Hughie Lee-Smith (September 20, 1915- February 23, 1999) was an American artist and teacher whose signature works were slightly surreal in mood, often featuring distant figures seen under vast skies in desolate urban settings.
Lee-Smith was born in Eustis, Florida to parents Luther and Alice Williams Smith; in art school he altered his last name to sound more distinguished. As a child Lee-Smith moved to Atlanta to live with his grandmother, where the carnivals he attended would later provide imagery for his art. At age 10 he moved to Cleveland, and attended classes at the Cleveland Museum of Art, and later the Cleveland Institute of Art and the John Huntington Polytechnic Institute, the Art School of the Detroit Society of Arts & Crafts (Center For Creative Studies, College of Art & Design), and received a Bachelor of Arts from Wayne State University in Detroit. He began to teach art, and performed with an interracial dance company. His early work reflected social concerns inspired by the Great Depression of the 1930s and the work of Works Progress Administration artists of the period. Lee-Smith was employed by the WPA in Ohio, and while in the Navy painted a mural entitled History of the Negro in the U.S. Navy.
Many years after winning a top prize for painting from the Detroit Institute of Arts in 1953, he recalled
I was no longer called black artist, Negro artist, colored boy. When I won that prize, all of a sudden, there was no longer a racial designation.
His paintings evidenced the influence of Cubism, Social realism, and Surrealism at the service of a personal expression that was poignant and enigmatic. Of his characteristic work, Holland Cotter wrote in The New York Times,
Mr. Lee-Smith's paintings usually have spare settings suggestive of theater stages or bleak urban or seaside landscapes. Walls stretch out under gray skies. Men and women, as lithe as dancers, seem frozen in place. Most are dressed in street clothes; some wear exotic masks. Children frequently appear, as do props reminiscent of circuses. The work has an air of mystery associated with the paintings of Giorgio de Chirico and Edward Hopper.
In 1963 Lee-Smith became an associate member of the National Academy of Design, then the second African-American to be elected to the Academy, after Henry Ossawa Tanner, and was made a full member four years later. In 1994 he was commissioned to paint the official portrait of David Dinkins, former Mayor of New York City, for the New York City Hall. Retrospectives of Lee-Smith's work were mounted by the New Jersey State Museum and the Studio Museum in Harlem in 1988, and Ogunquit Museum of American Art in 1997. Lee-Smith's works are included in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the National Museum of American Art, the Detroit Institute of Art, Howard University, and Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Manhattan.
Lee-Smith died of cancer in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
- The African American Registry, biography
- Jet, obituary, March 22, 1999
- Johnson, Ken. The New York Times, review, September 29, 2000
- Cotter, Holland. The New York Times, obituary, March 1, 1999
- Raynor, Vivien. The New York Times, review, November 12, 1995
- Raynor, Vivien. The New York Times, December 4, 1988
- Lebowitz, Cathy. Art In America, review, January 2001
- Art and Architecture of New Jersey, biography
- Appleton Museum of Art
- Smithsonian Archives of American Art
- The Piper
- Confrontation, Hunter Museum of American Art
- Discussion on a Rooftop, Howard University
- Smithsonian American Art Museum