Crystal City founder donates collection to National Gallery


It was announced Monday that Robert H. Smith, known locally as one of the instrumental forces behind the creation of Crystal City, has promised his entire collection of bronzes to the National Gallery of Art. Smith, one of the world’s most important private collectors of Renaissance bronze sculpture, is the gallery’s president emeritus.

The collection encapsulates the history of Renaissance bronze sculpture in Europe at a “superior level,” a museum spokesperson said. Smith’s collection also includes carvings in ivory and boxwood.

The collection was assembled by Smith over three decades and consists of 67 bronzes, five boxwood carvings and three ivories. Of these, 47 bronzes and all of the boxwood and ivories are on view in the gallery through May 4.

Robert Smiths connoisseurship and generosity will bring our bronze collection to the level of the great princely collections formed over centuries in Europe, said Earl A. Powell III, the National Gallery of Art’s director. The ivories will enhance our holdings in a medium we have only begun to collect in the past decade.”

Powell said the bronze statuette, more than any other art form, embodies the rebirth of classical forms and techniques that define the Renaissance. Smith’s collection comprises some of the finest works by major contemporaries and successors of Michelangelo.

The bronzes are complemented by boxwood and ivory carvings, including the largest grouping of works outside Germany by the sculptor Leonhard Kern, one of the greatest masters in these media. A virtuoso carver, he cut his figures out of a single block of wood or ivory. Works in boxwood were often tinted to resemble the colors of bronze sculpture, while the gleam of ivory evoked the purity of white marble on a miniature scale.

Smith, a successful builder-developer, is chairman of Vornado/Charles E. Smith, a division of Vornado Realty Trust and Charles E. Smith Residential, a division of Archstone-Smith Trust. He is best known for his efforts in giving rise to the development of Crystal City in 1963, an area once comprised mostly of industrial sites, junkyards and low rent motels. The name “Crystal City” came from the first building, which was called Crystal House and had an elaborate crystal chandelier in the lobby.

Smith, who lives locally, has been among the biggest philanthropic givers in the area. He has given generously to his alma mater, the University of Maryland, College Park, donating $15 million to its school of business. It is the largest gift the school has ever received. He has continued to support its programs, subsequently giving generously to the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, named after his wife. Interestingly, the Kogod School of Business at American University is named after Robert P. Kogod, his brother-in-law.

The Smiths have been longtime givers to the National Gallery. In addition to the promised gift of Renaissance bronzes and other sculptures, his donations of art to the Gallery include drawings by such masters as Franois Boucher (17031770), Canaletto (16971768) and Pablo Picasso (18811973).

Smith joined the board as a trustee in 1985 upon the retirement of Paul Mellon, and then served as president from 1993 to 2003.