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Lowell Ellsworth Smith Papers

Identifier: 2004-205

Scope and Contents

The collection has been arranged in six series, Artwork, Biographical, Correspondence, Financial, Publicity and Promotion, and Photographs.


  • Creation: circa 1890-2002


Conditions Governing Access

The Lowell Ellsworth Smith Papers has no restrictions and is available for research. If you are interested in researching the materials, please contact the Dickinson Research Center to make an appointment.

Conditions Governing Use

The Lowell Ellsworth Smith Papers is the property of the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum. Materials, even if owned by the NCWHM, may be protected under third party copyright. It is the patron’s responsibility to research and secure any such additional copyright and pay any required fees or royalties. It is not the intention of the NCWHM to impede upon any third party rights, and the NCWHM cannot be held responsible if the patron is involved in legal action due to violation of third party copyright claims.

Biographical / Historical

Watercolor painter Lowell Ellsworth Smith was born in Canton, Ohio in 1924. Smith and his sister Barbara grew up in an artistic household; his father, Ellsworth P. Smith, was the art director for the Hoover Company and a painter, and his mother was a pianist. Smith’s father encouraged his interest in art, and during Smith’s childhood the family took many trips to art colonies, which helped nurture his artistic inclinations. Smith was a 1942 graduate of Lehman High School in Canton where he studied art and was the drummer in the school dance band. After attending one semester at Miami University of Ohio, Smith was drafted into the U. S. Army Air Force. He served between 1943 and 1945 in England, France, and Germany with the 45th Air Depot Group. When he returned from Europe, he picked up again at Miami University, graduating in 1948 with a B.F.A. While at Miami he also played drums with a dance band. Smith later gained additional schooling through the Famous Artists School of Westport, Connecticut.

Smith worked for many years as a commercial illustrator with Canton Art Service and Manning Studios in Cleveland where he specialized in “pretty girl illustrations for advertising.” He also did cover illustrations for children’s coloring and activity books published by Saalfield Publishing. In 1960, after 12 successful years as a commercial illustrator, Smith turned his attention to fine art figure and landscape painting in his favorite medium, watercolor. Among those Smith names as teachers and influences to his watercolor technique are his father, Roy Wilhelm, Don Stone, Tom Nicholas, and Paul Strisik. Smith turned his attention to the West after 1970 when artist Ramon Kelley noticed one of his paintings at an Ohio art show. His association with Kelley led to his first painting trip to Colorado and New Mexico and an introduction to western collectors and gallery owners. In 1979, Smith joined Kelley, William F. Reese, and Tim Stortz on a painting trip to Oaxaco, Mexico that resulted in a joint exhibition at the Frye Museum in Seattle. Over the years, Smith returned to Mexico repeatedly, and Mexican churches and street scenes are among his favorite subjects.

Smith was an invited artist at the 1978 and 1981 National Academy of Western Art (NAWA) shows, and his painting Church Façade—Plaza del Oriente won the Prix de West Purchase Award at the 1983 NAWA show. Smith’s work has also been shown at a number of other art shows in the West, Ohio, and elsewhere. Hundreds of art collectors, including former Texas governor John Connally and Oklahoma oilman T. Boone Pickens, have purchased his paintings. In 2001, the Canton Museum of Art exhibited a 58-piece retrospective look at the artwork of Lowell Ellsworth Smith and his father, Ellsworth P. Smith. Although he will be 80 years old in 2004, Lowell Ellsworth Smith still paints and shows at the Prix de West Invitational Exhibition and Sale and other venues.

Sources Bowman, Mary. “Lowell Ellsworth Smith,” Artists of the Rockies and the Golden West, Summer 1982, pp. 94-101. Johnson, Louise. “Canton-Born Artist Wins Wide Acclaim,” The Canton Repository, December 28, 1986, p. 21. Kane, Dan. “Like Father, Like Son,” The Canton Repository, January 21, 2001, pp. G1, G6. Mugrage, Shannon. “Local Artist Seeks Light in the Southwest,” Hudson Life Magazine, Vol. 3, No. 9, September 2000, pp. 2-3. Prix de West 2004 Invitational Art Exhibition. Oklahoma City, Okla.: National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum, 2004. Wilde, Davis S. “Lowell Ellsworth Smith: Having the Best of Two Worlds,” Prism: A Magazine of Area Arts & People, Vol. 1, No. 3, Summer 1981, pp.6-11.


3.00 Linear Feet

Language of Materials



Papers and photographs of Ohio watercolorist Lowell Ellsworth Smith, whose work encompasses his native Ohio, the western United States, Mexico, and Europe. The collection features a group of more than 50 watercolor sketches by Smith, both figure studies and landscapes. Also included are letters written to Smith by significant figures in contemporary western art such as James Boren, Tom Lovell, Donald Teague, and others. Over 100 letters written by Smith to his family while serving with the U. S. Army Air Forces in Europe during World War II are another significant part of the collection. While Smith never saw combat, his letters paint an interesting and vivid picture of his life in the military. The collection also includes more than 450 photographs documenting Smith’s personal and professional life.


