Albert Alexander Smith was born September 17, 1896, in New York City.
He attended the High School of Ethical Culture where he was the first
African American to win a scholarship, he later became the first African
American to study at the National Academy of Design. He enlisted in
the Army in World War I and saw action overseas while serving in the
807 Pioneer Band. He returned to the National Academy of Design after
the war, but soon left again for Paris, attracted by the freedom and
lesser degree of racial prejudice he encountered there. For the next
twenty years, Smith lived and worked in the Montmarte district. He traveled
throughout Europe, studying art in Italy, Spain and Belgium. Earning
his living as a musician and cabaret singer, he taught himself how to
play the banjo. He performed with other Black entertainers on stage
in Paris, at La Coupole, and in Rome, and Brussels. During this time
he managed to exhibit regularly in Paris and Brussels, and also sent
works back to the United States for exhibition and sale.
Smith received extensive training as a printmaker; he may have been
the first African-American artist ever to execute an etching.
Smith’s choice of subject matter is fascinating, as he worked
in several genres. While traveling Europe he produced etchings which
he exhibited and sold back in the United States. Typically these were
images of bridges, churches, and other European landmarks. These works
were shown in the New York Public Library in 1921 and 1922, and at the
Tanner Art League Exhibition in Washington, DC in 1922, where he won
a gold medal. He also produced a number of drawings in the spirit of
social activism the state of race relations in America. They were regularly
reproduced in the magazines of the NAACP and the National Urban League.
Typical of these is a picture of an African American man with a caption
“to the north” with an image of another Negro, a lynch victim,
hanging from a tree in the background. Smith also carried out a series
of portrait etchings of famous African-American leaders and other positive
images of African–American lifestyle. He had found a patron in
New York collector and dealer Arthur Schomburg, who ordered works from
Smith for his own collection and for resale. Smith would also do research
on art for Schomberg at the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris, gathering
information for him on African American artists who lived and worked
in Europe. Smith also benefited from the support of his father, who
actively promoted his works. Smith was not above producing stereotypical
scenes of Negro country life, musicians, dancer, etc., for wealthy clients
searching for images of an imaginary tranquil past where gentile whites
were happily served by contented Negroes.
Smith submitted his paintings to the Harmon foundation in New York City,
the foundation the leading sponsor of African Americans in the arts
at the time. Smith felt an acute sense of rivalry with fellow artists
such as Archibald Motley Jr., who won a Guggenheim fellowship, Palmer
Hayden and Hale Woodruff, both of who won awards from the Harmon Foundation.
Smith did win a bronze award from the foundation in 1929.
Smith died in Paris in 1940. In 1990 his atelier surfaced at auction
in Paris, there were many paintings, drawing and etchings. The painting
“Cabaret” was among this collection, this painting is strikingly
similar to a photograph of Smith on stage in Brussels in 1932.