Throughout the history of South Carolina, art has reflected the tastes and aspirations of its citizenry. Beginning in the 1920s, art has had a significant economic impact by virtue of its role in fostering tourism and later through museums dedicated to art.
The earliest artists in the state came to document native people, flora, and fauna. Jacques Le Moyne de Morgues made watercolors of coastal settlements following a 1564 expedition; these were converted by Theodor deBry into engravings that were widely circulated abroad. Similarly, the purpose of Mark Catesby’s work was to disseminate visual and textual information about the bird and plant life of the Southeast. Hand-colored engravings illustrate his Natural History of Carolina, Florida, and the Bahamas. Maps and topographical prints, such as W. H. Toms’s 1739 Prospect of Charles Town, were also used to promote commerce and settlement.
Reflecting the conservative taste of early residents and the influence of the mother country, portraiture was the dominant art form throughout the eighteenth century and well into the next. Charleston was home to many portraitists, beginning with Henrietta Dering Johnston, this country’s first professional woman artist and first pastellist. Jeremiah Theus painted the planters and merchants of the pre-Revolutionary era, providing a visual social registry of the period. In addition to patronizing resident artists, individuals commissioned portraits from such itinerants as the stylish Englishman John Wollaston, who came to Charleston in 1765, and Henry Benbridge, who was in Charleston from 1772 to 1784. Miniaturists—artists who painted likenesses in watercolor on ivory mounted in lockets or small leather cases—were popular from the mid-eighteenth century until the 1850s, when their work was largely supplanted by the invention of photography. Edward Green Malbone, whose Charleston portraits are acclaimed as his best, and Charles Fraser were the most renowned miniature portrait painters working in South Carolina.
Early South Carolinians also patronized artists while abroad or in Philadelphia and New York. Members of the Middleton family sat for the highly regarded royal painter Benjamin West. Charleston merchant Miles Brewton had his portrait done by Sir Joshua Reynolds in London, and the planter Ralph Izard and his wife were painted by John Singleton Copley in Rome. Many military figures and statesmen, such as Colonel William Moultrie and William Loughton Smith, had their portraits painted by the prominent artists of the day, Charles Willson Peale and Gilbert Stuart. The city fathers of Charleston commissioned nationally known artists to paint significant historical figures: John Trumbull painted George Washington in 1792; Samuel F. B. Morse did the same for James Monroe in 1819; and George Healy painted a posthumous likeness of John C. Calhoun in 1850. These portraits and others hang in Charleston City Hall. Thomas Sully of Philadelphia, perhaps because of his boyhood connections to Charleston and several sojourns there in the 1840s, was a favorite portraitist among South Carolinians throughout the antebellum period.
In the Midlands, the upstate, and on plantations, portraiture dominated. The demand was often filled by itinerants, and artists such as William Harrison Scarborough, James De Veaux, and William Kennedy Barclay developed long lists of clients across the state. With the exception of small views of lowcountry plantations by Thomas Coram and Charles Fraser, an indigenous landscape tradition did not develop until much later. Several native artists who were disinclined toward portraiture, including Washington Allston and Louis Rémy Mignot, pursued their art outside the confines of their native state. Others sustained themselves by painting portraits, but also developed other specialties. Thomas Wightman emerged as the South’s preeminent painter of fruit still lifes, and Fraser diversified his production by rendering “fancy pieces” and landscapes of other locales derived from prints.
With a few exceptions, painting dominated over sculpture in the history of art in South Carolina. Two notable examples of public sculpture in Charleston are the larger-than-life-size 1770 statue of William Pitt, Earl of Chatham, by Joseph Wilton, which at one time stood at the intersection of Broad and Meeting Streets, and the marble statue of John C. Calhoun by Hiram Powers, which graced City Hall until its destruction in the Civil War. In Columbia ambitious pedimental sculptures designed by Henry Kirke Brown for the State House were destroyed when the capital was burned in 1865.
In general the taste of South Carolinians has been consistently conservative. Many aspiring collectors acquired fine furniture and decorative arts while abroad and preferred European paintings— often copies after old masters—over work created locally. Subjects ranged from history and portraiture to genre and religion. Significant collectors of this sort included in Charleston the Middletons, the Manigaults, Ralph Izard, Joseph Allen Smith, and Governor William Aiken; in Columbia, Robert Gibbes and John Preston; and at Redcliffe Plantation, James Henry Hammond.
For the most part art was a private matter, even though in the 1790s the press called for the establishment of an art gallery. In 1821the South Carolina Academy of Fine Arts was organized. It held annual exhibitions of loaned objects and work by local artists but soon suffered from apathy and lack of financial support. Beginning in 1849 the South Carolina Institute hosted annual fairs where examples of fine and mechanical art were displayed side by side. In Charleston, South Carolina Society Hall and the Apprentice’s Library Society were venues for art exhibitions. At the former, in 1857, a career survey of Fraser’s work was held featuring 319 objects, and at the latter, the emerging collection of the newly founded (1857) Carolina Art Association was on view when the library’s building was consumed by the fire of 1861.
