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Outside Perspectives: Visiting Artists in Charleston
by Pamela Wall and Sara Arnold

Charleston, South Carolina, has long been a destination for those seeking warm weather, picturesque landscapes, and the charm of a historic city. Artists are no exception to the rule, and a number of well-known names have visited the city and translated their experiences into works of art. Included among this group are such twentieth-century masters as Edward Hopper, Childe Hassam, George Biddle, and photographer Walker Evans. Between the years 1910 to 1945, in particular, Charleston flourished as a Mecca for artists, a period described today as the Charleston Renaissance.

The Charleston Renaissance was largely the result of a small community of resident artists who discovered in Charleston’s timeworn alleyways and weathered facades a visual beauty that spoke of its extraordinary architectural and cultural past. Centered on the work of Alice Ravenel Huger Smith (Fig. 1), Anna Heyward Taylor (Fig. 2), and Elizabeth O’Neill Verner, this time period engendered civic pride among Charlestonians and brought national attention to the rich cultural and architectural heritage of the city.

In many cases, the extent of interaction between the resident and visiting artists in Charleston during this time period is unclear. However, artists from each group depicted similar subject matter, and a sharing of subject matter suggests a sharing of ideas. Like the local artists, many of the artists who made shorter stays were captivated with the architecture of Charleston. Childe Hassam (Fig. 3), Colin Campell Cooper (Fig. 4), and Walker Evans all created work featuring the city’s structures. Edward Hopper (Fig. 5) focused on atmospheric impressions of the architecture and surrounding landscape. Artists such as Anthony Thieme (Fig. 6) captured the surrounding Lowcountry marshlands, while New York artists George Biddle (Fig. 7) and Palmer Schoppe (Fig. 8) turned their attention to the African-American inhabitants of the city. These artists are part of a long tradition of cultural exchange in Charleston, a tradition that remains very much alive today.

Fig. 1: Alice Ravenel Huger Smith (1876–1958), Cattle in the Broom Grass, An Autumn Evening, from the series A Carolina Rice Plantation of the Fifties, ca. 1935. Watercolor on paper, 18 x 13 inches. Image courtesy of the Gibbes Museum of Art/Carolina Art Association. 1937.009.0008.

A native Charlestonian, Alice Smith used her art to bring attention to the beauty and heritage of Charleston and the surrounding Lowcountry region. In addition to studio practice, Smith was active at the Gibbes Museum of Art, where she organized exhibitions of her own work as well as the work of others. Cattle in the Broom Grass is part of a series of thirty original watercolors Smith created for A Carolina Rice Plantation of the Fifties, published in 1936.

Fig. 2: Anna Heyward Taylor (American, 1879–1956), The City, 1939. Linoleum print on paper, 14-3/8 x 12-7/8 inches. Image courtesy of the Gibbes Museum of Art/Carolina Art Association. 1998.007.0001.

A native of Columbia, South Carolina, Anna Heyward Taylor is recognized among the leaders of the Charleston Renaissance. Prior to settling in Charleston in 1929, Taylor traveled and studied widely, including two excursions to Europe as a student of William Merritt Chase. She also made extended visits to British Guiana and Mexico and created prints, watercolors, and textiles based on her experiences in each location. Taylor is best known for her strongly-composed woodblock and linoleum prints, such as The City, which depicts a quintessential scene of the South Carolina Lowcountry.

Fig. 3: Childe Hassam (1859–1935), Spring in Charleston, 1925. Etching on paper, 7-1/4 x 11-3/4 inches. Image courtesy of the Gibbes Museum of Art/Carolina Art Association. 1993.003.

Between late March and early April 1925, Childe Hassam traveled south to Savannah, Georgia, stopping in Baltimore, Richmond, and Charleston along the way. Though he likely arrived in Charleston while the city’s vibrant spring foliage was nearing its peak, the renowned American Impressionist chose to depict his surroundings in black-and-white, this etching emphasizing the city’s native vegetation. While the focal point of Spring in Charleston is the striking entrance of a Charleston single house, the abundant shrubs and vines in the adjacent garden demonstrate the interconnection between the city’s historic architecture and lush landscaping.

