Back to Artists«

Hughie Lee-Smith (1915-1999)

1 of 4

Untitled (Maypole), c.1955
oil on Masonite
19" x 13 1/2", signed

Waiting, c.1956
oil on Masonite
23 5/8" x 36", signed

Untitled, c.1952-1957
oil on canvas
18" x 24", signed

Untitled (Man in Boat), c.1962
oil on canvas
18" x 26 1/8", signed



New & Noteworthy

Huffington Post, January 20, 2012

by Peter Frank

Download PDF

American Artist Magazine, February 2012

Download PDF


Hughie Lee-Smith: The 1950s

Download PDF

Prints & Publications

Artist Information

“My earliest direct contact with painting was . . . as a ten-year-old student at the Cleveland Museum. The specific painting that made an impression was Ryder’s ‘Death Riding the Race Track.’ My early attraction to that macabre composition suggests a natural propensity to a romantic perception of reality. . . .  In addition to this, in later years I have come to realize the unconscious influence of the Midwestern climate as a key factor in the development of my colour scheme. My predilection for cold, dark skies and sparse, flat landscapes in my painting is undoubtedly due in large measure to the long, continuously grey winters of my youth in Ohio, Michigan and Ontario.” (1)

"Scientists have belatedly discovered what metaphysicians have known all along: that the visible external world can be defined only in relation to man and his inner world." (2)

Born in Eustis, Florida in 1915 to parents who divorced soon after his birth, Hughie Lee-Smith (who added the hyphen to his name as a teenager to give it more artistic panache) spent his early years in Atlanta, Georgia under the care of his maternal grandmother while his mother pursued a singing career in Cleveland. Lee-Smith’s grandmother lived a middle-class lifestyle with its attendant values of respectability and education, and she strove to impart these standards to her grandson. Therefore, she exerted considerable control over Lee-Smith’s friendships and leisure activities. While her monitoring facilitated Lee-Smith’s intellectual growth, at times it also left him feeling removed from the life around him, particularly when forms of mass entertainment like fairs and carnivals came into town. As Lee-Smith once recalled, “Every time [the carnival] appeared I was utterly fascinated with the sights and sounds: the carousel music, the ribbons, pennants, balloons and riotous colors. But, of course, I was never allowed to attend. For, in my grandmother’s perception, the carnival was low-class and iniquitous. (3)

His grandmother’s prohibition against “low-class” entertainment (and the people who consumed it) added to a sense of alienation that Lee-Smith felt throughout his life, and that he principally attributed to the estrangement of the artist—who must perpetually observe the world from a distance—as well as exclusion as a black man from a US culture that defined itself through whiteness and often rejected African Americans from the national imaginary through caricature, discrimination, and violence. (4)  The fairground’s promise of delight and inclusion would come to haunt Lee-Smith’s paintings, which are full of carnivalesque elements that only add to a pervading sense of isolation, often because they seem blissfully indifferent to the condition of the people near them.

By 1925, Lee-Smith’s mother had established herself as a singer, and Lee-Smith and his grandmother went to live with her in Cleveland. The two women nurtured Lee-Smith’s talent for drawing and painting. His mother enrolled him in Saturday classes at the Cleveland Museum of Art in 1925, and just two years later, he moved on to more advanced courses at the Cleveland School of Art (now the Cleveland Institute of Art). After finishing high school in 1934, Lee-Smith won a scholarship from the Scholastic Awards exhibition held at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Institute, which enabled him to study at the Detroit Institute of Arts and Crafts for a year. The following year, he received a full scholarship from the Gilpin Players acting troupe of Cleveland’s Karamu House—a settlement house in Cleveland’s Fairfax neighborhood devoted to serving the educational and cultural needs of the surrounding black community—and pursued a degree at the Cleveland School of Art. The importance of Lee-Smith’s association with Karamu House extended beyond his being able to finance his education. A condition of the scholarship was that recipients spend a year teaching at the settlement, and in 1935, Lee-Smith and fellow Cleveland artists Elmer Brown and Charles Sallée co-founded the Cleveland Karamu House Artist Association. Karamu House was also home to the nation’s first African American theater company, and Lee-Smith—whose passion for the arts extended to dance, music, literature, and theater—was surrounded by the theatrical elements that, like the carnival, would play a significant role in his later paintings.

