Petite, vivacious Ilona Royce Smithkin was born in Poland and studied at the Reimann Schule in Berlin and Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts in Antwerp. She emigrated to the United States in the late 1930s and studied with Robert Brackman at New York City’s Art Students’ League. An Impressionistic painter noted for her life studies and portraits, she captured many of the 20th century’s “greats and non-greats” on canvas, including Ayn Rand, Tennessee Williams and singer Bobby Short.
Venturing from her studio above New York’s Russian Tea Room, Ilona began exhibiting and teaching in Kentucky, Indiana and South Carolina. Her classes, which offered as much life guidance as art instruction, grew so popular that she was made a Kentucky Colonel by the state government, received sponsorships from private foundations and state arts’ commissions, and was presented with keys to numerous cities. She became a frequent judge at art competitions as well as a popular TV and radio guest. Her landmark television series, Ilona’s Palette, established the instructional painting genre on PBS, and was followed by Painting with Ilona (which spawned a companion book by the same title) and Finishing Touches with Ilona.
Ilona maintains a second studio in Massachusetts, where she continues to teach and exhibit at the Provincetown Art Association and Museum (PAAM). Eight years ago, she discovered a knack for performing while appearing in a PAAM benefit, and her “Eyelash Cabaret”— in which Ilona performs with her frequent collaborator Zoë Lewis— has become a fixture at performance venues and private functions across the Eastern seaboard.
Today, Ilona is experiencing a renaissance. In addition to being the subject of Melissa Hammel’s award-winning documentary, Ilona, Upstairs and a recent book, Ilona Royce Smithkin: The Sixties, New York City and Provincetown by John Lucas, she continues to have her work exhibited in galleries. Recently, she’s been featured in such well-known media outlets as New York Magazine, Time Out New York and Time Out London, The Huffington Post, StyleLikeU.com, and LX-NBC. At 91, she inspires generations with her warm personality, joie de vivre, and the wisdom acquired from having lived her life as a work of art.