Artist. Smith was born in Charleston on July 14, 1876, the daughter of Daniel Elliott Huger Smith and Caroline Ravenel. Although largely self-taught, Smith emerged as the leading artist of the Charleston Renaissance. Through her writings and art she helped to disseminate the history and charm of her native lowcountry to a national audience.
Reticent and claiming to be too poor to seek training away from Charleston, Smith received her only formal art education as a young girl in classes offered by the Carolina Art Association. Louise Fery, a Frenchwoman, instructed her students in the basics and, most importantly for Smith, in the technique of watercolor. Smith’s initial output was modest: fans, dance programs, cards painted with flowers, small sketches of African Americans, and occasional portraits of family members. She sought lessons from the tonalist landscape painter and teacher Birge Harrison, from Woodstock, New York, who sojourned several winters in Charleston beginning in 1908. Harrison, while refusing to give formal instruction, offered guidance and served as her mentor until his death.
Beginning about 1917, Smith undertook an intense study of Japanese color woodblock prints, largely from the ukiyo-e school, which had been collected by her friend Motte Alston Read. Smith cataloged the collection and, experimenting with actual blocks, taught herself how to print in the traditional Japanese manner. Synthesizing the methods of the Japanese with lowcountry imagery, Smith invented a visual language that would remain with her throughout her life. In 1923 Smith spearheaded the founding of the Charleston Etchers Club, a collaborative group that jointly acquired a press and shared expertise and criticism. By the late 1920s Smith abandoned prints and began to concentrate on watercolor.
Through her evocative imagery Smith fueled the Charleston Renaissance, the cultural and economic renewal of the city. During the 1920s paintings and prints by Smith were included in forty-two exhibitions, mostly one-artist presentations. For example, in 1924 she sent sixty-eight paintings to the Philadelphia Art Alliance; entitled “Watercolors of the Carolina Coast,” the selection included typical southern flora and fauna—lotus, magnolias, ibises, and egrets. Of the thirty-one works listed in her ledger for that year, she sold twelve works to Philadelphians. Her account books from throughout her career record a widespread national clientele, many of whom visited Smith in her studio.
Smith was also active in the field of publishing. She provided the illustrations for Elizabeth Allston Pringle’s A Woman Rice Planter (1913) and in 1914 issued Twenty Drawings of the Pringle House, a portfolio of drawings of the historic Miles Brewton House. In The Dwelling Houses of Charleston, South Carolina (1917) Smith’s illustrations accompany her father’s house histories. This volume was critical to the evolution of the city’s preservation movement; it not only instilled pride among Charlestonians for their architectural heritage but also brought national attention to the city. Smith’s most ambitious volume was A Carolina Rice Plantation of the Fifties (1936), which combined an essay on rice cultivation by Herbert Ravenel Sass, her father’s recollections of growing up on a rice plantation, and thirty color reproductions of her watercolors. In 1940 she authored an introduction and oversaw the publication of A Charleston Sketchbook, 1796–1806, by the nineteenth-century artist Charles Fraser. Always keenly interested in heritage, architecture, and preservation, Smith was a member of the committee that researched and published This Is Charleston (1944), an inventory of Charleston architecture.
Around 1950 Smith began to write her reminiscences. In them she traces her family’s history, recollections of the earthquake of 1886 and later hurricanes, comments on social mores, and her view of art. The Gibbes Museum of Art in Charleston is the major repository of her work. Other South Carolina museums have representative examples of her paintings. Smith died in Charleston on February 3, 1958, and was buried in Magnolia Cemetery. See plate 28.
Alice Ravenel Huger Smith of Charleston, South Carolina: An Appreciation on the Occasion of Her Eightieth Birthday. Charleston, S.C., 1956.
Severens, Martha R. Alice Ravenel Huger Smith: An Artist, a Place and a Time. Charleston, S.C.: Carolina Art Association / Gibbes Museum of Art, 1993.