Globe art critic Smee wins Pulitzer

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By Don Aucoin
Globe Staff / April 19, 2011

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Sebastian Smee, art critic of The Boston Globe, yesterday was awarded the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for criticism.

In announcing the award, the Pulitzer board pointed to Smee’s “vivid and exuberant writing about art’’ and his knack for “bringing great works to life with love and appreciation.’’

Other winners of Pulitzer Prizes, which are administered by Columbia University, included composer Zhou Long, who won the Pulitzer in music for “Madame White Snake,’’ premiered by Opera Boston in February 2010 at the Cutler Majestic Theatre in Boston.

Former Globe reporter Ellen Barry, who is now on the staff of The New York Times, won a Pulitzer (shared with Clifford J. Levy) in the international report ing category for coverage of abuse of power in Russia. New York Times economics columnist David Leonhardt also won a Pulitzer in the commentary category.

The Los Angeles Times was the only other newspaper to win two Pulitzers (in the public service and feature photography categories).

Smee, a 38-year-old native of Australia who lives in Somerville, came to the Globe in 2008 after four years as the national art critic for The Australian, a Sydney-based newspaper. He was a finalist for a Pulitzer two years ago.

“Now he’s won the big one,’’ Globe editor Martin Baron remarked before a packed newsroom, which moments earlier had burst into sustained applause at the news. Baron said to Smee: “Thanks for crossing an ocean and a continent to be here with us in Boston.’’

The award represents the third time in the past decade that a Globe critic has been singled out for the prestigious honor. Arts writer and photography critic Mark Feeney won the prize three years ago and then-book critic Gail Caldwell won it in 2001.

“My reaction is one of just total surprise and, obviously, pleasure,’’ Smee said in an interview. “I just feel so lucky to be at the Globe. I feel so fortunate the Globe saw fit to employ this guy that no one had heard of from Australia.’’

In remarks to the newsroom, Smee lauded the newspaper’s editors for holding to “a belief that the arts matter, and that good writing about the arts is going to be an important part of newspapers as they evolve.’’

In an interview, Baron called Smee “incredibly deserving of this honor.’’

“His criticism is so inviting, so approachable, and so funny, often,’’ Baron said. “It’s a delight to read. The thing about him is that he has this broad expertise, this deep expertise, but he never really smothers readers in all that he knows. To read him is to dine off a tasting menu, with his knowledge and his insights delivered in digestible portions, and by the end you’ve had quite a feast.’’

Smee is the author of “Side by Side: Picasso v. Matisse,’’ a book on the relationship between Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse. Before he began writing art criticism for The Australian in 2004, Smee lived for a few years in Britain, where he wrote for The Art Newspaper, The Guardian, The Times, The Independent, The Spectator, The Financial Times, and The Daily Telegraph. He also wrote a regular art column for Prospect magazine.

Smee was joined at the Globe by his wife, Joanne Sadler, a professional violinist and music teacher; their 6-year-old son, Tom; their daughter, Leila, who turned 4 yesterday; and Sadler’s mother, Hilary. (At Smee’s suggestion, the Globe newsroom serenaded Leila with “Happy Birthday.’’)

Smee’s writing is characterized by a disarming blend of erudition, insight, and wit. In addition to reviewing new exhibitions and writing longer features for the Globe, Smee launched a popular series titled “Frame by Frame,’’ in which he turns his focus each time to a single piece in the permanent collections of the area’s museums, seeking to spark appreciation of great art that is, in his words, “hiding in plain sight.’’

One of the prize-winning pieces was a June 8, 2010, column on Cornelia Parker’s “Hanging Fire (Suspected Arson)’’ at the Institute of Contemporary Art, a work in which shards from a burned building are gathered together in midair. “From chaos, she creates order,’’ Smee wrote. “From collapse, she creates effortless ascension. And from confusion (who did it, and how?), she creates transparency (I did it, and you can easily see how).’’

Ten days later, in a review of “Picasso Looks at Degas,’’ an exhibition at the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Smee observed:

“Good exhibitions reveal to us things we didn’t already know. This show’s thesis — that Picasso was looking closely at Degas at regular intervals throughout his long career — has never seriously been proposed before. The difficulty, of course, is that Picasso absorbed influences in the same way that Bill Clinton absorbed doughnuts: There was no stopping him. He inhaled them. Who’s counting?’’

Globe publisher Christopher M. Mayer said Smee’s Pulitzer illustrates that the Globe “continues to be a beacon of great journalism.’’

Doug Most, deputy managing editor for features, told Smee that the prize is “a testament to how much you love what you do — and it shows in your writing every day.’’

Arts editor Rebecca Ostriker read excerpts of enthusiastic letters about Smee from readers, including some who said he is the primary reason they subscribe to the Globe.

“Making sense of the art world is what you do so beautifully,’’ she told Smee. “Now the whole world knows what we, and our readers, have known all along.’’

Smee’s award is the 21st Pulitzer the Globe has won, and the sixth in the past decade. In addition to the three awards for criticism, the newspaper won in 2007 for national reporting, in 2005 for explanatory reporting, and in 2003 for public service.

Don Aucoin can be reached at