Fig. 4: Colin Campbell Cooper (1856–1937), Old Charleston Market, 1913. Gouache on paperboard, 4-5/8 x 7-1/8 inches. Image courtesy of the Gibbes Museum of Art/Carolina Art Association. 1994.016.

Colin Campbell Cooper, widely recognized for his architectural paintings, particularly his depictions of the modern American skyscraper, was an avid traveler. In fact, he was aboard the S. S. Carpathia when it steamed to the rescue of passengers of the Titanic in April 1912. The following spring, Cooper visited Charleston. While traveling, he often made lively gouache sketches of city streetscapes like this one depicting Market Hall, one of Charleston’s most recognizable architectural landmarks.

Fig. 5: Edward Hopper (1882–1967), Charleston Slum, Charleston, South Carolina, 1929. Watercolor on paper, 16 x 24 inches. Private collection.

Arriving by automobile, Edward Hopper and his wife, Josephine Nivison Hopper, spent three weeks in Charleston in April 1929. The catalyst for the Hopper’s trip south remains unknown; however, Hopper made several sketches of the city and its surroundings and completed a number of watercolors during his stay. For Charleston Slum, Hopper strayed from the boundaries of the historic district frequented by tourists, and portrayed the skeletal-like remains of a once grand Charleston mansion on the northeast side of town. The building depicted is stripped of its original ornamental exterior and porch.

Fig. 6: Anthony Thieme (1888–1954), Morning Light Near Charleston, South Carolina, ca. 1940s. Oil on canvas, 30 x 36-1/4 inches. Image courtesy of the Gibbes Museum of Art/Carolina Art Association. 1991.027.

Many artists who sojourned to Charleston were greatly inspired by the unique landscapes of the outlying lowlands surrounding the city. Anthony Thieme, who migrated seasonally between his studios in Rockport, Massachusetts, and St. Augustine, Florida, spent time in Charleston in the 1940s. His Morning Light Near Charleston offers an impressionistic vision of the moss-laden live oaks and coastal marshlands that characterize much of the Lowcountry landscape.

Fig. 7: George Biddle (1885–1973), The Battery, Evening, 1931. Oil on canvas, 26-1/2 x 26-1/2 inches. Image courtesy of the Gibbes Museum of Art/Carolina Art Association. 1999.002.

A native of Philadelphia, George Biddle graduated from Harvard Law School in 1911 and was admitted to the Pennsylvania Bar the same year, but instead decided to pursue a career in art. From 1911 to 1916, Biddle studied at the Académie Julian in Paris and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. He learned printmaking in Munich and spent summers in Giverny with Frederick Frieseke. After serving in the army during World War I, Biddle traveled to Tahiti, Mexico, and Paris. In 1930, he was commissioned by George and Ira Gershwin to illustrate the libretto for Porgy and Bess. He spent that spring in Charleston, where he became friends with DuBose Heyward, author of the novel Porgy on which Gershwin’s opera was based. Charleston and its cultural reawakening inspired Biddle, who created a number of paintings of life in the Lowcountry, including The Battery, Evening, which depicts nannies tending to children on the southern tip of the Charleston peninsula, an area known as the Battery.

Fig. 8: Palmer Schoppe (1912–2001), Drummer, 1934. Oil on artist’s board, 14 x 10 inches. Image courtesy of the Gibbes Museum of Art/Carolina Art Association. 2004.003.

