Mini Bio: Jeffrey Smart

Kathleen Belsten / June 21, 2013 11:56 AM

Painter Jeffrey Smart, who was known for his iconic urban landscapes and vivid depictions of everyday modernity, dies at 91.  

Jeffrey Smart's 'Self-portrait at Papini’s', 1984-5

Jeffrey Smart's 'Self-portrait at Papini's', 1984-5

Jeffrey Smart was a beloved Australian painter who used precisionist depictions of urban landscapes and figures as a way to give people new ways to look at life.

He died on 20 June of renal failure in a hospital near his home in Italy. He was 91.

His partner of more than 30 years, Ermes De Zan, was with him when he died.

One of Smart’s agents, Stuart Purves, who represented the painter in Australia, says Smart was an extremely significant man in our time.

“I think he was one of the great milestones in our cultural well-being,” Mr Purves said, “he gave us new ways of seeing.”

He grew up in Adelaide and showcased his work around Australia and received the Commonwealth Jubilee Art Prize in 1951.

He was also an art critic for The Daily Telegraph, the drawing teacher at the National Art School and had a regular spot on ABC radio on The Argonauts.

But in 1965 he returned to Italy and lived there for the rest of his life so he could be closer to the world’s great culture.

Smart was one of Australia’s best known artists with his almost iconic and unique imagery.

He stated that he “paints a picture because he likes the shape” and preferred to talk about the style of his work, rather than the subject.

His paintings seem to visit an untouched area of art, but he is highly influenced by classical ancient art through his travels.

Many people admired him, including other artists like Jasper Knight who travelled to Italy to meet Smart and paint his portrait for the Archibald Prize.

"He was very warm and interested,” Knight said, “He’s one of my childhood heroes. It was just surreal.”

In his final work, Labyrinth (2011), a figure walks alone through a complex maze. Australian curator of Smart’s work, Barry Pearce, describes the piece as a visual metaphor for an artist’s creative life. They will get lost, wonder about the direction they should take and find new paths. 

Smart grew up in Adelaide but lived for more than half his life in Europe, having left in 1949 aged 28. He moved to Italy permanently in 1963.

Mr Purves said Smart lived a full life and was a slow and cautious painter who produced a small number of works every couple of years. 

He loved reading, writing, playing the piano and pug dogs.

Another of Smart’s agents, Philip Bacon, said Smart’s death was not unexpected, but a shock, because he had so much life even at an old age.

“He was an absolutely unique personality in every way,” he said, “he was amusing and witty and determined.”

Greens leader Senator Christine Milne tweeted: “Australia has lost a great artist with the death of Jeffrey Smart. His globally renowned urban landscapes/still single figures are love.”

For more biographies on thousands of prominent Australians, see Who’s Who Live.


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