The Civil War and Reconstruction were not conducive to furthering art. Charleston native William Aiken Walker was one of the few artists to make a living during the time, supporting himself with stereotypical paintings of former slaves that he sold at modest prices across the South.
With the advent of the twentieth century, art slowly gained more prominence. The South Carolina West Indian Exposition of 1901–1902 featured local and imported art in several of its exhibition halls. Across the state women assumed leadership roles, in part because a career in art was more genteel than office work and also because of their desire to foster an appreciation for culture and for the past. In Charleston artists along with preservationists and writers brought national attention at a time when the city was seeking economic renewal. Known as the Charleston Renaissance, this grassroots movement reshaped the destiny of the lowcountry by nurturing the nascent tourist industry. Painters and printmakers created picturesque images that became widely circulated through exhibitions, publications, and as souvenirs for tourists. The artists who contributed most to this phenomenon were Alice Ravenel Huger Smith, Elizabeth O’Neill Verner, Anna Heyward Taylor, and Alfred Hutty.
Much of the art created during the period was scenic—literally, in terms of the landscape, which in many areas was being transformed; and more generically in figurative subjects that embraced local color. African American artist Edwin Harleston painted landscapes, but his success lay in portraiture. After studying at the prestigious Boston Museum School, he returned to Charleston where he rendered sensitive portraits of other middle-class African Americans.
At the same time, artists in other locations created art that celebrated the state’s attributes. Prints were the preferred medium for many, reflecting the nationwide revival of etching and the emerging interest in lithography. In Sumter, Elizabeth White produced delicately etched landscapes that contrast sharply with the atmospheric and moody etchings of the Kingstree artist James Cooper. Margaret Law of Spartanburg tended to use lithography, perhaps because of its closeness to drawing, and many of her prints were renditions of her drawings or paintings.
In addition to making their own art, many of the women artists were actively involved in art organizations. At the Gibbes Art Gallery, Alice Smith helped to organize exhibitions, while in Greenville, Margaret Moore Walker spearheaded the founding in 1935 of the Fine Arts League, which showcased the work of area artists. Caroline Guignard, a native of Columbia who was active in the local art association, participated with Verner in the Southern States Art League. Founded in Charleston in 1921, the league sought to foster an appreciation for the fine arts throughout the region.
Until midcentury the Gibbes Art Gallery was the state’s only art museum. It was the home, too, of the Charleston Sketch Club, a group that held critiques and hosted out-of-town speakers and, beginning in the 1930s, mounted an annual sidewalk sale. Other parts of the state were without permanent facilities for art, although a precocious Arts and Crafts Club was founded in Spartanburg in 1907. Under the leadership of Margaret Law and Josephine Sibley Couper, the group purchased choice works by Robert Henri and Birge Harrison. In Columbia the Art Association hosted displays, lectures, and concerts in private homes.
At the University of South Carolina, Catherine B. Heyward founded an art program in the mid-1920s, and James Cooper was among the first to receive an art certificate in 1925. Female colleges, in general, were more disposed to teaching art. In 1924 August Cook arrived from Philadelphia to teach art at Converse College in Spartanburg and remained as department head for more than four decades. In the mid-1910s, for a period of about five months, Georgia O’Keeffe taught art classes at Columbia College. Although she enjoyed the climate and liked her students, O’Keeffe felt desperately isolated.
Two South Carolinians, Laura Glenn Douglas from Winnsboro and William H. Johnson of Florence, studied in New York and Europe. Douglas ultimately discarded modernism in favor of a more traditional approach, perhaps to gain acceptance in her native state. Johnson, after almost a decade abroad, settled in New York, taught in Harlem, and developed a distinctive vision that embraced modernism and his own African roots.
In the 1930s federally sponsored projects included community art galleries in Greenville and in Columbia, the transformation of the derelict Planters Hotel in Charleston into the Dock Street Theatre, and murals or sculptures for sixteen federal buildings under the auspices of the U.S. Treasury Department’s Section of Fine Arts. In South Carolina none of the commissions were awarded to local artists. Why this was the case remains unclear. Many never applied, perhaps due to a deep-seated resistance to government control. Women artists may have felt it was unseemly to seek public commissions. Most were accustomed to working on a small scale that was aesthetically and technically distinct from the scale of mural work.
Photography was also an important aspect of the New Deal. Because of its agrarian character and overwhelming poverty, the South was a favored destination for Farm Security Administration (FSA) photographers, who rarely glorified what they encountered. Walker Evans concentrated on modest farm buildings and churches in disrepair, while Marion Post Wolcott focused her lens on farmers and dockworkers, on poor blacks and poor whites, at work and at leisure. In contrast Doris Ulmann, who was not affiliated with the FSA, used the medium more pictorially. Avoiding harsh realities, Ulmann composed softly focused images of rural blacks in the same romantic way that Charleston artists rendered flower vendors.
