For years, artist and illustrator Albert Alexander Smith penned letters from his longtime residence in Paris, France to Arturo Alfonso Schomburg, at The New York Public Library's 135th Street Library Branch, Division of Negro Literature, History, and Prints—what we now call the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Nearly a century ago, the library purchased Schomburg's personal collection of materials documenting African diasporic history and culture, and he was appointed Curator of the collection in 1932. 

Around that same time, Smith and Schomburg communicated with regularity, sharing updates about their personal lives, discussing the socio-political climate of the era (amid the Great Depression), and negotiating business opportunities centering Schomburg’s growing collection and Smith’s art-making practices. Their shared research endeavors resulted in the following series of commissioned watercolor renderings of historical figures. Correspondence between the two friends explains Smith's process of sourcing reference imagery to inform his version of each likeness; which included visits to library collections, museums, and even fellow collectors and colleagues of Schomburg's. A closer look at several of these portraits reveals hand written annotations for Smith's references.

In June of 1938, Smith began one particular note by acknowledging two letters he’d just received from Schomburg and expressed a sense of urgency to send a reply that Schomburg would never receive. Postmarked June 14, 1938, it was sent four days after Arturo Alfonso Schomburg's death. The urgency in Smith's tone is now eerily ironic. 

While Arturo Schomburg would never see the full completion of this series of watercolor portraits, his efforts to commission them is a testament to his life-long dedication and thriving legacy of documenting and preserving the history and culture of the African diaspora. 

On View in Digital Collections

Recently digitized and made available to view on our Digital Collections platform, these watercolor portraits were among the last items Arturo Schomburg personally acquired for the Library’s collection. 

Click through the following slides to view a selection of the 17 newly digitized watercolor portraits by Albert Alexander Smith from our Art & Artifacts Division. Among the portraits are a series of letters between friends Arturo Schomburg and Albert Alexander Smith.

The watercolor portraits are also available to view in person, by appointment in our Art & Artifacts Division. The featured correspondence is part of the Arturo Alfonso Schomburg Papers, available to view by appointment in our Manuscripts, Archives, and Rare Books Division.

Watercolor portrait of Jaun De Pareja

Art & Artifacts Division, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture 

Portrait of Juan de Pareja, 1930.
Watercolor on paper
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Jan 18, 1936 Letter written from Arturo Schomburg to Albert Alexander Smith

In this note, dated January 18, 1936, Schomburg discusses the cost and sale of artworks and the related challenges. He updates Smith on the status of works the Library previously collected of his, the presentation of the Center's prized "Othello" sculpture by Pietro Calvi, and other recent highlights. He even reminisces about his trip to Madrid when mentioning paintings of Juan de Pareja. 

On a personal note, on the second page of his letter he shares his "intention to cross the pond and spend a couple of months in Paris" and that it all depends on "how the wind will blow in June." He goes on to express a "yearning, at the moment, to lay down the working tools and mental worry and bask in pastures where [he does] not have to think about the Negro and books." 

Arturo Alfonso Schomburg Papers, Manuscripts, Archives, and Rare Books Division, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture 

Letter written from Arturo Schomburg to Albert Alexander Smith. January 18, 1936.
Jan 18, 1936 Letter from Arturo Schomburg to A.A. Smith, continued

Arturo Alfonso Schomburg Papers, Manuscripts, Archives, and Rare Books Division, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture 

Letter from Arturo Schomburg to Albert Alexander Smith, continued. Jan 18, 1936.
Watercolor Portrait of Faustin Soulouque

Art & Artifacts Division, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture

Portrait of Faustin Soulouque, 1930
Watercolor on paper
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Watercolor portrait of Dumas

Art & Artifacts Division, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture 

Portrait of Dumas, 1930
Watercolor on paper
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Watercolor portrait of Arturo Schomburg by Albert Alexander Smith

Art & Artifacts Division, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture

Portrait of Arthur Schomburg, 1930
Watercolor on paper
August 11, 1937 Letter from Albert Alexander Smith to Arturo Alfonso Schomburg

Manuscripts, Archives, and Rare Books Division, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture 

Letter from Albert Alexander Smith to Arturo Alfonso Schomburg. August 11, 1937.
August 11, 1937 Letter from Albert Alexander Smith to Arturo Alfonso Schomburg continued

Manuscripts, Archives, and Rare Books Division, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture

Letter from Albert Alexander Smith to Arturo Alfonso Schomburg, continued. August 11, 1937.
Watercolor portrait of Victor Sejour

Art & Artifacts Division, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture

Portrait of Victor Sejour, 1930
Watercolor on paper
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Watercolor portrait of Toussaint L'Ouverture

Art & Artifacts Division, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture

Portrait of Toussaint L'Ouverture, 1930
Watercolor on paper
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Letter from a A.A. Smith to Arturo Schomburg, 1930s

Manuscripts, Archives, and Rare Books Division, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture

Letter from Albert Alexander Smith to Arturo Schomburg, 1930s.
Letter from A.A. Smith to Arturo Schomburg, 1930s

Manuscripts, Archives, and Rare Books Division, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture 

Letter from Albert Alexander Smith to Arturo Schomburg, 1930s, continued.
Watrecolor Portrait of Tahiti Empress of the Abyssinia, Wife of Menelik

Art & Artifacts Division, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture

Portrait of Tahiti Empress of the Abyssinia, Wife of Menelik, 1930
Watercolor on paper
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Watercolor Portrait of Menelik II, Emperor of Ethiopia

Art & Artifacts Division, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture

Portrait of Menelik II, Emperor of Ethiopia, 1930
Watercolor on paper
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Watercolor Portrait of Makonnen

Art & Artifacts Division, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture

Portrait of Makonnen, 1930
Watercolor on paper
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About the Artist

Cropped portrait of Albert Alexander Smith
Cropped portrait of Albert Alexander Smith, with the inscription, "To Mr. Arthur Schomburg from his friend the artist Albert A Smith, Paris 1937"

Photographs & Prints Division, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture

Albert Alexander Smith was born on September 17, 1896, in New York City, and grew up in the city's San Juan Hill community; the present day site of Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts.

In 1915, Smith was the first African American student admitted to the National Academy of Design, where he won several awards for his artistic abilities. Something of a renaissance man, Smith was a successful artist, illustrator, and jazz musician, who, like many other African Americans at the time, expatriated to Paris, France in the early to mid 1900s in search of opportunity and the freedom to be their most authentic and creative selves.  

He traveled throughout Europe to further his studies, explore African diasporic cultural history, and navigate an arts career amid civil unrest and global crises.

Albert Alexander Smith died in Haute-Savoie, France at age forty-four.

Credits

This digital project was curated by Kimberly Henderson, Digital Curator. Special thanks to Tammi Lawson, Curator of Art & Artifacts Division; NYPL's Digital Imaging staff; and Carrie McBride.

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