Series 1: Artwork (circa 1950-1999) This series has been arranged in three subseries: art catalogs, commercial art, and preliminary studies. The catalogs subseries includes more than 25 catalogs, primarily from the 1980s and 1990s, published by art shows and galleries that featured the work of Lowell Ellsworth Smith. Most of the featured shows and galleries specialize in contemporary western art, the genre with which Smith is most closely associated. Galleries include the Altermann & Morris Galleries in Dallas; art shows include the National Academy of Western Art show in Oklahoma City and the Western Rendezvous of Art in Helena, Montana. The commercial illustration subseries includes a modest but diverse selection of Smith’s commercial artwork, mostly from the 1950s and early 1960s. Included are examples of magazine advertisement illustrations, greeting cards, magazine cover art, children’s book cover illustrations, and larger projects such as multiple paintings for the 1959 Republic Steel annual report. An example of his “pretty girl” illustration work can be found in the Photographs series.

The preliminary studies are the largest and most significant subseries in Artwork. More than 50 sketches created by Smith as studies for finished works include both figures and landscapes. Very few studies are titled; thus, titles descriptive of the content have been provided. When the title of the finished work is known, it is used. The studies are primarily watercolor over a pencil sketch, although the collection also includes a few pencil sketches that have not been painted. The studies are modestly sized and are found on a variety of media including sketchbook paper, Arches paper, and mat board scraps. In a few cases there are two studies on the same media. The studies vary from quite rough to almost finished pieces. The landscape studies were apparently done plein air. The studies include both people and places from near Smith’s home in Hudson, Ohio and those completed on trips to Colorado, Mexico, and other locales. A comparison of the studies to known completed works allows the researcher to explore Smith’s technique and how he uses his source material; for example, the collection includes two studies for the award-winning watercolor Church Façade—Plaza del Oriente, from the collection of the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum. One study shows the priest and parishioner leaving the door of the church; the other shows the church façade. The priest and parishioner are almost the same as in the completed painting, but the church façade study is quite different, showing many more people than appear in the finished painting. Many of the studies are also quite beautiful in their own right, apart from any comparison to finished works.

Series 2: Biographical (1931-1943) This is a very small series with just a few items. There are a couple of newspaper clippings from the Canton, Ohio newspaper about members of the Smith family, including a picture and short article about Smith’s military service during World War II. Also included is Smith’s first grade report card, which reveals that Smith was graded between 80 and 85 in drawing.

Series 3: Correspondence (1942-2002) This series contains correspondence with artists, patrons, galleries, and friends, the bulk from the 1980s and 1990s; a series of letters written to Smith by his father, Ellsworth P. Smith; and over 100 letters written by Smith to his family while serving with the U. S. Army Air Forces in Europe during World War II. Many envelopes in the series include Smith’s contemporary notations about letter content.

Included in the correspondence are letters from artists James Boren, Harley Brown, Duane Bryers, Tom Hill, Tom Lovell, Donald Teague, and others, many of which deal with the National Academy of Western Art. The artists discuss their artwork, shows, and painting trips they have taken; personal issues such as illness and death; and the politics of being invited to show at a particular sale like the National Academy of Western Art exhibition. Correspondence concerning the business of art includes letters, bills, and requests from framers, galleries, museums, art purchasers, and others. Also included is personal correspondence such as holiday and thank you cards, some from Smith’s artist friends. The letters from Smith’s father are all personal in nature and contain news of Ellsworth’s friends and activities, pithy poems and quotations to live by, and many compliments about his son and his artwork. Also in the letters were some early photographs of Ellsworth, friends, and family members, some of whom are identified in the letters. These images have been moved to the Photographs series.

The series includes a few letters Smith wrote to his family from Miami University in the fall of 1942, just before he entered the military. He writes about the art classes he is taking and how instructors view his work (“I thrive on encouragement”), he asks to have his drum set sent to him, and he discusses his social life.

The bulk of the Correspondence series consists of letters written by Smith to his family while stationed in England, France, and Germany with the U. S. Army Air Force during World War II. The letters cover his military service from basic training to La Havre, France just before he left Europe. A few letters written to his parents from Miami University during his first semester back in school are also included. The letters date from 1943 through early 1946. Most of his letters are to both parents, but he wrote some to a single parent (usually his father) or his sister Barbara. As often happens, the collection only includes Smith’s war letters, but not the letters from home to which he is responding. At many points in his letters, he talks about sketching and drawing. Some letters include small illustrations. He also discusses playing with several dance band combos throughout his time in Europe.