Like many of the artists who visited Charleston, Schoppe traveled south from New York City, where he was enrolled at the Arts Students League. Schoppe headed to Charleston during the winter of 1934 in search of warmer weather and quickly became enchanted with the city, its people, its spirituals, and the music of the Lowcountry. Schoppe took a particular interest in the people of the Gullah community and created work that reflected their culture and traditions, such as Drummer. Following his trip to the region, Schoppe completed The Carolina Low Country, a series of ten lithographs featuring scenes of rural life inspired by the artist’s visit to Wadmalaw Island, a sea island near Charleston.

Fig. 9: Alfred Hutty (1877–1954), Meeting Street, ca. 1925. Oil on canvas, 23-1/2 x 291/2 inches. Image courtesy of the Gibbes Museum of Art/Carolina Art Association. 1961.010.

Alfred Hutty traveled to Charleston for the first time in 1920 to teach a season of painting classes at the Gibbes Museum of Art. Overwhelmed by the city’s beauty, he returned every winter for the next thirty years. Though his main studio and home remained in the artists’ colony at Woodstock, New York, Hutty became one of the most prolific interpreters of Charleston and its surrounding landscapes during the first half of the twentieth century. His broadly exhibited etchings and paintings enticed a number of artists to visit the region.

Fig. 10: Peter Sekaer (1901–1950), Pearlstine Alley, Charleston, South Carolina, 1936. Gelatin silver print on paper, 7-1/8 x 9-3/8 inches. Image courtesy of the Gibbes Museum of Art/Carolina Art Association. 1999.016.0002.

Working alongside Walker Evans during his 1936 photographic journey through the South was Peter Sekaer. Evans’s cool, detached style and choice of subject matter clearly influenced Sekaer. In fact, a number of photographs created by the two artists during this trip are indistinguishable. Sekaer subsequently developed his own artistic voice, and, though attracted to signs and other symbols of American culture, was more interested in directly engaging people, resulting in a sensitive style of documentary photography evident in Pearlstine Alley.

Fig. 11: Birge Harrison (1854–1929), Rosy Moon Off Charleston Harbor, ca. 1908–1916. Oil on Masonite, 18-1/8 x 30-3/8 inches. Image courtesy of the Gibbes Museum of Art/Carolina Art Association. 1921.002.0001.

Birge Harrison was inspired to travel south after seeing etchings of Charleston by Charles Henry White published in Harper’s magazine in November 1907. An article on the city by White accompanied his etchings; in it he declared, “this graceful colonial city of roses, with its dim, half-forgotten gardens…is only beginning to be discovered by the tourists and is still shunned by the artist, whose instinctive, aesthetic flunkeyism sends him to Dordrecht or Venice, to grope about for a mildewed motive worked threadbare by generations of painters.” Harrison, then director of the Art Students League at Woodstock, New York, accepted White’s challenge and made his first visit in 1908; enchanted by his experience, he became a regular winter resident. His Rosy Moon off Charleston is one of four known paintings this acclaimed American Tonalist made of the city.

Fig. 12: Henry Botkin (1896–1983), Porgy and Bess with George, Near Folly Island, ca. 1935. Watercolor and ink on paper, 16-1/2 x 19-3/8 inches. Image courtesy of the Gibbes Museum of Art/Carolina Art Association. 1988.011.0002.

Born in Boston, Henry Botkin received his early training at the Massachusetts School of Art and the Art Students League. After moving to New York, he established himself as an illustrator for The Saturday Evening Post and Harper’s. In the 1920s, Botkin traveled widely in Europe, South Africa, Canada, and Japan. In 1933, he accompanied his cousin George Gershwin to Charleston. While Gershwin worked on his opera, Porgy and Bess, Botkin toured Charleston and nearby Folly Beach, painting the people and places of the Lowcountry.


Pamela Wall is curator of exhibitions and Sara Arnold is curator of collections at the Gibbes Museum of Art in Charleston, South Carolina. Angela Mack, executive director and chief curator at the Gibbes Museum of Art, will speak on the arts of eighteenth-century Charleston at the Winter Antiques Show on January 22nd. For information visit www.winterantiquesshow.com.

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