• Christies auction house James Christie logo

    Sale 1997

    Post War And Contemporary Art Evening Sale

    13 May 2008, New York, Rockefeller Plaza

  • Lot 29

    David Smith (1906-1965)

    Widow's Lament

    Price Realised  


    David Smith (1906-1965)
    Widow's Lament
    bronze with green patina and welded steel with wood base
    15 x 20 x 6 5/8 in. (38.1 x 50.8 x 16.8 cm.)
    Executed in 1942.

    Contact Client Service
    • info@christies.com

    • New York +1 212 636 2000

    • London +44 (0)20 7839 9060

    • Hong Kong +852 2760 1766

    • Shanghai +86 21 6355 1766

    David Smith conceived Widow's Lament, an intensely personal sculpture, in the wake of his father's death in 1939. A rare and important example of Smith's early sculptural work, its intriguing form exemplifies the artist's inimitable approach to abstraction. Its bronze frame encloses a space that suggests a mental landscape in which the artist has inserted abstract ideograms that allude to the cycle of life and death. While the sculpture's title refers to the artist's bereaved mother, its highly inventive abstract vocabulary also addresses universal themes of loss -- sentiments that were deeply felt on an international scale in the midst of the Second World War.

    Widow's Lament was one of the very few metal sculptures that Smith executed during the war years, when metal was extremely scarce. Its creation overlapped with the Medals for Dishonor (1937-40), in which Smith passionately condemned the forces of war and destruction that were ravaging so much of the world. But unlike the medals, which used more legible figural elements, Widow's Lament uses an abstract vocabulary that combines elements of Cubism and Surrealism with allusions to many other cultural sources such as ancient Greek, African and Oceanic sculpture. Smith would continue to explore this vein of abstraction for the following three decades, establishing him as arguably the most important American sculptor of the mid-20th Century.

    Smith's official artistic education began with lessons in drawing and painting at the Art Student's League in New York in the late 1920s, which he synthesized with his professional experience with welding steel while working in a car factory. Smith became close to a number of important Modernists, including John Graham, who introduced him to artists such as Willem de Kooning and Arshile Gorky and also acted as a valuable liaison with avant-garde art circles in Paris. Through Graham, Smith discovered the creative power of African sculpture, while the copies of Cahiers d'Art that Graham gave him proved to be revelatory. It was in the pages of this French journal that Smith first encountered photographs of the welded metal sculpture of Pablo Picasso and Julio Gonzalez that deeply inspired him. Smith was able to see the latest work of these and other modernist artists when he visited Europe in 1936, although he was equally fascinated by the archaic art he encountered in Greece.

    The contour of Widow's Lament resembles the rounded rectangular shapes used to represent the human head in Cycladic sculpture, while its circular appendages suggest ears. Yet the conical forms below the curved frame alternatively suggest legs, which allow the sculpture to share in a Cubist and Surrealist playfulness, while simultaneously denoting the head and body. Smith charges the space enclosed by this alternating head and body with a sense of interiority, where the series of four square compartments filled with mysterious abstract elements that Smith referred to as "glyphs" stand for a complex psychic state. In a sketchbook, Smith labeled these constituent boxes from left to right as representing "simplicities of childhood," "knots of adolescence," "complexities of marriage," and "sorrow." Yet the abstract forms do not tell an explicit symbolic or allegorical story, but rather leave interpretation open to the viewer. These abstract elements are like hieroglyphs that Smith created to represent his own personal experience in witnessing his mother's loss of her husband. The intentional ambiguity of these forms is amplified by the way the composition changes when one moves away from a frontal viewing position, and the seemingly linear rectangular cells are revealed to be compartments that extend as long as seven inches deep.

