A Brief Account | The CEO of American Airlines and His Western Art Collection

William Robinson Leigh, "The Roping"
“The Roping” by American Western artist William R. Leigh (oil on canvas, 1914), is found in the collections of The Blanton Museum of Art of The University of Texas at Austin. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

“The Roping” is a popular painting by American Western artist William Robinson Leigh. It is part of the C. R. Smith Collection of Western American Art at the Blanton Museum of Art at The University of Texas at Austin.

In the early 1980s, I was part of a group of art history graduate students working together to research and publish a catalog of the C. R. Smith Collection of Western American Art. At that time, “Western art” was not considered “high art” by most mainstream art historians. It was the collective goal of the students to see the collection better understood and appreciated by both the general public and the academic community. Today, you can acquire the completed collection of essays, Collecting the West, on Amazon.

C. R. Smith was an aviation pioneer. He headed American Airlines from 1934 to 1968, and 1973 to 1974. He served as United States Secretary of Commerce for a brief period under President Lyndon B. Johnson. He remained a good friend of Lady Bird Johnson long after President Johnson passed away. There is a museum in his name devoted to aviation history. From the website, “Cyrus Rowlett Smith became president of American Airlines in 1934 at the age of 35. He led American Airlines for the next 34 years and in the process helped to shape the entire airline industry. He was truly an aviation pioneer, entering the airline business in the days of open-cockpit biplanes and later building American from a small and unprofitable carrier into the largest airlines in the world.”

While at graduate school, I held a “work-study” job at the university art museum. One day, a curator came to me and said C. R. Smith was visiting the museum. He had come to Austin to see his good friend Lady Bird, and wanted to visit the art collection he had donated to The University of Texas at Austin. No one on staff knew more about the collection than I did. Would I mind visiting with Mr. Smith as he walked through the exhibition, and share my research?

I was excited to be asked. Once in the galleries, I found Mr. Smith, a tall imposing man standing alone with his cane in one hand, quietly observing one of his paintings. He towered over me. I remember his hands were huge; I felt tiny by his side.

I introduced myself, and although I shared a few comments, mostly I listened. We walked from painting to painting, and I listened to Mr. Smith’s opinions about each one.

The 1914 painting by William Robinson Leigh illustrated here was one of his favorites. Yet, I had come to learn that mainstream art historians – most based on the East Coast – focused their attention on more traditional artists who were part of, or influenced by the Hudson River School like Albert Bierstadt, Worthington Whittredge, Alfred Jacob Miller and Thomas Moran.

Why would C. R. Smith favor this rough-and-ready painting above the romantic, European influenced landscape artists I had come to believe were of greater importance? And in fact, their works were also quite a bit more valuable.

C. R. Smith liked how real “The Roping” looked. Its vibrant energy made you feel like you were in the dusty pasture watching the vaquero on his horse roping cattle. You could smell the dust. In fact, when we walked over together to view William R. Leigh’s painting, Mr. Smith thumped his cane with pleasure as we stood before it. His eyes lit up. “Now that is a painting!”

C. R. Smith felt similarly about the works he had acquired by Charles M. Russell, Charles Shreyvogel and Gilbert Gaul. He believed they were more authentic than the others. But he collected them all. Mr. Smith’s financial advisors had evidently advised him also to collect mainstream American Western artists, and he did so primarily for investment purposes. He appreciated their work, of course, but what got his blood flowing were “action” paintings that portrayed what he believed was the real west.

As we walked around the galleries that day, Mr. Smith barely glanced at the other works on display. For instance, I tried and tried to coax him over to view an idyllic Rocky Mountain landscape by Albert Bierstadt (the focus of my master’s thesis), without success. It bored him.

I will never forget that day. It was also a good lesson for me, a young art historian. I discovered why collectors acquire art. Some works are acquired for pure pleasure, others for long term investment.

Meetings like this eventually led me into the field of nonprofit fundraising. Quite often, art history involves the subject of patronage, a topic I find fascinating. Having the opportunity to visit privately with art collectors, many of whom donate to a wide range of nonprofit causes, I came to know, understand and appreciate their interests and personalities. I found this information fascinating, and “development” became a good fit. Today, it is still true that I like development as much for the opportunity it allows me to discover the histories and interests of my donors, as I do for helping worthy nonprofit causes realize their dreams through fundraising.

You will find papers about C. R. Smith, including a few of my archival contributions, in the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History at The University of Texas at Austin.


“A Brief Account” is a new series of personal memories I plan on posting for the sake of history and to entertain and (occasionally) to educate my readers. Some of my brief accounts will provide helpful information. Others will just make you smile! You can find A Brief Account short stories in the margin of Carolyn’s Nonprofit Blog in a special section devoted just to them.

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