In 1938, Lee-Smith graduated with honors from the Cleveland School of Art, and worked for the Federal Arts Project of the Works Progress Administration (WPA). Like many WPA artists, Lee-Smith was concerned about the contribution art could make to the struggle for social justice and racial equality, and he created a series of lithographs on this theme. In 1943, he was drafted into the US Navy and stationed at the Great Lakes Naval Base, near Chicago, Illinois. While there, Lee-Smith became involved with the South Side Community Art Center (SSCAC), through which he met key Chicago artists like Archibald J. Motley Jr., Charles Sebree, and Charles White. In 1944, Lee-Smith collaborated on a collection of murals depicting the history of black Americans in the Navy, and in 1947, the Navy donated these painting to the SSCAC. 


Lee-Smith arrived at his mature style in the 1950s, moving away from WPA-era themes of labor, history, and collectivity and towards an art that was social realist in concept—in that Lee-Smith remained invested in a socially committed art—but whose style revealed Lee-Smith’s longtime interest in the neoclassicism of Jacques-Louis David as well as the ubiquitous influence of surrealism on twentieth century American art. Comprised of beautifully haunting, sparsely populated landscapes, Lee-Smith’s paintings troubled conceptual binaries—between internal and external, real and surreal, black and white, isolation and community, hope and despair—and defied categorization. The dream-like atmosphere and pervasive sense of alienation in these works have elicited comparisons to Giorgio de Chirico, Edward Hopper, and Eugene Berman, but such corollaries are only half right. While these artists share many of Lee-Smith’s existential concerns, the figures in their work are predominantly white, reinforcing a Western tendency to imagine whiteness as the “universal” or un-raced identity. At a time when white artists were thought of simply as “artists” while African Americans were expected to paint/sculpt/draw “the black experience,” Lee-Smith created deeply personal landscapes populated by figures whose ethnic features were often ambiguous or who, even when assigned a distinct racial identity, functioned as universal embodiments of loneliness, introspection, or human existence, thus expanding the category of the “everyman” to include men and women of diverse identities. While these paintings work as psychological landscapes, the spaces Lee-Smith’s figures inhabit also have reference points in the real world. Thus, the boarded tenements, crumbling brick, crackled façades, and empty streets of his work are both an expression of existential themes and a depiction of the actual deprivation that exists in the slums, ghettos, and inner cities of the United States.

The complexity and subtlety of Lee-Smith’s work made it difficult for critics to classify, and this phenomenon, combined with his location in the Midwest, contributed to Lee-Smith’s relative obscurity on the East Coast for much of his early career. In the mid-1950s, he started to achieve national attention, beginning with a solo exhibition at Howard University’s art gallery. In 1957, he won the Emily Lowe Competition, sponsored by Eggleston Gallery in New York City, which helped raise his profile in the city’s art circles. Lee-Smith moved to New York the following year and was represented by the Petite Gallery (later the Janet Nessler Gallery). In 1967, he became the second African American artist (after Henry Ossawa Tanner at the beginning of the century) to be elected to full membership in the National Academy of Art and Design. But as his career gained prominence during the 1960s, the violent responses to the Civil Rights movement in parts of the country left Lee-Smith increasingly pessimistic over the possibility of attaining what he later described as “the youthful dream of a world free of the tentacles of racism.” (5)  As the 1960s drew to a close, Lee-Smith took an artist-in-residency at Howard University and worked as the acting chair of its art department. Howard and its surrounding city of Washington, DC were important sites for the Black Arts Movement, and Lee-Smith became actively involved in the discussions over what a “black aesthetic” might look like. Although the question of race is often not overtly confronted in his work, as art historian and author of Hughie Lee-Smith: The David C. Driskell Series of African American Art, Volume VIII (Pomegranate 2010) Leslie King-Hammond has pointed out, Lee-Smith “used representation and its illusions as a means to ponder questions of humanity by working through the specifics of black American lives, (6) and this is where the politics of his art lay.

Lee-Smith had several solo shows throughout the 1970s and 1980s and amassed a following of enthusiastic private collectors, but he did not have a retrospective until 1988, when the New Jersey State Museum in Trenton organized its traveling exhibition. In 1994, New York’s City Hall commissioned him to paint the official portrait of Mayor David N. Dinkins, and in 1995, the Maryland Institute College of Art awarded him an honorary doctorate. Lee-Smith continued to paint right up until his death in 1999.  Over a decade after the artist’s death, Lee-Smith’s paintings continue to be relevant as they challenge us to contemplate the complexities of human existence and its representation.

(1) Hughie Lee-Smith quoted in Leslie King-Hammond, Hughie Lee-Smith (New York: Pomegranate Press, 2011), 38. Unless otherwise noted, all biographical information is from King-Hammond.

(2) Lee-Smith quoted in King-Hammond, 61.

(3) Lee-Smith quoted in King-Hammond, 42.

