Editor's note: The Greenville County Museum of Art and Tal Day provided permission for Resource Library to publish the following text from the GCMA's recently published catalog for the exhibition Horace Day in South Carolina, on display April 20, 2016 through July 10, 2016 at the Greenville County Museum of Art. If you have questions or comments regarding the text, please contact directly the Greenville County Museum of Art, 420 College Street, Greenville, SC 29601 or through either this phone number or web address:
Horace Day in South Carolina
By Tal Day
A plein air realist, Horace Day helped to extend the Charleston Renaissance into the post-World War II era by modernizing the genre, combining the punch of brilliant colors and textured brushstrokes with the same love of place expressed by Alfred Hutty, Alice Ravenel Huger Smith, Anna Heyward Taylor, and Elizabeth O'Neill Verner. His fresh interpretations of typical Charleston and Lowcountry subjects documented vibrant city streets and their inhabitants, bucolic landscapes, rural cabins hidden among massive oaks, and churches still identifiable today by their distinctive architectural details. The exhibition Horace Day in South Carolina focuses on the artist's work that was painted over four decades of traveling along the coast -- from Charleston to Hilton Head Island. The exhibition is on view at the Greenville County Museum of Art through July 10, 2016. A fully illustrated catalog documenting the exhibition is available for purchase through the GCMA.
Horace Talmage Day (1909 - 1984) gained national recognition as a painter of the South Carolina Lowcountry. Although never his residence, South Carolina was Horace Day's adopted home for nearly fifty years. He returned to the Lowcountry again and again to mine its distinctive regional subject matter for his art.
Day was born to American missionary parents during their service in China. His early youth was spent on Kulangsu, an island in the Xiamen harbor. The area was known for its nineteenth-century colonial architecture, which the artist later recalled to be one of the aspects of the Charleston area that drew him to visit and paint there with such frequency. Similarly, the rustic shacks and cabins of the environs evoked the peasant farms and villages that the artist found appealing when he lived in Chang Chow, another active mission site up the river from Amoy. Reflecting forty years after his Lowcountry paintings were first exhibited, Day observed, "My very early associations have had a subtle influence on what I paint."[i]
As a child born and raised in the China mission field, Horace Day was surrounded by people who believed their mission work was a calling. Day's parents married just after his father completed his seminary education, and the couple left immediately after the ceremony to join the American Reform Mission in Amoy (now Xiamen), China. The local notice of their wedding reported that their departure for the China mission field was the third of its kind from the region within a year.
Within the Day family, the passion for ministry was particularly strong. Following in the footsteps of his own father, Horace's grandfather William James Day studied at Princeton Seminary, where he felt a call to the "inland mission" of the Presbyterian Church. Over the course of a fifty-year ministry, he planted seven churches in Pennsylvania's Wyoming Valley, near Wilkes-Barre.
Conceived during his parents' travel to join the American Reform Mission in China, Horace Day was named for his father's spiritual mentors rather than for ancestors. His first name honored his father's brother, who had graduated from Auburn Seminary and was engaged in lay mission work with the Church of Sea and Land in New York's Bowery before his premature death from tuberculosis. Horace's middle name, Talmage, honored John Van Nest Talmage, the recently deceased founder of the American Reform Mission in China.
In part because of the comparative isolation of an upbringing in the mission field in China, Horace Day, like other mission children, was both unusually free and obligated to develop interests on his own. From early on, it was clear that painting was his passion.
It was a passion that his parents encouraged. Day's letters home from the Shanghai American School, a boarding school for mission children that he entered at age eight, were lavishly illustrated. By the age of twelve, he was painting mature landscapes in oil and watercolor. Before he was eighteen, he had determined to pursue fine art as a career. Rather than matriculate at Princeton, the alma mater of his father and uncle, he skipped undergraduate school to enter the Art Students League in New York City.
While painting was clearly Horace Day's calling, he was cheerful and committed rather than earnest. What his friends most recalled were his good humor and infectious laugh. He not only enjoyed but also was good company. He was widely read and relished meeting and talking with people as he painted outdoors.
