Portrait painter. Born on April 5, 1716, in Chur, Switzerland, Theus immigrated to Orangeburg Township, Carolina, in 1735 with other Protestants seeking refuge from persecution. He moved to Charleston in 1740 and advertised his services in the local press as a limner (portraitist), as well as a painter of signs, crests, and coats of arms. The nature of his training, if any, is unknown. Eager to please, he advertised his willingness to travel to area plantations. Despite his lack of training, he modeled his likenesses after fashionable English portraits of the day. Like his better-known Boston counterpart, John Singleton Copley, Theus studied mezzotints derived from portraits of the English gentry. After his death, his will revealed that he owned a selection of such prints.
The large majority of Theus’s portraits are half-lengths, with sitters standing erect and shown without their hands. While the men wear sober street clothes and hold their hands in their waistcoats, women are dressed in great finery consisting of lace, fabric, pearls, and even ermine. His most ambitious portraits are the three-quarter-length portrayals of Colonel and Mrs. Barnard Elliott (Gibbes Museum of Art in Charleston) and Mrs. Peter Manigault (Charleston Museum). For the high-style dresses of many female sitters Theus copied outfits worn in contemporary English portraits. For example, Mrs. Elliott is modeled after a portrait of Lady Ann Fortescu by Francis Cotes and engraved by Thomas Watson. The portraits of Mrs. Thomas Lynch (Reynolda House, Winston-Salem, North Carolina), Mrs. Charles Lowndes (Gibbes Museum of Art), and Susannah Holmes (Charleston Museum) all derive from the same mezzotint of the Duchess of Hamilton’s portrait by Francis Cotes.
It seems that both Theus and his clientele aspired to be as fashionable as their London counterparts. Over a career that exceeded three decades, Theus created a veritable social register of Charleston’s merchants, plantation owners, and their wives and children. Among his sitters were members of the Elliott, Grimball, Heyward, Izard, Manigault, Mazyck, and Ravenel families. While the frames for most of Theus’s paintings are simple moldings painted black, many portraits retain original frames designed by the Charleston furniture maker Thomas Elfe. Portraits by Theus can be found in the collections sited above and in the Columbia Museum of Art; the Telfair Museum of Art in Savannah, Georgia; the Greenville County Museum of Art; the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts in Winston-Salem, North Carolina; the Brooklyn Museum of Art; the Boston Museum of Fine Arts; and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Theus died on May 17, 1774, in Charleston. See plate 3.
Middleton, Margaret Simons. Jeremiah Theus: Colonial Artist of Charles Town. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1953.
Severens, Martha R. “Jeremiah Theus of Charleston: Plagiarist or Pundit?” Southern Quarterly 24 (fall–winter 1985): 56–70.