Morris Museum of Art
The Charleston Renaissance
Alfred Hutty wrote of Charleston years before to his wife and it remains true today, "Come quickly, have found heaven." The works of The Charleston Renaissance at the Morris Museum of Art reflect a 'heaven' not only captured by artists but one virtually 'resurrected' because of artists and the local arts community. In the early part of the century, many people thought of the city much as DuBose Heyward described it in the opening lines of Porgy: "The city that time had not forgotten before it was destroyed." But, during the 1920s, Charleston began to witness the formation of several collaborative entities - in poetry, music, preservation, and art - which were fostering the city's renewal. Undaunted by grim conditions and inspired by Charleston's rich heritage, a group of local writers and artists spearheaded a dramatic cultural renewal between 1915 and 1940, now recognized as The Charleston Renaissance. (right: William P. Silva, The Sun Dispels the Morning Fog, Greenville County Museum of Art)
In Porgy, Heyward also wrote about authentic Charleston traditions including a group of young black musicians who some believed started the nationwide dance fad, "The Charleston." Porgy's tale was transformed first into a Broadway play, then into the folk opera Porgy and Bess. It is told that George Gershwin spent two months at Polly Beach while he worked on the score for the opera In his music, Gershwin incorporated the rhythms and sounds he witnessed at black church services in the lowcountry.
Painters and printmakers drew upon a seemingly endless supply of subject matter - the lush landscape, architectural landmarks, plantation life, and local color - to document the lowcountry. "From my earliest days, the beauty of Charleston has been a conscious blessing, acknowledged Elizabeth O'Neill Verner. "I owe my native city incalculably much." Alice Ravenel Huger Smith, Elizabeth O'Neill Verner, Alfred Hutty, and Anna Heyward Taylor are the acknowledged leaders of the Charleston Renaissance. But there were many others making and disseminating images. Besides the local artists, there was a surprisingly large number of visiting artists who tended to see things differently than local artists, and their works were less romanticized. Some major figures of the twentieth century, including Edward Hopper and Childe Hassam, are included in this group. (left: Alice Ravenel Huger Smith, The Rector's Kitchen and View of St. hlichael's, 1915; watercolor on board, 22 x 12 inches, Collection of the Greenville County Museum of Art; Museum purchase with funds from the 1996 Museum Antiques Show; First Union National Bank, sponsor)
But even as artists were already leading the Charleston Renaissance, another realm opened for artists. Many Northerners were coming to the lowcountry to hunt. Vast numbers of fowl inhabited the former rice plantations, and wealthy individuals bought large expanses of land for hunting preserves. Sporting art then became a natural, and prized, extension of hunters' devotion to preserve their passion for the hunt, the game, and the lushness of the land.
The art of the Charleston Renaissance includes oils, watercolors, drawings, and prints. Prints were especially popular with artists because they were less expensive to produce and easier to sell to tourists. Local artists banded together to buy a press and learn how to make prints. The Charleston Etchers' Club fostered an appreciation for graphic art, a critical component of the Charleston Renaissance. Prints were ideal souvenirs - they were produced in multiple copies, were small and easily transported, and were affordably priced. Visitors who purchased them helped disseminate images of Charleston throughout the country.
Alice R. H. Smith, Elizabeth O'Neill Verner, and other Charleston artists helped inspire the historic preservation movement, awakening their neighbors to the charm and significance of the city's architectural heritage, through their images. As a result, the city's architectural and cultural heritage became the focus of pioneering efforts in historic preservation. In the 1920s, The Preservation Society of Charleston was formed when a landmark house was threatened, and in 1928 the city's first historic house museum was established. The nation's first local historic district was created in Charleston in 1931 by placing zoning restrictions on all of the historic structures of the lower peninsula.
The proliferation of images of Charleston brought widespread attention to the area, helping to fuel the emerging tourist industry. Combined with articles in the national press, novels set in the lowcountry, musical performances, and even a Charleston dance contest in Chicago, Charleston, "America's Most Historic City," entered the national consciousness.
The exhibition is organized by the Greenville County Museum of Art and sponsored by Carolina First. To complement this show, the Morris has added more than 30 treasured works from its permanent collection by many of the artists represented in the core exhibition.
Read more in Resource Library Magazine about the Morris Museum of Art.
Many people are fascinated with viewing the artistic interpretation of scenes through painting or sculpture in proximity to realistic photographs of the same scenes. These juxtapositions are educational for historic and other reasons, are enjoyable to see, and provide a window for further understanding the works created by artists. Volunteers are invited to survey the images of paintings and sculptures contained in Resource Library and email to this publication on-location photos that relate to views depicted in works by historic artists. On the following page are photographs of historic Charleston buildings, in addition to the photo of St. Michael's below.
(above: St. Michael's Episcopal Church. photo: © 2011 Barbara Hazeltine)
For further biographical information on selected artists cited in this article please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists.
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