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Could America Have Also Been the Birthplace of Impressionism?

The story of Effie Anderson Smith, a forgotten impressionist from the American frontier

“Yuccas Blooming above Valley” by Effie Anderson Smith, part of a private collection — New York. All photos courtesy of Steven C/ unless otherwise noted.

Effie Anderson Smith lived about as far from Paris as you can get. She did not study brushstrokes in sunlit studios overlooking the Seine River, and she did not smoke on cobblestone sidewalks outside cafés. Smith was born in 1869, west of the Mississippi River, and stayed there for almost the entirety of her life. A frontier painter, Smith was hailed as a local talent, supported by the paintings she sold to members of her community throughout the 1890s and 1900s. And yet, somehow, without any direct connection, her work followed the same trajectory as the late-impressionist movement emerging in Europe at the exact same time, before she had any opportunity to be exposed to it.

Miss Effie Iola Anderson (left, circa 1890), around the time of her 21st birthday in Arkansas and her marriage to her first husband, William Mark Spencer.

Smith didn’t have contact with artists like Monet or Matisse or Caillebotte, and yet, just as impressionism was becoming a force in Europe, Smith’s work also became more abstract, using the same lighting and similar plein d’air painting styles. Smith painted for years in a increasingly impressionist style before she was exposed to any artists who had exhibited or visited the exhibits of the impressionists. In her piece Yucca and Mountain Scene, believed to have been painted before 1925, Smith’s brushstrokes are clearly visible, creating the plant in the foreground and the jagged mountains in the background. The painting contains every standard of an impressionist work: the short, thick brushstrokes; the unmixed paints; the discarding of black paint; the deep shadows of twilight; and the quickness of painting outside.

E. A. Smith’s painting, “Yucca and Mountain Scene.” Image courtesy of Dr. & Mrs. Lynn J. Tuttle.
“Impression, Sunrise” by Claude Monet. Photo by De Agostini/Getty Images.

In the top of the yucca plant are pointillism elements much like in Seurat’s paintings, and in its body, the leaves of van Gogh, the golds of Monet’s haystacks. The term impressionism was bestowed in 1874 on four now-famous Frenchmen—Claude Monet, Pierre Auguste Renoir, Alfred Sisley, and Frederic Bazille—by the French Académie des Beaux-Arts, which rejected them. The name came from the first painting of this style exhibited in the Paris art scene: Impression, Sunrise by Claude Monet. The artists were hated for their paintings, which were less precise and more figurative than those of the painters before them, as well as for their failure to abide by basic painting principles. Instead of working slowly and carefully with thin layers of oil paints, impressionists slapped colors onto the canvas in one layer and mashed them together with speed and intensity. By the time the movement had fully formed and its principles were made clear (in the mid-1880s), Effie Anderson Smith was 20 years old and living in Arizona and had already formulated her own style using many of the same principles.

Smith began painting at age 15 while still living in Hope, Arkansas. Married at 21 and widowed at 22, Smith moved with her family to Arizona, where, two years later, she married again. The radical difference in the landscape between the Ozark Mountain foothills and the green grass of Arkansas and the white light, high heat, and flat, subdued colors of Arizona inspired Smith to begin the paintings she would become best known for. “It was the color and space of Arizona that had so enthralled her. The far-flung distances, the glowing colors of the desert, the pastel shades of the mesas and mountains held for her a special charm,” wrote Smith’s biographer, Cynthia Hayostek.

Smith with a group of her art students — probably in Douglas, AZ (c 1940–45).

Smith was one of the first female western artists working in Arizona, painting Arizona landscapes 20 years before Georgia O’Keeffe. Her work is masterful, interesting, and, due to some heavy campaigning by her nephew, finally getting some of the recognition it deserves. But Smith wasn’t the only American painter already on the path to impressionism before the movement spread from France. Smith was one of dozens of American artists in the early 20th century whose work evolved in almost the exact same way as the painters living across the Atlantic Ocean. American impressionist painters like Mary Cassatt, William Merritt Chase, and John Singer Sargent all learned the craft from studying in Europe. These painters were cosmopolitans, able to afford travel to Europe in the wake of the Civil War, and they lived mainly in the Northeast.

Kelsey McKinney is a freelance writer who lives in Washington, D.C. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, GQ, Vanity Fair, and many others.

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