Rather than a cross to bear, painting was the source of the artist's vitality and the foundation for his joy in life. "I feel happiest when I am working. The more I paint, the more I want to paint."[ii] As much as he enjoyed company, from very early on he guarded his opportunities to paint, writing of "the glory of being able to work every day until dark." [iii]
Beginning in 1931, the year he finished his studies at the Art Students League, Day's career was off to a fast start. One of his paintings was included in an international exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago. He also was appointed artist-in-residence at Lillian Wald's Henry Street Settlement, then a center of creative energy in New York City. During summers, he painted in Vermont where he became a founding member of the Southern Vermont Artists Association.
In 1936, Day was appointed the first director of the Herbert Art Institute in Augusta, Georgia. During his first break from those responsibilities, he discovered Beaufort, South Carolina. The Lowcountry landscape had immediate appeal. "Beaufort . . . is really beautiful. I have never seen such wonderful trees and know that I could work there indefinitely." [iv]
The great trees were not the only appeal. Nearby Charleston as well was full of "grand material." As attracted as he was to the city's historic buildings and churches, so much like the British colonial architecture in China, he was also drawn as well to the rustic cabins and the close-to-the-land life of the Lowcountry's rural black residents. "The landscape here is so luxuriant that it reminds me a lot of south China and the little Negro cabins might easily be the little shacks the Chinese farmers live in."[v] With enthusiasm, he reported that he was doing "a lot of work." [vi]
Day perceived the Lowcountry as a whole. The spirit of the region "was not only expressed in its elegant antebellum homes, but also in the simple cabins found in the city and countryside."[vii] Because of his upbringing, he was not bound by Southern stereotypes or a restricted view of what might be beautiful. He was open to the beauty and connections among features of the Lowcountry culture and landscape that many others did not see. He rejected the common belief that beauty is something faraway or altogether unobtainable, "usually some place in Europe . . . or relegated to one area -- (as) in Charleston, the idea that it's all beautiful below Broad Street."[viii]
In 1938, twenty-four of Day's watercolors comprised Sea Island Country, an exhibition at the prestigious Macbeth Gallery in Manhattan, which was favorably reviewed in Art News:
The subjects in the Sea Island Country [x] exhibition -- including modest cabins, country churches, live oaks, the distinctive architecture of Charleston and specific locations in Beaufort, Charleston, Bluffton, Adams Run, and Edisto and subjects like the ruins of Sheldon Church and the Chapel of Ease on Ladies Island -- were subjects and locations that the artist returned to often over the course of his career. The Lowcountry influence was so strong that even in other areas of the country, the landscape and subjects that appealed to him hinted of the Lowcountry: a cabin in Alaska, lush foliage in Jamaica, or a weathered barn in Tennessee. Likewise in Vermont, he painted a lush landscape, while writing of his desire to do more painting in the South. [xi]
Day's work reached an international audience in the 1939 New York World's Fair. He served with Lamar Dodd, Frank Hartley Anderson and Wilber G. Kurtz on the Fair's Southern Regional Selection Committee for the State of Georgia, and he was represented in the Fair's exhibition American Art Today with his 1938 Lowcountry painting Live Oak, Beaufort, South Carolina.
When Day painted on location, the quality of accommodations was a distinctly secondary concern. Staying in a resort or hotel of better quality was a distraction. He preferred inexpensive motels or short-term rentals where he could afford to stay for some period of time. He felt that money was better spent on art supplies than on beds.
He wrote of Travelers' Rest in Beaufort, the cheap tourist home where he stayed during one of his earliest excursions to the Lowcountry, recalling accommodations shared with "itinerant tomato pickers and their children, who made themselves very much at home, regarding my so-called studio as a family room. I did not mind the children so much, but I did mind the bed bugs and the bats, which one summer nearly drove me crazy. My landlady was indignant when I complained about the bedbugs, because she said that everybody in South Carolina had bedbugs, but she would see what she could do about the bats." [xii]
Fortunately, over time the choice and quality of accommodations improved. The many modest motels that sprang up after World War II were distinctly more comfortable than Travelers' Rest. What Day was willing to tolerate is one measure of the region's appeal for him.
