Edith Neff, [Portrait of Ruth Smith, the artist's mother]
Neff’s sister Maria was finishing a roll of film after a hiking trip and took a photograph of her mother sitting in the kitchen of the family home at 758 North 26th Street. Neff was intrigued by the mysterious light in the picture and asked Maria if she could have it to make a painting. She painted this portrait when she was just twenty-one, while studying at the Philadelphia College of Art.
The artist’s mother, Ruth Rodman Smith (1905–2003), emigrated from Ukraine at age sixteen with her mother and older sister. The family was of Russian Jewish ancestry. After arriving in Philadelphia, she worked as a bookkeeper at N. Snellenburg & Company department store and, later, as a factory worker at Fishman and Tobin clothing manufacturers.
She was an advocate for her daughters’ education, supporting Maria’s intent to become a doctor and Edith’s to be an artist. She took them to museums, enrolled them in art classes, and brought them to galleries. And she devoted great energy to caring for Edith and Maria’s sister, Dorothy, who struggled with mental illness. After her husband’s death in 1957, Ruth supported herself and the three girls, living frugally but well. She took great satisfaction in having assimilated as an American citizen and a proud Philadelphian.