Writer and illustrator Francis Hopkinson Smith did not publish his first work until he was almost 50 years old.  Trained as an engineer, he spent the first part of his career in construction and is credited with designing the foundation for the Statue of Liberty. He made charcoal drawings and watercolors throughout his life and maintained close ties with the New York art world. He was one of the original members of the Tile Club, and one of the earliest members of the American Watercolor Society and the New York Etching Club.[1]

An outgoing man with a lively mustache, “Hop” Smith was a famed raconteur at social events. As one friend wrote, “If ever there was a radiant centre of cheerfulness and light, he was one.”[2] It seemed only natural that he would parlay his storytelling talents into the written word.  In 1886, a publisher asked him to write a series of short descriptions for some of his watercolors.  The result was his first book: Well-Worn Roads of Spain, Holland, and Italy. Venice of To-Day and Gondola Days soon followed, feeding a growing taste for illustrated travel books.

Smith would spend half the year abroad, returning to New York in the fall to lecture and exhibit his recent work. He enjoyed sketching outdoors, and his books mix descriptions of the main sites around town with colorful anecdotes about local characters.[3] This illustration for Venice of To-Day features “Hop” Smith in a self-portrait at right, sketching the fruit market near the Rialto. The accompanying text describes the scene:

 This little market…is always piled high with the products of orchard, vineyard, and garden, shaded all day by awnings, so closely stretched that only the sharpest and most lance-like of sunbeams can cut their way into the coolness below.[4]

“Hop” Smith also informs would-be travelers that the market is open all hours should they want a late-night bite.  His book notes that, “At night the market is lighted by flaring torches…when every other place is closed, you will come upon a blazing lamp lighting up a heap of luscious fruit.”[5]

The collection at Cooper Hewitt also includes another illustration for Venice of To-Day. The Grand Staircase, Palazzo Contarini was one of the earliest drawings by an American artist to enter the museum’s collection.

Laura Fravel is the Curatorial Research Assistant (American Art) in the Drawings, Prints & Graphic Design Department at Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum.

 

[1] “F. Hopkinson Smith, Author-Artist, Died: Engineer Who Built Foundation for the Statue of Liberty Expires at 76,” New York Times (April 8, 1915): 13.

[2] H. H., “A Tribute to ‘Hop’ Smith,” New York Times, April 13, 1915: 10.

[3] For more on “Hop” Smith’s technique, see F. Hopkinson Smith, Outdoor Sketching: Four Talks Given Before the Art Institute of Chicago, The Scammon Lectures, 1914 (New York, NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1915).

[4] F. Hopkinson Smith, Venice of To-Day, Illustrated by the Author (New York, NY: The Henry T. Thomas Company, 1895), pp. 105-106.

[5] Ibid., p. 106.

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