Around 1927, Southwestern artist Effie Anderson Smith, who was often called Arizona’s dean of women painters, donated several of her paintings to the University of Arizona’s newly built library.
The pictures hung majestically in the reading room of what is now the Arizona State Museum for several years but have since disappeared, and according to her great-grandnephew, Steven Carlson, no one at the university or the museum has any idea what happened to these works of art. The mystery of Effie’s missing paintings continues to stir interest around the state even though Effie has been gone for many years.
Born in Arkansas in 1869, Effie painted her first landscapes at the age of 15. By 1892 — already a widow after her first husband died a year after they were married — she made her way west, initially taking up residence in New Mexico, where she met and married mining engineer Andrew Young (A.Y.) Smith in 1895. The couple settled in Pearce, Arizona, where Andrew worked for the Commonwealth Mine, eventually becoming the company’s president.
The Smiths had three children, but only a son survived infancy.
Effie often accompanied her husband on business trips to California, affording her the opportunity to meet and take classes from some of California’s major impressionists of the time. According to Carlson, “Her studies had a great influence on her approach to painting as she became a prolific desert painter around the Sulpher Springs Valley, Tucson, the Grand Canyon, Painted Desert and beyond.”
Douglas historian Cynthia Hayostek said Effie found inspiration in configurations found only in the desert. “Geological formations, Effie believed, were one of the four reasons for Arizona’s great scenic beauty. Another was sand, which Effie saw as a prism that reflected colors. The other two causes, she said, were clear air and its sunshine.”
During the 1920s, Effie’s work was exhibited throughout Arizona. A 1927 article in the Tucson Citizen announced a display of 28 of her paintings at Tucson’s Santa Rita Hotel, and called her work the “most notable exhibit of paintings by an Arizona artist ever seen in Tucson.” The article also mentioned the paintings she had recently gifted to the university, including another of her landscapes that hung over the fireplace in Cochise Hall.
During this time, Effie created a series of paintings of the Grand Canyon that were sold at the El Tovar Hotel and received critical acclaim. An article in the publication Progressive Arizona and the Great Southwest noted, “Before Mrs. Smith painted the Grand Canyon she made a thorough study of its geology. She knew what each kind of rock in its composition reflected what lights and shades of color. Her colors were true because she knew the fundamental reasons for them. ... They have achieved a well merited recognition as being among the best of the Grand Canyon paintings.”
In 1929, the Smiths lost everything, including many of Effie’s paintings, when their Pearce home burned to the ground. With upcoming major exhibits in New York, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C., Effie recreated her lost canvases in record time, all while rebuilding her home.
After Andrew’s death in 1931, Effie submerged herself in her painting. The 1930s and 1940s are considered her most prolific periods, as she painted, wrote, taught and lectured around Arizona.
She managed to hold on to her property in Pearce through the Depression years, but in 1941 Effie moved into the Gadsden Hotel in Douglas, selling paintings out of her studio on the hotel’s third floor.
She founded an art league and taught classes while exhibiting and lecturing around the state. It was a 1947 article in the Douglas Dispatch celebrating the hanging of one of her Grand Canyon pictures in the lobby of the Gadsden Hotel that first dubbed her the dean of women painters and “an acknowledged master in her field of art.”
Effie and Andrew took great pride in their adopted state. Effie was a Cochise County delegate to the Republican State Convention in 1920, while Andrew lost his bid for the Arizona Senate in 1922. As a member of the Tucson Fine Arts Association and the national League of American Penwomen, Effie often lectured about her avid interest in painting. In a 1932 speech before the Tucson Women’s Club, she compared the beauty of painting to the enchantment of music.
“If every sound has its corresponding color wave, may we not dream of a bewildering color feast flung on canvas to the tones of a Wagner overture or a Beethoven sonata? What a fascinating problem it would be to work out the color probabilities of the great masterpieces of music. I believe Beethoven of all the masters would best have interpreted this desert land of ours. Being deaf he dwelt in the vast silences and understood their vibrations.”
In 1951, with her eyesight failing, Effie moved into Prescott’s Arizona Pioneer’s Home. She died there April 21, 1955, at the age of 86.
Many of Effie’s paintings are on display in the Douglas-Williams House Museum at the Douglas Historical Society, but the location of the paintings once prominently displayed at the University of Arizona are still a mystery to be resolved. A 1932 Tucson Citizen article described two of the paintings as “that of the mouth of Cochise Stronghold, which the great warrior called ‘My Home,’ and a remarkable portrayal of a Grand Canyon view.”
Recently, several of Effie’s early paintings were located in dire disrepair. Carlson, her great-grandnephew, initiated a campaign to raise money to restore these paintings and was successful in obtaining enough funds to start the project, yet many more of Effie’s landscapes are in need of assistance. The Douglas Historical Society is leading a project to obtain additional funds for restoration of Effie’s work.
To learn more about Effie, go to effieandersonsmith.com