Jeffrey Smart

Learning Resource

A painting of a red metal spiral staircase rising into a sunny lightly clouded sky. The bottom of the stairs is invisible and a bald man in a dark suit walks down the stairs, partially obscured by the central pole.

Jeffrey Smart
Jacob descending


Jacob descending
1979 Tuscany, Italy
synthetic polymer paint on canvas
94 x 55.6 cm
TarraWarra Museum of Art, Healesville
Gift of Eva Besen AO and Marc Besen AO
Donated through the Australian Government’s Cultural Gifts Program 2008
© The Estate of Jeffrey Smart

'Key to Smart’s approach is that his subjects are suggestive realms in which the characters and signposts are jumping-off points for the viewer. His imagery was directly informed by a range of sources: poetry, philosophy, literature and art history, and chance encounters with real and uncanny imagery in the modern world,’ writes exhibition co-curator, Deborah Hart.

Look closely at this painting. What do you notice? Focus on the sky. How would you describe it? Now look at the horizon. Does it give you a clue to the location?

What would you like to ask the artist about this painting?

Listen to the sound work by YL Hooi. Do any of the sounds remind you of shapes or textures in the painting?

Play the sound work again. As you listen, write a stream of consciousness story using Jacob descending as a starting point.

Find a piece of poetry that interests you. Create a drawing that responds to this poem.

You can find the work of many Australian poets at Red Room Poetry. (See link below.)

Related Links:

From the Audio Tour:

Music composed by YL Hooi

When I saw the painting I imagined Jacob's watch hitting the steel handrail as he walks up and down endlessly, as though stuck in purgatory in a bubble-gum theme park.

Jacob descending is one of Smart’s most dreamlike images. It presents the double helix of a red spiral staircase containing a suited male figure. Jacob’s ladder also appears in the Christian Book of Genesis, as a symbol of the connection between Heaven and Earth. It is also likely that Smart was familiar with the English artist and poet William Blake’s image of Jacob’s dream (c 1805) in the British Museum, which includes a spiral staircase.