Oliver Phelps Smith: A Little Discovered and Long Forgotten Gem
Oliver Phelps Smith is a more or less unknown American artist who was born in Hartford, CT in 1857 and who worked for most of his life as both a painter and stained glass artist. For many years he was associated with Heinigke & Bowen in New York which, upon the death of Otto Heinigke became Heinigke & Smith when Otto Heinegke's son assumed his father's position in the business. Otto Heinigke had been one of the most famous American stained glass artists of all time. He'd shared his studio with Owen J. Bowen, a former associate of both Louis Comfort Tiffany and John La Farge. The influence of Heinigke and La Farge on Oliver Phelps Smith is impossible to ignore. Both are known for incorporating ancient stained glass techniques, that had been used toward the end of the Middle Ages in the stained glass of French gothic cathedrals, with much more modern practices used at the time by Tiffany. Later, Phelps Smith moved to Boston and concentrated entirely on painting, mostly water colors that were clearly influenced by his work in stained glass.
As one can see in the works pictured below, his use of water color was unusual in that there was rarely if ever any white space left on the paper, and rather than capitalize on the transparency of the medium, he instead sought out a density and saturation that is usually relegated to oils. He painted prolifically before returning to New York to design tapestry, and then began painting murals such as the one on the ceiling of the Woolworth Building in lower Manhattan. Today he is largely forgotten, as very few dealers or museums have ever procured works from this artist, and we think something should be done to rehabilitate his renown as he is one of the truly creative artists of whom the US can be proud.