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September 03. 2014 7:13PM

On Display

Portsmouth Athenaeum highlights vibrant life, works of NH artist

STRIKING PORTRAIT: The late Norma Bernstein Smith painted this self portrait in 1928. Minor scratches and other types of wear were removed from this version of the image by photographer David J. Murray of 

Studying art in Paris in the 1920s and presenting a nude portrait to her husband-to-be are just two of the daring things a New Hampshire artist known for her portraiture did during a long, illustrious career.

“Norma Bernstein Smith: Talented Artist, Adventuresome Spirit” opens Friday, Sept. 12, at the Portsmouth Athenaeum with a reception from 5 to 7 p.m.

“In all her work there appears to be a sense of urgency, a desire to capture the moment, the ‘now’ of the sitter’s mood and personality,” Athenaeum Proprietor Katherine Clark writes in the September issue of “American Art Review.”

Among Smith’s subjects were Ethel Waters, an African-American blues, jazz and gospel vocalist and actress. Smith was inspired to paint Waters in 1934 after seeing her perform on Broadway. Years later, Waters visited Smith at her Durham home to see the oil portrait.

A portrait of Franklin Delano Roosevelt won Smith a prize, an interview with the President, and a personal letter from the President’s family.

“Norma was a woman with drive and a thirst for capturing those who peopled her world,” Clark wrote. “Her adventuresome spirit is clearly present in her vigorous brushstrokes and her exploration of vibrant color and dynamic compositions.”

The free exhibit will feature many items never before seen in public, including Smith’s student work. Peter and Marjorie Smith, son and daughter-in-law of Norma, were active participants in assembling the show.

Bernstein was 28 when she met Sam Smith in 1934. The couple had known each other only seven weeks when they married. Her wedding gift to him was a seductively rendered nude titled “Mimi.”

“Family lore says it was covered with a sheet during the wedding ceremony,” Clark writes.

Sam Smith purchased a shoe factory in Newmarket in 1940, and he and Norma, along with sons Tony and Peter, moved to New Hampshire. Norma Smith returned to school, studying at the University of New Hampshire, and became an active member of the New Hampshire Art Association. She exhibited works both locally and in New York.

“A large studio space overlooking the Oyster River was created to provide a place for Norma and her continued exploration of the art of portraiture,” Clark writes. “One of her last works was a sketch of her granddaughter.”

The exhibit runs through Nov. 26. It is open Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays from 1 to 4 p.m. in the Athenaeum’s Randall Gallery, 6-8 Market Square. The Portsmouth Athenaeum is a nonprofit membership museum and library founded in 1817. For more information, go to

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