of Art in Washington, D.C. where her instructors included Edmund Tarbell and Richard Meryman. Settling permanently in the Washington area, Smith took classes at the Corcoran through 1930.
Smith’s earliest exhibition opportunities came in her native state, beginning in 1921 when her paintings won prizes at the Kansas Free Fair and were noted for their “masterful sweep of color.” Her subject matter throughout the next two decades focused largely on children and mothers, much like better-known Impressionists such as Mary Cassatt. Her participation in area exhibitions, including the Corcoran’s 1937 Biennial Exhibition of Contemporary American Oil Paintings, grew, as did the number of commissions for portraits.
In 1936, the Smiths purchased a farm in the Maryland countryside, a weekend retreat that served as the backdrop for many of Smith’s landscapes and genre scenes. Often working en plein air, Smith would execute weekend sketches which she would then finish at her studio in the city. She developed her paintings sporadically, working on them for a while and then hanging them before taking up her brush to address them again, a habit that explains why very few of her canvases are signed or dated. An enthusiastic gardener, many of Smith’s later still lifes feature flowers from her own garden.
Demand for Smith’s paintings diminished over time, a trend she attributed to the growing popularity of modernism. Though she continued to paint for her own pleasure, she withdrew from the public art scene in the mid-1950s. In 1980, Smith was given two one-woman shows, where her paintings were lauded as fine examples of American realism. She passed away later that year at the age of ninety. Reflecting on her career, Smith wrote that “the very great reward in the work is the habit of seeing beauty and pattern in common things.” Her paintings can be found in the collections of her alma mater, the Corcoran Gallery of Art, as well as the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Butler Institute of Art, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, and Morris Museum of Art.