Before the hamlet Achterbos of Mol
Little work by Jakob Smits is known from the period before he settled in Achterbos. The watercolour De profeet Jona (JSM Mol) for example, a copy of Michelangelo from 1880, dates back to his student days. From his academic-decorative work from 1882-1884, several preliminary sketches were preserved for the decoration projects of the Museum Boijmans in Rotterdam and the Teylers Museum in Haarlem.
From 1885 to 1887, following Albert Neuhuys' example, he worked in the naturalistic impressionist style of The Hague School. A good example of this is the panel 'Vrouw bij de wastobbe' (JSM Mol) from 1886.
First period: 1888-1899
As soon as he started living in Achterbos in Mol, Smits resolutely evolved away from The Hague Impressionism and started painting in symbolist style. It is the period of the big watercolours, often on a background of gold leaf. Mater Amabilis' and Mater Dei' (JSM Mol), 'Mater Dolorosa' (KMSK Brussels), 'Pieta' (KMSK Antwerp and MSK Gent),'Symbool der Kempen' (MDD Deurle) and 'Salome' (M. St.-Joost-ten-Node) are some wonderful examples. These works 'breathe an idyllic, serene peace' (Vanbeselaere), la vision en est ample et pleine de grandeur, le métier dune habileté déconcertante (Marlier).
Smits also painted and drew many portraits, especially of Malvina and his children Boby, Maguerite and Kobe, but also of friends and ordinary people from Achterbos.
Second period: 1900-1914
From 1900 on, Smits painted large oil compositions such as 'Mater Amabilis' (KMSK Brussels), 'Symbool der Kempen' (KMSK Brussels), Binnenhuis met wieg' (KMSK Antwerp) or 'De Judaskus' (KMSK Antwerp). With a sense of greatness, he placed man at the centre of his attention, and often represented the figures in their full-length. These are well thought-out compositions, 'justified, adapted and worked through to the smallest details (De Nave). His artistic production often involved the use of the Rembrandtian chiaroscuro. Examples are the portraits De vader van de veroordeelde (KMSK Brussels), 'Kobeke Smits' (KMSK Antwerp) or 'Frederick Coburn' (JSM Mol).
Because he sold very few paintings, Smits started etching around 1900. His graphic work - 89 etchings in total - deals with the same themes as his painting: portraits, mother and child, Biblical scenes, interiors, landscapes, village life. In 1910, he published an album with 25 etchings dedicated to Queen Elisabeth. It contains masterpieces such as 'De ossenkar, De aanbidding door de Wijzen, Slachtoffer van de arbeid, etc .
Third period: 1918-1928
During the First World War Smits laid down his brush and chalk but afterwards continued to work with great dedication. He astonished the art world with paintings that attempt to capture and reflect the light itself. The light became a painterly obsession for him; he turned his studio into a laboratory of light. Constant repainting and overpainting created the paintings with the typical thick, granulated layer of paint. Partly because of the far-reaching simplification of the line drawing, this phase, which actually began as early as 1912, is rightly called expressionist.
Smits won critical acclaim in Belgium and abroad with the masterpieces that he created after 1918: war memories such as 'Bemint elkander' (JSM Mol) and 'De Vlag' (Senate Brussels), Biblical scenes such as 'De processie der Magiërs' (KMSK Antwerp) and 'Christus en de overspelige vrouw' (M. Boijmans-Van Beuningen Rotterdam, on loan from JSM Mol), portraits such as Het bruidje' (KMSK Antwerp) and Maternity' (MAM Liège), landscapes such as De aardappeloogst (KMSK Brussels), 'De put (KMSK Antwerp), 'De hooikar' (KMSK Antwerp), 'Het gouden ochtendgloren' (KMSK Brussels, on loan from JSM Mol) etc. The post-war etchings also match this new vision and style, including 'De overspelige vrouw', Vertrek naar het veld' and De oogst.