In later years, after Day's retirement from Mary Baldwin College, his excursions to the Lowcountry typically extended to six weeks or longer. "Artists are not great travelers," he maintained. "If they were, and tried to see everything, they could never get deeply involved in their material. That's why I keep coming back to the same places. I find beautiful things get more beautiful, and uglier things just get uglier."[xiii]
Toward the end of Horace Day's nearly fifty-year career he painted only in oil, on canvas or on board. His last watercolors in the Lowcountry date from the early 1960s. From 1972 on, he did not paint in watercolor at all. To prepare for an excursion, he purchased art supplies and stretched and prepared canvases with gesso in his Alexandria, Virginia, studio so that he could get straight to work as soon as he arrived.
He removed the back seat cushion from his car, a mid-1960s Ford Falcon, so that wet paintings could be stored vertically without too much contact with one another. The Falcon was roughly the size of a full-size car today, and the arrangement worked well for paintings the size of his landscapes. As his traveling studio, the Falcon ultimately logged more than 400,000 miles before expiring. One unexpected feature of his "studio" was a twenty-pound scrap metal pulley that he hung from his easel when working outdoors to keep it anchored in wind. Thus anchored, the easel reliably held his canvases secured in place with clips.
Whether working outdoors or indoors on a portrait or a still life, he started with a gestural drawing on the canvas to frame the composition, rather than with preliminary sketches. He then applied a semi-transparent color to the entire canvas and proceeded from that point to build the entire composition. He learned this technique during studio classes with Kenneth Hayes Miller at the Art Students League, but in later years his proficiency developed to the point that he could produce a near-finished painting on site in only a few days, rather than weeks. A small portrait study might be completed in a single sitting. [xiv]
Day knew the Lowcountry well through his excursions over the years; but even with his exceptional memory, he sometimes kept notes on places to paint in a small pocket notebook. This was particularly true in Charleston where both development and decline were altering familiar neighborhoods.
From early in his career, it was typical for Day "to have several things . . . going."[xv] While he was still painting watercolors, he might do one or two watercolors a day and then work on an oil when the light was right, always working outdoors. After he abandoned watercolor, he worked on multiple oils at a time, choosing which to work on based on the available light. During one particularly productive period in Charleston, he consistently worked on three paintings a day: a morning painting, an afternoon painting, and an evening painting.[xvi] In later years, it was not unusual for him to return from a five- or six-week excursion with as many as thirty canvases in various stages of completion: landscapes, still lifes, and portrait studies.
As a working artist, Day thought about other painters as influences from a technical rather than a historical point of view. In thinking about his own paintings, he often reflected on how their subject matter might have interested other painters of similar subjects. When he visited museums, he looked at paintings, not so much as culturally significant artifacts, but rather as illustrative of how other artists had approached subject matter and technical challenges that he faced in his own work. As important as he considered the work of artists Claude Lorraine, Poussin, Cezanne, Renoir, Monet, Manet, and Homer, his work neither quoted from nor expressly emulated those or any other painters' styles. "Artists," he stated, "are in one sense craftsmen handing down their methods to be reinterpreted by each succeeding generation." An enthusiasm for the subject was for an artist the surest escape from self-consciousness and mannerism. [xvii]
Just as in his choice of subjects he steered clear of things that were too perfect; he did not want his paintings to look overworked. An artist's methods were to be concealed rather than flaunted.[xviii] However difficult the challenge in a composition, the final result should look casual or effortless. Hence, when working on paintings in his studio, he constantly worried that final touches might ruin rather than finish a painting.
Day's pursuit of effortlessness did not imply that a painting should be disorganized, without rhythmic relationships and structure, but rather that a painting should capture the innate spirit of the form, a quality that is felt in nature rather than seen. In that respect, rather than literally, a painting should "copy nature." A good landscape, he believed, should evoke its subject matter and express through the artist's insight a synthesis of nature's complexities. Creating an inventory was not the goal. [xix]
Over days and months, sometimes years, Day would from time to time revisit a painting and make minor adjustments with a brush or palette knife to achieve the balance of light and texture that he was looking for. Or, once in the studio, he might decide that a painting would work better if a canvas were cut down to a smaller size, improving the composition by cropping. Day often commented that his struggle with finishing one painting helped make it easier to solve other similar problems later. His productivity over a career of nearly fifty years, the volume of work he continued to produce, and the efficiency with which he worked vindicate that faith.
