Treasures by Arthur Hall Smith

A plate from Arthur's handmade book for the Phillipses showing visiting nuns admiring Matisse's Studio, Quai Saint-Michel, 1916.

A plate from Arthur’s handmade book for the Phillips’s showing visiting nuns admiring Matisse’s Studio, Quai Saint-Michel. The Phillips Collection Archives, Washington D.C.

Arthur Hall Smith was a beloved employee during his tenure at The Phillips Collection, from 1960-1974. In 1960, the Phillips expanded into an annex which generated the need for more staff. In an oral history, Smith recalled interviewing for the job: “I bought a new pair of shoes and I went out to the Phillips’s house for the interview… they showed me a model of the new building and where they wanted to place me, which was the second floor because it had the Renoir, the Bonnards–really the ‘high rent place’ and he [Duncan Phillips] thought I would be a good welcoming presence there.” Arthur’s welcoming presence and French speaking ability made him a frequent guest at the home of Duncan and Marjorie Phillips, and unofficial translator for tours and foreign visitors to the museum.

Arthur made the Phillips’s a miniature book for Christmas one year, with depictions of the Phillips house with people, including two nuns, looking at paintings in the collection. During the major Cézanne exhibition in 1971, Smith went to a nearby “head shop” which sold pipes and other drug paraphernalia. The store also sold all kinds of buttons, so Smith got thirty of them and painted them ochre with a hand-painted Braque bird and the word “Staff,” and finished them with a heavy lacquer.

Handmade staff buttons

Handmade staff buttons. The Phillips Collection Archives, Washington D.C.

Arthur died in February of 2013 in Paris, France, where he lived for many years. A transcript of his oral history interview is available in the library.

Arthur Hall Smith Remembers the Phillips

Pamela Carter-Birken is a doctoral student at Georgetown University who is researching Duncan Phillips’s relationship with Mark Rothko. She traveled to Paris to interview Arthur Hall Smith who was employed by the Phillips when the museum’s Rothko Room was first installed in 1960. She guest posts about their meeting here.

Arthur Hall Smith. Photo: Pamela Carter-Birken

“I still have dreams about the Phillips Gallery,” says artist Arthur Hall Smith of the Washington, D.C., art museum celebrating its 90th anniversary this year. Hired by founder Duncan Phillips in 1959 to be a “welcoming presence,” Smith worked at what is now known as The Phillips Collection for 14 years as curatorial assistant, tour guide, lecturer, and handyman. At The Phillips Collection, he heard abstract expressionist Mark Rothko demand the lighting be changed in the museum’s original Rothko Room, and he bantered in French with Russian painter Marc Chagall.

Smith, a student of abstract painter Mark Tobey, left the Phillips in 1974 to teach painting and drawing at George Washington University, where he stayed for more than two decades. During his professorial years, Smith spent summers at his apartment in Paris, where he now lives year-round and continues to paint in his adjacent studio. The thick-walled building which houses his fourth-floor rooms contains elements from the fifteenth century and is located on the rue Visconti, among galleries of antiquities from Africa and South America.

Even before he graduated from high school in his hometown of Norfolk, VA, Smith aspired to an artist’s life in Paris. In 1951, he was awarded a Fulbright scholarship to study art at the École des Beaux-Arts. He served in the Army during the Korean War then returned to the United States to study under Tobey at the University of Washington in Seattle. From there, he came to Washington, D.C., where he worked in federal jobs until his interview with Duncan Phillips.

“His diction when he wrote his art criticism was almost Edwardian,” Smith says of Phillips. “He had that elevated Yale-educated turn-of-the-century vocabulary. Of course what became of his art criticism was the Collection itself.” Continue reading “Arthur Hall Smith Remembers the Phillips” »