Smith’s 1943 letters contain a brief discussion about basic training and his decision to apply for clerical school, apparently at the suggestion of his father. He was subsequently stationed to Air Depot Supply in England after his training. He writes about his activities: going to Oxford, meeting English women, dancing, attending movies, touring in London, and sketching. He writes about Oxford being wonderful subject matter for an artist, describing it with an artist’s eye for detail. At several points during his correspondence, he also discusses the tremendous educational value of being stationed in Europe.

By 1944, some comments directly refer to the war such as mentioning a flight of bombers overhead headed for Germany and a reference to the “big assault” (D-Day) as “imminent,” but overall not much in the letters directly relates to the war. This is partially because of wartime censorship rules and partially because of his position behind the lines. The letters discuss his social life (women, dancing, and movies), artwork done for his fellow soldiers, and details about his daily life in England. By October 1944 he was transferred to France where he was initially roughing it but later ended up in very luxurious housing. He mentions the French Armistice Day celebration in 1944, the first after liberation from “oppression.” Smith also writes about travels to Belgium and Paris and a French woman he dated.

In May 1945 he was transferred to Germany, near Munich, where he briefly attended art school classes sponsored by the Army. Later, he was transferred back to France and then to London for furlough where he saw Winston Churchill. Smith was on leave in the French Alps when Japan surrendered, and his letter paints a wonderful word picture of the spontaneous celebration that broke out upon hearing the news. He was sent back to Germany and mentions a waiting list of soldiers wanting to have their portraits done. Smith says that he thinks he has the talent to be a good artist, and that all he needs is good instruction and experience. The final letter from Europe was written from La Havre, France a few days before he returned to the United States.

A few letters written to his parents from Miami University during his first semester back in school and one contemporary letter round out the Smith correspondence. He discusses his heavy concentration of art classes; mentions that he is doing well in drawing, but painting and lettering are more difficult; and on February 13, 1946, writes that he has completed his first watercolor painting: “sorta messy but not bad for a beginner.” In an undated letter by Smith, probably written in the 1980s, he asks other artist friends to contribute money towards the American schooling of some family members of their Mexican guide.

Series 4: Financial (1984-1990) This series features a modest amount of material related to the business aspects of Smith’s art career. Included is an account book covering 1986 through 1990 that shows Smith’s art sales as well as his business and personal expenses; two notebooks covering 1984 to 1987 that served as expense and travel logs for trips to workshops, demonstrations, and art shows are also included. Documented in the notebooks are sketching and painting trips to Mexico, the western United States, and other locations.

Series 5: Publicity and Promotion (1959-2002) This is a small series with materials relating to the publicizing and promotion of Lowell Ellsworth Smith’s art career. Included are a few art show invitations dated primarily from the 1980s and 1990s; a booklet about people from Hudson, Ohio, including Smith; and a self-published book about Ellsworth P. Smith, Lowell Smith’s father, which includes biographical information and material about his long tenure as art director for the Hoover Company. News clippings, mostly from local Ohio newspapers, document shows where Smith displayed his work and honors he received, including the selection of his Church Façade—Plaza del Oriente as the 1983 Prix de West Purchase Award winner. Other articles, such as those from Southwest Art and Art of the West, highlight Smith’s technique and artistry.

Series 6: Photographs (circa 1890-2002) This series is arranged in two subseries: personal and professional. Many of the personal photographs include contemporary identifications and notations on the reverse. Personal photographs include images documenting the childhood and young adulthood of Lowell Ellsworth Smith’s father. Most of these photographs were mailed to Smith in letters from his father in the 1980s and early 1990s. Other photographs relating to Smith’s father include images of Ellsworth P. Smith Day in 1982 and of Ellsworth P. Smith’s 100th birthday in 1995. Collection photographs document the Smith family, including several images of Smith with his parents, his sister Barbara, and other extended family members in various combinations, as well as a carte de visite of Smith’s grandfather at age 16. Other personal photographs include images of Smith as a child, as a drummer in the high school dance band, with his fraternity brothers at Miami University, and with his wife Mary Ann, family, and friends at his 40th wedding anniversary celebration. Photographs from Smith’s time in the U. S. Army Air Force include 25 images of Smith, his fellow soldiers, and his girlfriends.

Professional photographs include more than 300 images documenting many aspects of Lowell Ellsworth Smith’s artistic career. Among the activities documented are art shows, including events at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum; painting trips to Europe; workshops and demonstrations throughout the United States; and friendships with other artists. Many black and white publicity stills from the 1980s and 1990s are also included. Smith’s artwork is documented in the Photography series by almost 100 images of completed watercolors. Most of these images are black and white, although a few are in color. The photographs have been arranged geographically by subject matter, but images of Smith’s Prix de West Exhibition entries have been separated out. One black and white photograph of a Smith commercial art illustration is also included.

Processing Information

The Lowell Ellsworth Smith papers was donated to the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in 2004 by Lowell Ellsworth Smith.


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Repository Details

Part of the NCWHM Special Collections at Dickinson Research Center Repository

1700 Northeast 63rd Street
Oklahoma City Oklahoma 73111 United States