Painter. Caroline (as she was known) Petigru Carson was born in Charleston on January 4, 1820, the first daughter and second child of the prominent Charleston attorney James Louis Petigru and his wife, Jane Amelia Postell. Educated first at Miss Susan Robertson’s school in Charleston and then at Madame Binsse’s finishing school in New York, as an adult she added Latin and Italian to her fluent French and improved her amateurish art skills by study at New York’s Cooper Union as well as with various European painters in Rome. On December 16, 1841, she married the Cooper River rice planter William Augustus Carson (1800–1856). The marriage produced two sons. In poor health and separated from her alcoholic husband after 1850, Carson frequently sought medical advice in New York, where for long periods she was an active socialite. A committed Unionist, Carson left Charleston forever in June 1861, living in New York until 1872. Supported there largely by her own and her father’s northern friends, she supplemented her income from their aid and a meager inheritance from her husband’s estate by painting portraits and tinting photographs.
In 1872, after her health improved and her sons were educated, Carson realized her lifelong aspiration to live and paint in Rome, where she joined an active Anglo-American art colony. An accomplished linguist and an avid reader of history and literature whose correspondence and conversation drew intellectuals and diplomats as well as artists into her circle, Carson displayed both the conventional propriety expected of Charleston ladies and the independence required to pursue the unconventional goals that attracted her.
Purchased largely by American and British tourists, many of whom were her friends, Carson’s most popular paintings were botanically detailed watercolors of flowers or copies of paintings in churches, palaces, and museums. In 1876 she became the only woman and only American member of the Roman Society of Watercolorists (Societa degli Acquarellisti in Roma). She preferred, however, to paint oil portraits. Carson was not a painter of the first rank, and much of her work appears to have been lost. Portraits of her father are currently owned by the University of South Carolina Law School, the South Carolina Supreme Court, and the South Carolina Historical Society. The Gibbes Museum of Art in Charleston, the Greenville County Museum, and the Morris Museum in Augusta, Georgia, have samples of her paintings and sketches. The most comprehensive holdings of her work, especially of her landscapes, are in the Ashton and LaVonne Phillips collection in Charleston. Some of them are reproduced in The Roman Years (2003), a published collection of Carson’s letters.
As the American and British art colony and much of the foreign tourist trade shifted from Rome to Florence, Carson’s career and social life dwindled. She died in Rome on August 15, 1892, and was buried there in the Protestant (Acattolico) cemetery.
Pease, Jane H., and William H. Pease. A Family of Women: The Carolina Petigrus in Peace and War. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999.
Pease, William H., and Jane H. Pease, eds. The Roman Years of a South Carolina Artist: Caroline Carson’s Letters Home, 1872–1892. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2003.