THE CHARLESTON RENAISSANCE

by Robert M. Hicklin, Jr.

When DuBose Heyward began his folk opera Porgy and Bess in the mid-1920s, Charleston, South Carolina had seen better days. In the opening lines of Porgy, Heyward described his home as "an ancient, beautiful city that time had forgotten before it destroyed." Once acclaimed the "Queen of the South," the city had suffered badly during the Civil War and the ensuing years of Reconstruction. With debased agricultural resources and few other economic opportunities, Charlestonians found themselves upon hard times, "too poor to paint, too proud to whitewash." Grand old colonial and antebellum mansions fell into disrepair and were often subdivided into tenements.

Inspired by the city's rich heritage, a group of local artists and writers spearheaded a dramatic cultural renewal. Heyward, for example, used the byways of Charleston as the setting for his stories and the Gullah language for his dialogues, while his collaborator George Gershwin applied the rhythms of black spirituals to his compositions. Similarly, painters and printmakers focused on the daily life of Charleston and its nearby plantations. Through their watercolors, prints and books, local artists disseminated images of their city to the world beyond its immediate confines. Artists from elsewhere--including Childe Hassam, Edward Hopper, Anthony Thieme and George Biddle--were attracted to the area and left behind their renditions of the place and its people. As a result of these endeavors, the citizens of Charleston began to appreciate more fully the city's historical, artistic, linguistic and architectural treasures. The outcome was an artistic renaissance that fostered civic pride and initiated Charleston's historic preservation movement.

ALFRED HEBER HUTTY (1877-1954)

Alfred Hutty "Ashepoo" oil on canvas, 20 x 24 inches

"Come quickly, have found heaven." With these words, wired to his wife back home, Alfred Hutty began an enduring love affair with the city of Charleston. Invited there to establish an art school for the Carolina Art Association, the Michigan native readily adopted "the ancient, beautiful city" as his own. Having received instruction from William Merritt Chase and Birge Harrison at the Art Students' League in New York, Hutty arrived in Charleston an accomplished, well-regarded artist. He was a consummate draughtsman, whose line alone suggested spatial relationships and values.

Although his paintings reveal nothing of such linear aptitude, Hutty achieved his greatest recognition as an etcher, while continuing to paint. Indeed, painting came to be a relief from the monotony of continuous etching. In 1940, he wrote to the art critic Leila Mechlin, "I have had a sort of renaissance of pleasure in doing the water colors and I hope that some of it has been transferred to the paper!" Hutty's works are represented at the Metropolitan and Cleveland Museums of Art, the British Museum and the New York Public Library.

ELIZABETH O'NEILL VERNER (1883-1979)

Elizabeth O'Neill Verner "Seated Flower Seller Smoking Pipe" pastel on silk, 19 x 14╝ inches

"Until 1925," Elizabeth O'Neill Verner wrote, "I had two hobbies, art and love of Charleston. I combined them into one profession." Charleston born and bred, Elizabeth O'Neill Verner studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts under Thomas Anschutz before settling down with her husband in Charleston to raise a family. Unexpectedly widowed, left without means of support for her two small children and encouraged by her good friend and fellow artist Alice Smith, Elizabeth became a professional artist. A founder of the Charleston Sketch Club, Verner widely exhibited her drawings, etchings and pastels. Her studies of Charleston market vendors, rich in character, became her calling card, earning tremendous popularity with Charlestonians and visitors alike. After a trip to Japan in 1937, she perfected a technique for applying layers of pastel to silk mounted on wood which she called vernercolor. With works in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and the Library of Congress, Verner's stature as a national figure is undisputed. She, however, considered her contribution to historic preservation to be her greatest achievement.

ALICE RAVENEL HUGER SMITH (1876-1958)

Alice Ravenel Huger Smith "The Mystic Cypress" watercolor on paper, 22 5/8" x 25 3/8"

Charleston native Alice Smith wrote in 1936, a mid-point in her professional career, that "throughout my life have been trying to paint the rich planting section of South Carolina, that long strip of flat lowlands lying within the influence of the tides.. . ." The Lowcountry the artist describes yielded endless marshes, beaches, cypress swamps, palmettos, rice fields, egrets and herons as subject matter for Smith's brush, subjects she imbued with an air of mystery. Rather than offering literal transcriptions of particular places, Smith presented imaginary--yet plausible--views rendered in a painterly, not photographic, style. Significantly influenced by the work of Birge Harrison and Japanese prints, Smith's quiet coloration reflects these models. In the 1920s, she taught etching to fellow Charlestonians, notably Elizabeth O'Neill Verner. After 1924, however, Smith worked almost exclusively in watercolor, the medium she found most conducive to depicting the soft, hazy atmosphere of the Lowcountry. Smith's work is represented in the collections of the Brooklyn, Hunter and High Museums, the Library of Congress and at institutions across the country.

ANNA HEYWARD TAYLOR (1879-1956)

A South Carolinian by birth, Anna Heyward Taylor traveled and studied extensively before returning to her home state to pursue an artistic career. She purposely chose Charleston for its color, charm and, not incidentally, as a source of limitless inspiration. After graduating from school in Columbia, SC, Taylor went on to study with William Merritt Chase in both London and Holland. A tour of the European continent was followed by a stay in Tokyo and graduate work at Radcliffe College. In 1916, she arrived in Provincetown just as B. J. O. Nordfeldt and other printmakers were creating the Provincetown Print. That same year, she joined an expedition to British Guiana, where she executed the floral studies that would later be translated into wood-block prints and batik designs. Brilliant, contrasting colors and bold forms combined to create dense, compact Taylor prints that exude an exotic flavor.

Taylor's works, like those of her peers, did much to promote Charleston's allure and are today found in prestigious private collections and premier public institutions. Steeped in the history and aura of the Low country, these paintings and etchings instilled pride in local residents and brought national attention to the city they honored.

PUTTING IT ON PAPER

Saraland Press of Spartanburg, South Carolina will publish a handsomely illustrated volume on the Charleston Renaissance to be issued in 1998. Martha R. Severens, Curator at the Greenville County Museum of Art, will serve as project director and author of the book. She earlier held similar positions at the Gibbes Museum in Charleston, SC and Portland (ME) museums and has published studies of James Fitzgerald, Charles Fraser, Alice Ravenel Huger Smith and Andrew Wyeth.

Robert M. Hicklin, Jr. is the president of Robert M. Hicklin, Jr, Inc., Spartanburg, SC, the nation's only gallery specializing in fine art of the American South.

ęThe Fine Arts Trader 2009