Editor's note: The following article was published on July 3, 2007 in Resource Library with permission of the author and Greenville County Museum of Art. It was written concerning an exhibit titled The Charleston Renaissance, on view at the Museum through September 30, 2007. If you have questions or comments regarding the article please contact the Greenville County Museum of Art directly through either this phone number or web address:
The Charleston Renaissance
by Martha R. Severens
Yes, times do change. . . . I live in a town which being old is becoming new. . . a town where the new is welcomed and the old is still loved.
In these opening words of her Reminiscences Alice Smith contemplated the remarkable transformation of Charleston from a downtrodden and depressed city into an enticing destination for tourists. Although too modest to comprehend her own role fully, Smith, along with a coterie of other artists, was responsible for inspiring the city's revitalization. The ensuing cultural revival, now known as the Charleston Renaissance, was a multi-faceted and multi-disciplinary phenomenon occurring roughly between 1915 and 1940; the seeds of renewal, however, were planted in advance, and many of the participants prospered beyond mid-century.
The phrase, The Charleston Renaissance, was devised in 1985 when the Gibbes Art Gallery organized the exhibition, Charleston in the Age of Porgy and Bess, which coincided with the fiftieth anniversary of the opera. The keyword, renaissance, had been used in travelers' accounts of the time. Landscape painter Birge Harrison used it in a 1912 article for Art and Progress that also included descriptions of Quebec and New Orleans. A columnist for the Chicago Evening Post titled her April 17, 1928 piece "Renaissance in the South," and wrote specifically about the role of artists: "Everywhere one turns there appears the inexhaustible picturesqueness of Charleston, and on every side an artist has set up an easel in his devotion."
Theater advocate Pat Robinson described the period in the December 1977 issue of Charleston Magazine: "the old town seemed to slumber, awash with sunlight, touched only by sea winds. But it was far from a sleeping beauty. Unheralded, Charleston was undergoing a cultural Renaissance. There was the flowering of art, literature, drama and music." In Charleston: A Golden Memory, Professor of English Charles Anderson titled one chapter of his memoirs, "A Little Renaissance in the 1930's," and concluded that "this little renaissance gave a sense of reality and renewed vitality to the city."
The word renaissance was not unique to Charleston, having been used for other contemporary trends, specifically, the Harlem Renaissance and the Southern Literary Renaissance. No doubt participants in the Charleston Renaissance had some awareness of both movements, though they remained independent of them.
In addition to the artists, the Charleston Renaissance involved writers, preservationists, historians, and musicians. Through pictures, words, and melodies, the movement's leaders shaped alluring representations of what Dubose Heyward described in Porgy, an "ancient, beautiful city that time had forgotten before it destroyed." These images were disseminated to a national audience, inspiring visits to the Carolina lowcountry. The Society for the Preservation of Old Spirituals, the Jenkins' Orphanage Band, the dance "The Charleston," and DuBose Heyward's novel, play, and opera about Porgy all developed a consciousness for the area's cultural heritage. For instance, the success of the spiritual society was noted in a January 13, 1930 News and Courier editorial: "A group of amateurs is bringing Charleston a quality of advertising that is beneficial. . . . An active and desirable medium of spreading Charleston's fame afar. It has come into this position through the uniqueness of its purposes and its entertainments."
Charleston was not the only Southern city rediscovering itself and preserving its past. Other historic areas of the country, including Natchez, Mississippi, and Williamsburg, Virginia were also being revitalized, and for them, too, tourism was a driving force. The overwhelming success of the three locales can also be attributed to the nostalgic fervor of the country in the years between the World Wars, and all three cities used the past to shape their future. In Charleston, more than in other places, artists -- painters, printmakers, and photographers -- played a significant role in molding how people perceived that past and the picturesque present.
Furthermore, the artists of the Charleston Renaissance engendered pride among Charlestonians, a critical step, as Mayor Stoney exclaimed in the 1924 Yearbook of the City of Charleston: "We have to sell the City of Charleston to the outside world and the first step in this direction is to sell Charleston to Charlestonians." Alice Smith was first and foremost in awakening her neighbors to the charms of their city. Among her earliest endeavors were two publications: Twenty Drawings of the Pringle House and The Dwelling Houses of Charleston, South Carolina, both illustrated with her drawings and accompanied by texts by her father D.E. H. Smith.