    Smith stressed art's power to convey unfathomable interior states when he declared, "Art is made from dreams, and visions, and things not known, and least of all from things that can be said. It comes from the inside of who you are when you face yourself. It is an inner declaration of purpose, it is a factor which determines artist identity" (D. Smith, "Tradition and Identity," address given at the University of Athens, Ohio, 1959). Such sentiments put him in harmony with Abstract Expressionist painters, and Smith in fact often stated that he "belonged" with painters. Indeed, artists such as Jackson Pollock and Adolph Gottlieb were exploring pictorial forms and themes laden with totemic overtones and primitivistic associations similar to Smith's at the time. The compartmentalized abstractions of Pollock's Male and Female (circa 1942) and Gottlieb's series of cell-like compositions known as Pictographs allude to a psychic cosmos related to Smith's sculpture.

    In creating Widow's Lament, Smith started with the cast bronze frame, and later welded the interior's steel components. By attaching these metal components to a wooden base, Smith orchestrated a beautiful contrast of tactile surfaces and sculptural techniques, a strategy that would continue to play a vital role in his career as a sculptor. We can see a hint of homage to Brancusi (an artist for whom he professed great admiration) in Smith's combination of these materials and in the way he made the base integral to the work. Smith stressed the primacy of his sculptural materials in 1940 when he described how, "Like every artist I am always drawing from the figure. It is the source of almost everything we do; it provides motives and orders association. [However,] it is better to think the thing out in metal. Any work of art should express the material and technique employed as well as the basic creative idea" (D. Smith, quoted in David Smith, A Centennial, exh. cat., Guggenheim Museum, 2006-7, p. 396). Widow's Lament was an especially formative work for Smith. Through it he combined the pictorial strength he had developed as a painter with his genius for three-dimensional structure, and dealt with complex themes he would continue to explore for the rest of his career.


    The Estate of David Smith, New York
    Acquired from the above by the present owner

    Pre-Lot Text

    Property of a Distinguished Collector


    H. Kramer, "Sculpture of David Smith," Arts, vol. 34 (February 1960), p. 32.
    David Smith 1906-1965: A Retrospective Exhibition, exh. cat., Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University, Cambridge, 1966, p. 68.
    R. Krauss, Passages in Modern Sculpture, New York, 1977, p. 27, fig. 150.
    M. Kangas, "David Smith: Paradox of Sex," Vanguard, vol. 10 (Summer 1981), p. 17.
    S. E. Marcus, David Smith: The Sculpture and His Work, New York, 1983, p. 69 and 72 (illustrated).
    K. Wilkin, David Smith, New York, 1984, pp. 8, 11, 95 and 96 (illustrated).
    D. Anfam, Abstract Expressionism, London, 1990, pp. 99-100 (illustrated).
    David Smith, Sculptures 1933-1964, exh. cat., Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, 2006, (illustrated on the cover).
    K. Silver, "The Colossus of Bolton Landing," Art in America (October 1, 2006).


    New York, Willard Gallery, David Smith, 1943, no. 13.
    New York, Buchholz Gallery and Willard Gallery, The Sculpture of David Smith, 1946, no. 31.
    St. Paul Gallery and School of Art, 1946.
    Worcester, John Woodman Higgins Armory, 1947.
    Bennington College, David Smith, 1951 (exhibited as Lament).
    New York, Museum of Modern Art; Memorial Art Gallery of the University of Rochester; Exeter, Phillips Exeter Academy, Lamont Gallery; Cambridge, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Hayden Gallery; Washington, D.C., Phillips Collection; Indianapolis, John Herron Museum of Art; Hartford, Wadsworth Atheneum; Carbondale, Southern Illinois University and San Antonio, Witte Memorial Museum, David Smith, 1961-1963.
    New York, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum; Dallas Museum of Fine Arts and Washington, D.C., Corcoran Gallery, David Smith, 1969, no. 21, pp. 11 and 39 (illustrated).
    Edmonton Art Gallery; Seattle Art Museum; Winnipeg Art Gallery; Art Gallery of Hamilton; Art Gallery of Windsor and New York, M. Knoedler and Company, 1981-1982, no. 15, pp. 17-18, 22, 48 and 73 (illustrated).
    New York, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum; Paris, Musée National d'Art Moderne and London, Tate Modern, David Smith: A Centennial, 2006-2007, pp. 22, 29-30 and 288-289, no. 25 (illustrated).