A Kansas farm girl who earned praise as a stellar painter of American realism, Gladys Nelson Smith studied at the University of Kansas before marriage and a move took her to New York City. While her husband served in the military during World War I, Smith enrolled in classes at the Art Students League and attended lectures by John Sloan, an American realist. These experiences tempered Smith's early impressionistic aesthetic, though she maintained a love for color and light throughout her career.
Following her husband's military discharge, the Smiths settled in Washington, D.C. where Smith continued her art education at the Corcoran School of Art. Throughout the 1920s, she mainly painted scenes of children at play or with their mothers, in a realistic manner. She concluded her studies with a two month tour of Europe in 1930, during which she and her husband traveled across the continent viewing the works of the Old Masters. Upon returning to the United States, Smith embarked on her own career as a professional artist.
In 1936, the Smiths purchased a farm in the Maryland countryside to use as a weekend retreat. Many of her farm scenes started on site as 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 beginning to work on them again. This method explains why very few of her canvases are signed or dated. In the 1940s, Smith began to focus on floral still lifes, many of which were arranged from her own garden. Although she earned a reputation as a fine still life artist, demand for Smith’s work lessened as time went on. She blamed her lack of popularity among buyers and critics on the “madness” of the modern art movement. Discouraged that her style was being viewed as old fashioned and outdated, Smith abandoned painting in the mid-fifties.
In 1980, Smith was given two one-woman shows, one in Maryland and the other in D.C., where her paintings were lauded as a fine example of American realism. She passed away later that year at the age of ninety. The Corcoran Gallery of Art held a retrospective exhibition honoring Smith’s body of work in 1984. Smith's paintings are currently included in the collections of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Morris Museum of Art, Hirshorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, and Corcoran Gallery.
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