(4) King-Hammond, 88.

(5) Lee-Smith quoted in King-Hammond.

(6) King-Hammond, 89.



Atlanta University, Atlanta, GA
Block Museum of Art, Northwestern University, Evanston, IL
The Butler Institute of American Art, Youngstown, OH
Canton Museum of Art, Canton, OH
Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland, OH
Detroit Institute of Arts, Detroit, MI
Flint Institute of Art, Flint, MI
Howard University Art Collection, Washington, DC
Hunter Museum of American Art, Chattanooga, TN
Kalamazoo Institute of Arts, Kalamazoo, MI
Lagos Museum, Nigeria
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA
National Academy of Design, New York, NY
New Jersey State Museum, Trenton, NJ
Norton Museum of Art,West Palm Beach, FL
Parrish Art Museum, Southampton, NY
Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC
The Navy Museum, US Navy Art Collection, Washington, DC
University of Michigan
University of the District of Columbia, Washington, DC
Wayne State University, Detroit, MI

South Side Community Art Center, Chicago, IL
Snowden Gallery, Chicago, IL

Ten Thirty Galleries, Cleveland, OH

Detroit Artists Market,1, MI

Garelick Gallery, Detroit, MI

Anna Werbe Galleries, Detroit, MI
Forsythe Gallery, Ann Arbor, MI

Howard University Gallery of Art, Washington, DC 
Petite Gallery(Janet Nessler), New York, NY

J.L. Hudson Company, Detroit, MI
Arwin Galleries, Detroit, MI

Summit Gallery of Art, New York, NY

Evans-Tibbs Collection, Washington, DC

Malcolm Brown Gallery, Shaker Heights, OH

June Kelly Gallery, New York, NY; four exhibitions in eight years

New Jersey State Museum, Trenton, NJ
Studio Museum in Harlem, NY

Bristol-Myers Squibb Gallery, Princeton, NJ

Hughie Lee-Smith: The 1950s, Major Paintings, Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC, New York, NY

Hughie Lee-Smith: Meditations, Muskegon Museum of Art, Muskegon, MI

New York/Chicago: WPA and the Black Artist, Studio Museum in Harlem, New York, NY

Empowerment: The Art of African American Artists, Krasdale Gallery, White Plains, NY
African-American Art: 20th Century Masterworks, Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, New York, NY
The Harmon and Harriet Kelley Collection of African American Art, San Antonio Museum of Art, San Antonio, TX; El Paso Museum of Art, El Paso, TX; Michael C. Carlos Museum, Emory University, Atlanta, GA; Butler Institute of American Art, Youngstown, OH; Hunter Museum of Art, Chattanooga, TN

African-American Art: 20th Century Masterworks, II, Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, New York, NY; Long Beach Museum of Art, Long Beach, CA

African-American Art: 20th Century Masterworks, III, Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, New York, NY

African-American Art: 20th Century Masterworks, IV, Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, New York, NY; Fisk University Galleries, Nashville, TN
Revisiting American Art: Works from the Collections of Historically Black Colleges and Universities, Katonah Museum of Art, Katonah, NY

African-American Art: 20th Century Masterworks, V, Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, New York, NY; The Newcomb Art Gallery, Tulane University, New Orleans, LA

African-American Art: 20th Century Masterworks, VI, Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, New York, NY; Flint Institute of Arts, Flint, MI
African American Art in Chicago, 1900-1950, Robert Henry Adams Fine Art, Chicago, IL

African-American Art: 20th Century Masterworks, VII, Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, New York, NY; Appleton Museum of Art, Ocala, FL

African-American Art: 20th Century Masterworks, VIII, Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, New York, NY; Texas Southern University Museum, Houston, TX

African-American Art: 20th Century Masterworks, IX, Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, New York, NY

African-American Art: 20th Century Masterworks, X, Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, New York, NY

Building Community: The African American Scene, Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, LLC, New York, NY
American Perspectives: Highlights of Works by African American Artists from the Collection of the FIA, Flint Institute of Arts, Flint, MI

African American Art:  200 Years, Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, LLC, New York, NY

Collecting African American Art, The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, TX

Otherworldliness, Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC, New York, NY

Successions: Prints by African American Artists from the Jean & Robert Steele Collection, David C. Driskell Center at the University of Maryland, College Park, MD
Full Spectrum: Prints from the Brandywine Workshop, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, PA

Solitary Soul, Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC, New York, NY

African American Masterpieces: Permanent Collection Highlights, Canton Museum of Art, Canton, OH
Something to Say: The McNay Presents 100 Years of African American Art, McNay Art Museum, San Antonio, TX