Matthew Smith arrived in France in 1908, and by January 1910, had moved to Paris where he began to absorb the profusion of art styles which could be seen in the city at the time. This move to France marks the beginning of the first period of Smith’s oeuvre – from which Fruit in a Bowl, Striped Background II is highly significant work. Culminating in his strongly Expressionistic Cornish landscapes of 1920, the canvases from this early period demonstrate his acknowledgement of the flatness of the picture surface with areas of strong unmodulated colour and emphatic design. Whilst his early works were hard-won, with the artist frequently reworking his paintings, already many of the characteristics of his mature style were starting to come to the fore.
By 1911 and 1912, Smith was showing his first publicly exhibited works at the Salon Des Indépendants. Whilst the 1911 show included a room which staged the launch of the Cubist movement – causing great controversy at the time – the Cubists did not hold much significance for Smith. More importantly, he would have seen the work of Roderic O’Conor, a regular exhibitor at both the Salon Des Indépendants and the Salon d’Automne, and whose influence is evident on Smith’s work of this period.
Following the outbreak of the First World War, Smith returned to live in London, and to an artistic world which differed greatly from that which he had left eight years previously. Roger Fry’s Post-Impressionist exhibitions, the establishment of the Omega workshop, the visits of the Ballets Russes, and the inception and growth of Wyndham Lewis’ Vorticist movement made the capital a much more ‘modern’ city. Taking a studio at 2, Fitzroy Street, Smith responded almost immediately to the wealth of these creative influences.
In the autumn of 1914 and into 1915, Smith embarked on a group of works that instantly changed the direction of his painting. A relatively small body of work – of which virtually all are in public collections – the paintings he produced during his ‘Fitzroy’ period are a remarkable group, which demonstrate his boldness and verve that had been much less evident during his time in France. Using a strong palette of primary colours, these works reveal a feeling for colour that draws upon Smith’s experience of Fauvist painting, especially Matisse and Derain, but in their handling and flat areas of unmodulated colour, show something quite distinct from anything being produced by his peers in London.
The present work, which appears to be a larger and more fully resolved version of Fruit in a Dish (Tate, London), incorporates areas of bold red and green. The bands of vibrant colour, forming parallel stripes which break over the edges of the dish, remove any sense of pure representation. Primarily a formal device to define the space, Smith continued to make use of the stripe motif as a tool for defining form in space through his celebrated Fitzroy nudes of 1916. Like the magisterial Fitzroy Nude I (Tate, London) and Fitzroy Street Nude II (British Council, London), the present work marks a point on the path of Smith’s oeuvre that, whilst it would lead back towards figuration, set out his skill as a painter of colour in a way that achieved the admiration of virtually all his generation.
It is likely the present work was once owned by the Leeds artist Jacob Kramer (1892-1962), as he acquired two of Smith’s still lifes when the artist sat for him in 1925. Sir Barnett Stross M.P., who acquired Fruit in a Bowl, Striped Background III in the late 1920s, was a patron of Kramer.