In paintings from the same time period Smith celebrated the city's architectural legacy. In The Rector's Kitchen and View of St. Michael's she juxtaposed high-style church architecture with a vernacular domestic building. Her view of the church, from within a neighboring property and not from the street, reflects her intimate knowledge of the pathways of Charleston. The watercolor combines landscape, genre, and architecture, and forms a bridge between local color, as represented in the vegetation and in the figures near the doorway, and Smith's architectural publications of the 1910s.
When Dwelling Houses was published in 1917 Smith had just embarked in a new direction: the making of color wood-block prints. Mossy Tree was one of only seven such prints that Smith made. Primarily self-taught, Smith had assiduously studied the extensive collection of Ukiyo-e prints formed by a close friend. In effect, the Japanese masters were her teachers. From their work she gleaned a simple elegance and reverence for nature. Unlike many other artists who were influenced by Japanese prints, Smith absorbed their style, but not their subject matter; instead, she applied their manner to what she called in Reminiscences her "own lovely flat country of rice fields, of pinewoods, of cypress swamps, of oaks, lotus and all their attendant feathered folk."
Ultimately, Smith abandoned wood-block printmaking and devoted herself to watercolors that were infused with Japanesque sensibilities. However, she took one more detour, which had a great impact on other artists and the evolution of the Charleston Renaissance. With the encouragement of Ellen Day Hale and Gabrielle de Veaux Clements who visited Charleston between 1916 and 1920, Smith spearheaded the founding of the Charleston Etchers' Club. The club not only mirrored similar print groups across the country, but also reflected local efforts at collaboration; in the early 1920s the following entities organized: the Society for the Preservation of Old Dwellings, the Poetry Society of South Carolina, and the Society for the Preservation of Spirituals.
Among the nine founding members of the Charleston Etchers' Club were two artists who would specialize in the medium: Elizabeth O'Neill Verner and Alfred Hutty. Etchings were ideal vehicles for circulating evocative depictions of Charleston, and both Verner and Hutty excelled in creating iconic and vernacular images that were easily transported and accessibly priced. Like Alice Smith's watercolor, Verner's In the Shadows of St. Michael's combines landmark architecture with genre details. Verner called her etchings a labor of love, and she commented in her unpublished autobiography in the Historical Society's collection: "I must etch Charleston so that I could leave a record of its loveliness, and I must send my prints far afield so that the world can see that right here in America we have a city as good to look upon as any in Europe." On February 25, 1931 the News and Courier acknowledged her achievements: "The idealized Charleston, the subject of many, many of her [etchings] has brought people here from faraway places and on coming they have been forced to admit the truth of her pictures -- and to admire the old city through the artist's eyes." In the late 1930s Verner began to work in pastel, a medium which allowed her to work on a larger scale in color. Among her favorite subjects were the African-American flower vendors who sold their wares on street corners and, as exemplified by The Aristocrat, Charleston's streetscapes, which demonstrate her concern for historic preservation.
Alfred Hutty was also instrumental in promoting Charleston through his etchings, but as a Northerner who was a seasonal resident his viewpoint was slightly different. In his rendering of African-Americans, for example, Hutty was less paternalistic than his local counterparts. A consummate printmaker, he employed the technique of drypoint, which produced deep, rich tones where the ink caught on the raised burrs of the copper plate. In Deep South he has created a dynamic composition in which the angle of the oak trees pulls away from the figures who lean forward, a kind of metaphor for the often discordant relationship of man and nature.
In contrast to his insightful urban views and virtual caricatures of African-Americans, Hutty's oil paintings are idyllic evocations of a tranquil landscape. In these he employed an impressionist-derived style that was in total harmony with the landscape; in broadly applied vertical strokes, he captured the directional flow of Spanish moss and the shimmering reflection of flowers and trees. In White Azaleas-Magnolia Gardens Hutty captured the aura of the garden in springtime, avoiding, in this instance, the riot of magenta for which the plantation was so famous.
The fourth leading artist of the Charleston Renaissance was Anna Heyward Taylor. In her color wood-block print, Gaden on he Head!, she appropriated for her title a Gullah phrase used by women selling flowers and vegetables in downtown Charleston. Taylor depicted two vendors against an architectural landmark, the imposing Simmons-Edwards House, known for the pineapples -- symbols of hospitality -- carved on its gates. Using bright colors, she shaped a picturesque image in which she juxtaposed high-style architecture and vernacular street life.