Horace Day recognized that home was a place to be discovered. His adopted home was South Carolina, and through his reverent rendering of its landscape and culture he rediscovered his own beginnings.
i David Crumpler, There's Beauty in Any Place, Charleston News and Courier (Nov. 4, 1979) (interview).
ii David Crumpler, There's Beauty in Any Place, Charleston News and Courier (Nov. 4, 1979) (interview).
iii Letter to Elizabeth Nottingham (July 19, 1940) (on file: Greenville County Museum of Art).
iv Letter to Elizabeth Nottingham (Feb. 22, 1938) (on file: Greenville County Museum of Art).
v Letter to Elizabeth Nottingham (July 31, 1938) (on file: Greenville County Museum of Art).
vi Letter to Elizabeth Nottingham (July 31, 1938) (on file: Greenville County Museum of Art).
vii Catalogue: Sea Island Country: Watercolors by Horace Day, Macbeth Gallery, New York, NY (Nov. 29 through Dec. 19, 1938) (introduction), http://www.libmma.org/digital_files/macbeth/B16373042.PDF; Gerhard Spieler, Spirit of Beaufort seen in lives of people, architecture, Beaufort Gazette (Dec. 10, 1996) (quoting Horace Day).
viii David Crumpler, There's Beauty in Any Place, Charleston News and Courier (Nov. 4, 1979) (interview).
ix M.D., Day, Painter of the Tropical South, 53 Art News 11 at 16-17 (Dec. 10, 1938).
x Catalogue: Sea Island Country: Watercolors by Horace Day, Macbeth Gallery, New York, NY (Nov. 29 through Dec. 19, 1938), http://www.libmma.org/digital_files/macbeth/B16373042.PDF.
xi Letter to Elizabeth Nottingham (July 19, 1940) (on file: Greenville County Museum of Art).
xii Horace Day, The Disappearing Landscape Painter (unpublished lecture notes, c. 1965) (on file: Greenville County Museum of Art)
xiii David Crumpler, There's Beauty in Any Place, Charleston News and Courier (Nov. 4, 1979) (interview).
xv Letter to Elizabeth Nottingham (July 19, 1940) (on file: Greenville County Museum of Art).
xvi David Crumpler, There's Beauty in Any Place, Charleston News Courier (Nov. 4, 1979).
xvii F.F. Sherman, Note and Comment: Two Promising Young Artists at 129-30.
xviii F.F. Sherman, Note and Comment: Two Promising Young Artists at 129.
xix Horace Day, The Disappearing Landscape Painter: Some Observations
on Landscape Painting in America [lecture notes undated: 1960-65] (on
file: Greenville County Museum of Art).
© 2016 Tal Day
About the author
Tal Day is the elder son of Horace Day and artist Elizabeth Nottingham Day. He lives in Alexandria, Virginia, with his wife Barbara Kramer Day, in the home where Horace Day had his last studio. In addition to administering the artistic estates of his parents, he is active in local history organizations and as an advocate for environmental sustainability and historic preservation.
Images of selected paintings in the exhibition
(above: Horace Day, Salem Black River Presbyterian Church, Mayesville, 1980, oil on canvas, 26 x 30 1/8 inches. Greenville County Museum of Art)
(above: Horace Day, Two Houses on Ogier Street, Charleston, 1980, oil on canvas, 28 1/8 x 34 1/8 inches. Greenville County Museum of Art)
(above: Horace Day, Huggins Farm, Bluffton, oil on canvas, 24 x 30 inches. Greenville County Museum of Art)
Resource Library editor's notes:
The above text was published in Resource Library on May 24, 2016 with permission of the author and Greenville County Museum of Art, which was granted to TFAO on May 17, 2016. Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Paula Angermeier, Head of Communications at the Greenville County Museum of Art, for her help concerning permission for publishing the text and providing images of artworks in the exhibition.
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