In the 1950s another generation of artists stepped forward, more independent of tradition and more expansive than their forebears. Many were instrumental in art education. William Halsey, a native of Charleston, attended school in Boston, spent years working in Mexico, and in the early 1950s toyed with the idea of moving to New York. Instead he returned home and created heavily textured collages and assemblages that reflect his environment. He taught at the Gibbes School with his wife Corrie McCallum, and was artist in residence at the College of Charleston for twenty years.
At the University of South Carolina, the stature of the art department grew in the 1940s with the addition of Augusta Witkowsky, an art historian, and the painters Catharine Rembert and Edmund Yaghjian. They embraced modernist ideas, which they imparted to their students, many of whom were studying under the GI Bill. In 1957 Carl Blair arrived from Kansas to become the mainstay of the art department at Bob Jones University until his retirement more than forty years later. At African American colleges Claflin and South Carolina State, the accomplished artists Arthur Rose and Leo Twiggs established art departments that emphasized foundation courses based on the model of the Bauhaus, which was also the basis of the curriculum at Clemson University. Prior to the establishment of the department of visual studies there in 1967, the painter Robert Hunter and the sculptor John Acorn taught the elements of design to architecture students. In 1970 Clemson began its master of fine arts program, and Jeanet Dreskin of Greenville was its first graduate.
Some artists, such as Merton Simpson and Jasper Johns, left the state to study and work in New York. Simpson studied at New York University and emerged as a preeminent dealer of African art. Johns emerged as a leading figure of the post–Abstract Expressionist era.
Museums and art organizations experienced growth in the 1950s. In Columbia the Columbia Museum of Art was established with Dr. Richard Craft at the helm. The Greenville Art Association purchased a forty-room mansion in 1958. Five years later, in 1963, the Greenville Museum Commission was chartered by the state. In 1952 the Guild of South Carolina Artists began to circulate annual exhibitions of work by members across the state. Another annual event was the Springs Mills Art Contest sponsored by Springs Industries of Lancaster, which featured a salon-style installation of every work submitted and a juried traveling show with cash awards. In 1967 the newly formed South Carolina Arts Commission, with partial funding from the National Endowment for the Arts, allocated funds annually for the formation of the state art collection.
As part of the celebration of South Carolina’s tricentennial in 1970, each of the major museums organized an exhibition: Charleston, Art in South Carolina 1670–1970; Columbia, South Carolina Architecture 1670–1970; and Greenville, Contemporary Artists of South Carolina. In his introduction to the contemporary volume, Greenville Museum director Jack Morris, Jr., cited a climate of indifference with few exhibition and sales opportunities, the lack of critical feedback, and the absence of accredited advanced degree programs in art. Of the thirty-nine artists, ten were women and most were teachers. The style of their work ranged from conservative/traditional to experimental abstraction.
The late 1970s and 1980s saw increased art activity on many fronts. College and university departments expanded, recruiting out-of-state artists as faculty members. Art museums expanded their buildings and received accreditation from the American Association of Museums, an affirmation of their growing status and professionalism. The Spoleto USA Festival emerged as a significant venue for the display of national figures, such as Louise Nevelson and Roy Lichtenstein, while Piccolo Festival, its grassroots counterpart, offered opportunities for South Carolina artists. Galleries for the exhibition and sale of art gradually took hold in Charleston and also in Greenville, where the Tempo Hampton III Galleries were established by 1970. Later the Congaree Vista area of Columbia developed commercial venues for art.
Despite the demise of both the Springs Mill annual exhibit and the Guild of South Carolina Artists, the decade of the 1990s was characterized by even more art activity. In addition to the greater quantity of art available, the art created and exhibited was more diverse than ever, with artists of color and self-taught artists gaining recognition in museum exhibitions. The South Carolina State Museum, opened in 1988, asserted a leadership role in this area and collaborated with the Arts Commission to host juried exhibitions triennially. In addition the State Museum, Spoleto Festival, and Clemson University’s Botanical Garden mounted important outdoor public sculpture programs, and public art projects in Rock Hill, Greenville, Columbia, and Camden have brought national and local artists into the context of everyday life.
Bilodeau, Francis W., and Mrs. Thomas J. Tobias. Art in South Carolina, 1670–1970. Columbia: South Carolina Tricentennial Commission, 1970.
McInnis, Maurie D. In Pursuit of Refinement: Charlestonians Abroad, 1740–1860. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1999.
Moltke-Hansen, David, ed. Art in the Lives of South Carolinians. 2 vols. Charleston, S.C.: Carolina Art Association, 1978.
Morris, Jack A. Contemporary Artists of South Carolina. Columbia: South Carolina Tricentennial Commission, 1970.
Rutledge, Anna Wells. Artists in the Life of Charleston. Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1949.
Severens, Martha R. The Charleston Renaissance. Spartanburg, S.C.: Saraland, 1998.