Alfred Smith

Alfred Smith’s name reveals his family’s English origins, but in fact he was a Bordeaux-born Frenchman. He lived from 1854 to 1932 and was recognised and successful during his lifetime. His work uses a gentle palette, though as his style developed his colours brightened. I discovered the following painting of his at the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Bordeaux. It is called Les Quais de Bordeaux, measures 150 x 106cm and was done in oil on canvas.

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This painting is so magic, where do I start?! It measures 150cm by 106cm, and despite it not being the first in line in the room full of paintings, it was the first thing my eye was drawn to. I think the charm comes from the atmosphere that has been evoked; it’s poetic. The scene is cold, indicated by the warm clothes, and wet, indicated by the reflections in the pavement. This wintry atmosphere, combined with the very subtle yet full exploration of the colour palette, creates an aesthetic balanced between beauty and sadness. There is a feeling of gentle movement: the people are walking on the pavement, there are people descending or ascending the stairs, a tram is heading down the track further into the painting.

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Tiny dabs of bright, white/gold contrast the gloaming half-darkness; we are in a state of transition. The occasional straight line is defined: ship masts or railings on the tram. But the people aren’t distinct, which gives them movement and mystery. Their black clothes contrast the shining pavement which is reflecting the bright sunset sky. They are the darkest components, while the buildings are all reflecting like the pavement. The buildings in Bordeaux are completely different to other cities I’ve seen, in that they are all bright gold-cream colour. They glow in the sun, especially as the day gets late. It was the most beautiful stone I’d ever seen. But I don’t think this painting is about Bordeaux, so much as it is about time and beauty. Smith has really caught a nineteenth’s century snapshot of that “getting home to the fire” feeling, but also, perhaps, the beauty that we miss while we’re transitioning.

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