The Mysteries of Hughie Lee-Smith's Enigmatic "Contemplating My Future"
By Beth Hamilton
In the New York Times obituary for Hughie Lee-Smith on March 1, 1999, he was succinctly described as “…a Painter of Spare, Bleak Scenes Touched with Mystery.” Considered at the same time a social realist, romantic realist and surrealist painter, Lee-Smith was a master of subtlety, and has been compared to Giorgio de Chirico and Edward Hopper. He often implied social tensions through an atmosphere of psychological alienation in his paintings. However, the artist admitted that his works could be read with many meanings.
Lee-Smith was born in Eustis, Florida, but lived with his grandmother in Atlanta after his parents divorced. When Lee-Smith was ten, he moved to Cleveland to join his mother. She recognized his talent and passion for drawing and enrolled him in classes for gifted children at the Cleveland Museum of Art. He later studied at the Cleveland Institute of Art, graduating with honors in 1938. With his degree, Lee-Smith taught at a center for black artists and began to exhibit his own works. In 1941, Lee-Smith moved to Detroit, a transition that was interrupted by the war. After serving in the navy as a mural artist, he returned to Detroit and obtained a degree in Art Education from Wayne State University in 1953. In conjunction with his teaching, Lee-Smith actively painted and exhibited his works during this 1950s. In 1953, he won a top prize for painting from the Detroit Institute of Arts.
In 1958, Lee-Smith moved to New York. He taught at the Art Students League for 15 years from 1972-1987. In 1963, he was elected an associate member of the National Academy of Design in Manhattan, only the second African American member to be named (after Henry Ossawa Tanner in 1927). He became a full member in 1967. Despite this recognition, it was not until 1988 that a retrospective of his work was held, organized by the New Jersey State Museum.
Lee-Smith eloquently addresses the plight of American youth in many of his paintings. The loneliness and isolation of the stark, run-down urban landscapes or seaside environments in which he places people is palpable. Having lived in blighted areas in Cleveland and Detroit, Lee-Smith understood life in neglected neighborhoods. He made sketches among the demolitions for the Detroit Expressways, incorporating them into several works in his solo show at the Detroit Artists Market in 1952. Despite the pervasive loneliness of his works, sometimes an uplifting emotion is conveyed in the expression of a child or the soft and light rendering of his skies. Memories from his childhood also surface in his art, particularly in the form of carnival imagery—colorful balloons, fluttering ribbons and stage-like settings.
Contemplating My Future is an enigmatic work by Lee-Smith, set against the lakeshore of a dying city. In the painting, a solitary figure stands with his back facing the viewer, gazing outward onto the bleak, abandoned landscape. He casually leans against the post of a crumbling wooden building, with a broken, peeling sign post above. The sign retains the letters “Lee-Sm,” which may suggest the artist’s subtle reference to himself. Lee-Smith has juxtaposed the man with a two-story nineteenth century brick building, an empty street distancing the two. Perhaps once a genteel home, it now stands like a second figure in the painting, facing the lone man. Despite the ghostly nature of the scene, Lee-Smith has bathed the composition in a warm, afternoon light. Further subtleties include the meticulous rendering of texture in the weathered buildings, and the wiry ribbon draped over the sign and strewn across the street.
Lee-Smith’s style and subject matter was remarkably consistent throughout his seven-decade career. In a credo he wrote on May 15, 1945, while he was serving in the Navy, he explained: “…if art is to survive it must express the needs and aspirations of the people and solidify them in the struggle for the achievement of their political, social and economic goals. If art is going to be effective in this social task it must be understood. Form and style must, therefore, meet with the approval of the great majority of people. Unless the artists takes into consideration the art-understanding of the common man, I am afraid he is imposing art from above; art that is uncalled for and unwanted” (Archives of American Art, Hughie Lee-Smith papers, 1942-1980, Reel 69-11, Frame 15). Lee-Smith’s ability to relate to his audience made him an influential, if not overlooked, realist painter of the 1940s and 1950s.
Cover image: Hughie Lee-Smith, American, 1915-1999. Contemplating My Future, 1954. Oil on masonite. 24 x 36 inches. Signed and dated lower right.