Although he assumed an imposing stature in his later years, Jeffrey Smart was a grafter not a dasher. A careful, methodical craftsman, he had little respect for painters such as Sidney Nolan who might produce dozens of canvases in a week. For Smart a painting had to be constructed with the same care that an architect would bring to the design of a building. A typical Smart painting would take months to complete.
Smart began work on each new picture with a series of small, detailed studies. He might take a snapshot of a scene that caught his eye, but the final motif would be transformed and reworked beyond recognition. He laboured long and hard over his compositions, drawing inspiration from Piero della Francesca, whose paintings were based on the most rigorous geometry.
In the future, people will look at Smart’s neat, precise images in museums and imagine the artist must have been a reserved, rather uptight personality. Nothing could be further from the truth. Smart had a wicked sense of humour and a piercing intelligence. He loved to gossip and tell stories. He had scurrilous nicknames for his enemies, and a deeply ironic view of life.
He was flattered when people referred to him as Australia’s greatest living painter, but he knew such phrases were specious. He once told me a story about sitting in a restaurant with Gore Vidal, when a couple of “ghastly people” came fawning to the writer and asked for his autograph. “Gore just lapped it up!” he said, with mock horror.
Smart was no less accommodating to his fans but he never relinquished his facility for self-criticism, and never played the genius. He knew that talent alone was not sufficient to ensure one’s success as an artist. Everything Smart achieved was due to hard work and shrewdness. He escaped from provincial Adelaide, then from provincial Australia, settling first in Rome in 1965 before moving to Tuscany, where he would spend the last 40 years of his life. He loved Europe but recognised the major market for his work lay in Australia, and understood that posterity would judge him primarily as an Australian painter.
His reputation was secured with many haunting images of urban life infused with a kind of classical stillness that makes one think of the old masters. He had many imitators, but no-one has ever recaptured the uncanny atmosphere of a celebrated Smart painting such as The Cahill Expressway (1962) or Factory and staff, Erewhyna (1972), both in the collection of the National Gallery of Victoria. Like all great realists, Smart represented the world around us in such a way that the most commonplace subjects became extraordinary. He took those scenes we usually overlook and made them a lasting source of rapture.
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, June 22, 2013