While most of the paintings and prints by Charleston artists are either poetic or picturesque, there are a few exceptions. In 1934 Verner issued The Unemployed, a clear reference to the dire circumstances facing African-Americans. One year earlier Taylor had painted The Strike, a scene of labor unrest. As a native of Columbia and the descendant of a cotton planter, Taylor's interest in the textile industry exceeded that of her lowcountry peers. A reviewer for the News and Courier described the painting on March 22, 1934, almost in terms of a church revival: "The workers are joining in a semi-savage dance, throwing up their arms into the air and shouting. The picture vibrates with color and action."
Northern artists often rendered aspects of Charleston that the residents avoided or glossed over. Prentiss Taylor, for example, wandered the streets and back alleys, making sketches that he later translated into lithographs, a type of print that was enjoying a revival during the 1930s. In Horlbeck Alley he conveyed the deteriorated and rundown condition of downtown Charleston as well as the street life.
In the print Taylor arranged the buildings across the middle ground, creating a backdrop for various activities, recalling similar scenes described in Porgy. Heyward's tale of a crippled beggar -- first a novel, then a Broadway play, and finally in 1935 the opera Porgy and Bess, generated interest in Charleston's African-American community. Both George Biddle and Palmer Schoppe, visiting in the early 1930s, deliberately went to outlying islands where they depicted rural blacks engaged in farming. Biddle's Fruit Market, Charleston is energized by shimmering colors and animated contours that echo the rhythms used by George Gershwin in his score for Porgy and Bess. Similarly, the visual tempo of Schoppe's Swing Along is reminiscent of a drumbeat, and the angularity of the figures suggest the influence of African tribal art.
Perhaps the most famous artist to visit Charleston was Edward Hopper who spent three weeks in the city during the spring of 1929. Hopper completed eleven watercolors including scenes of houses and the battery. The most unusual of his Charleston works is Baptistry of St. John's [Lutheran Church on Archdale Street], the only church interior he ever painted. With its sharp contrast of lights and darks and melancholy mood, however, it resembles his well-known street scenes, Victorian houses, and movie house lobbies.
For both resident and visiting artists, Charleston and its environs provided a wealth of material. The paintings and prints that they produced served to generate local and tourist interest in "America's Most Historic City." The end result was the total transformation of the "city that time had forgotten" into "a Mecca for those who reverence the beautiful."
An earlier version of this article appeared in the autumn 1998 issue of Carologue, a publication of the South Carolina Historical Society. The art and artists of the Charleston Renaissance are explored in greater depth in the book, The Charleston Renaissance (Spartanburg, SC: Saraland Press, 1998), which is available through the Museum Shop at the Greenville County Museum of Art, 420 College Street, Greenville, SC 29601, 864-271-7570 or www.greenvillemuseum.org.
About the author
Martha R. Severens is Curator, Greenville County Museum of Art. She has been widely published on the Charleston Renaissance, and she has also traveled around the region to provide lectures on the topic.
(above: Elizabeth O'Neill Verner 1883-1979, In the Shadows of St. Michael's, circa 1930, etching, 10 x 7 3/4 inches. Collection of the Greenville County Museum of Art, Greenville, Museum purchase)
(above: Elizabeth O'Neill Verner 1883-1979, The Aristocrat, circa 1955, pastel, 22 1/x 28 1/8 inches. Collection of the Greenville County Museum of Art, 2000 Museum Antiques Show)
(above: Alfred Hutty 1877-1954, Deep South, 1934, drypoint, 8 7/8 x 10 1/8 inches. Collection of the Greenville County Museum of Art, gift of Liberty Life Insurance Company)
(above: Anna Heyward Taylor 1879-1956, The Strike, 1933, watercolor, 21 7/8 x 25 7/8 inches. Collection of the Greenville County Museum of Art, 1998 Museum Antiques Show)
(above: Prentiss Taylor 1907-1991, Horlbeck Alley, 1934. lithograph, 9 1/4 x 13 1/4 inches. Collection of the Greenville County Museum of Art, 1995 Young Collectors' Group)
(above: George Biddle 1885-1973, Fruit Market, Charleston, 1930, oil on canvas, 36 x 36 inches. Collection of the Greenville County Museum of Art, Museum purchase with funds donated by the John F. Bannon Trust, Mr. and Mrs. Alester G. Furman III, and the Museum Association, Inc.)
(above: Palmer Schoppe born 1912, Swing Along, 1934,
lithograph, 12 1/4 x 8 1/2 inches. Collection of the Greenville County Museum
of Art, Museum purchase with funds donated by the Arthur and Holly Magill
Resource Library editor's note
Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Mary C. McCarthy of the Greenville County Museum of Art for help concerning permission for reprinting the above text
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