Painters And Paintings In The Early American South

Photo: Barbara Temple Lombardi

This candid likeness of sharp-featured “Anna Fitzhugh (Mrs Robert Rose),” 1771, by John Hesselius demonstrates that portraitists of the time did not always flatter their sitters. By this time, the artist was painting portraits that were more representational, as in this por-trayal of a 50-year-old from prominent Virginia family who had been widowed for 20 years. Courtesy of Colonial Williamsburg.

 WILLIAMSBURG, VA. — Often overlooked in the broad sweep of American art are contributions from artists of the South. At the outset, the South was largely rural and agrarian, with settlements along the Atlantic coast where most early artmaking activities were concentrated.

Lacking art museums and art training institutions, artists from the South, such as South Carolina’s Washington Allston, were forced to hone their skills in the North or, starting in the 1760s, in Europe. Some learned to paint from other artists, whose skills and training levels were diverse, while others tried to imitate artwork they saw.

An important element in the art world of the early South was the web of relationships that connected Southern sitters, friends and relatives, clients and artists, and artists and artists. These connections were especially important because the rural nature of the South made establishing artists’ reputations paramount and enabled painters to secure commissions through word of mouth and letters of recommendation.

Many commissions were by the extraordinarily wealthy, plus some by less affluent residents. The extremely affluent also had likenesses painted in London and Italy, when they traveled abroad for pleasure or, as loyalists, sought refuge there during the Revolutionary War. The South’s upper middle and middle class were also subjects of impressive portraits.

Overall, in their choice of portrait sizes, dress and settings, early Southerners’ likenesses were largely indistinguishable from those of the American colonies to the north. Many Northern artists who painted in the South used the same style they employed to execute portrait commissions for clients in the North. Both regions relied on English styles, with Southerners also opting for large canvases, often with landscape settings, elaborate vistas and architectural elements. These paintings reflected the rural nature of the South, the importance of land in their lives and income, and the owning of plantations.

The fascinating saga of Southern art, 1735–1790, is the subject of a valuable and informative exhibition, “Painters and Paintings in the Early American South,” on view at the DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum at Colonial Williamsburg through September 7. A second exhibition featuring Southern works prior to 1735 is planned for 2015 at the DeWitt Wallace Museum.

Curated by Carolyn Weekley, Colonial Williamsburg’s Juli Grainger curator, the stunning exhibition of 80 works includes portraits, the predominant genre of the period; landscapes; seascapes and other artworks linked to the Atlantic coast states from Maryland southward and the upper coast of the Gulf of Mexico. “Nothing like this has been done before, having all these wonderful examples in one place at the same time,” observes Weekley. “Most importantly, the exhibition illustrates the myriad connections between art centers of the early South, New England, the Middle Atlantic and Europe.”

Ronald L. Hurst, Colonial Williamsburg’s chief curator, underscores the “truly international aspects of these magnificent materials.”

One of the earliest professional artists to work in the South was Swedish-born Gustavus Hesselius (1682–1755), who was based primarily in Philadelphia. Set in Virginia, “The Grymes Children,” attributed to Hesselius, shows his characteristically stiffly posed subjects, convincingly rendered textures and atmosphere, in a charming group portrait that hints at the individual personalities of the youngsters. In addition to portraiture, Hesselius painted classical scenes and religious works.

His artist son John (1728–1778) painted portraits in Virginia along with an older New England portraitist, Robert Feke (1705–1750?). Their formal portraits of Virginia ladies showed much similarity in style and composition, with handsome, confident women set off by shimmering gowns posed in settings that reflected their high social status. Prime examples in the show: “Mildred Conway Gordon” by Hesselius and Feke’s “Elizabeth Burwell Nelson.”

The younger Hesselius also associated with John Wollaston Jr (circa 1705–after 1775), “the first studio-trained itinerant artist in the South and the most prolific portrait painter to work in the region in the Eighteenth Century,” according to Weekley. Wollaston’s rococo style, although stiff in composition and poses, was popular among style-conscious sitters for whom he created settings that confirmed their social standing. “Elizabeth Randolph” depicts a rather homely young lady in a fashionable dress and grasping a wooden doll — a straight-backed lady in a shimmering gown — similar to those she will likely wear some day.

John Hesselius continued in Wollaston’s rococo manner until the late 1760s, when he adopted a more realistic, unsparing approach to portraiture, epitomized by his stern likeness of “Anna Fitzhugh (Mrs Robert Rose),” 1771.

Perhaps the most dazzling portrait in the exhibition is “Robert Carter of Nomini Hall” by an acolyte of Woolston, Thomas Hudson, who spent time in the South from his base in London. Depicting the svelte, confident, 25-year-old grandson and namesake of Robert “King” Carter, Hudson posed him in a shimmering, ruffled gold Van Dyke costume and holding a mask, as though headed for a masquerade ball. Weekley calls it “one of the most sophisticated portraits painted for a Southerner during the Eighteenth Century.”

The younger Hesselius is credited by some with being the first teacher of the great Charles Willson Peale (1741–1827), an association that is unconfirmed. We do know that the ambitious young Peale studied in London with the generous Pennsylvania expatriate Benjamin West (1738–1820), an experience that “was critical to his association with other painters and his success when he returned to America,” says Weekley. Peale’s early (1772) portrait of a poised but pensive George Washington in uniform as a colonel in the Alexandria militia, painted at Mount Vernon, is a standout.

Even more familiar is Peale’s 1780 portrait after the battle of Princeton in 1780, which shows the general as a larger-than-life figure, confident but vigilant, leaning on a cannon, with the battlefield and troops in the background.

Among the wealthy Southerners who commissioned portraits by West while they were in London was “Thomas Middleton of the Oaks,” posed in a swirling outfit with a lace collar and backed by a deep expanse of sky. The 17-year-old scion of a distinguished family looks to the future with reflective confidence.

Charles’s brother James Peale (1749–1831) fought in the Continental Army and chronicled events of the Revolutionary struggle, such as the graphic “Sir Peter Parker’s Attack against Fort Moultrie.”

Another West pupil who worked in the South in the last quarter of the Eighteenth Century, Matthew Pratt (1734–1805) painted a number of portraits and a rare mythological subject, “Jupiter and Europa.”

Although not a student of West, Henry Benbridge (1743–1812) visited the expatriate master in London and knew his work well. Upon his return to Philadelphia he married and moved to Charleston, a busy commercial hub that was home to wealthy plantation owners and a sophisticated middle class that appreciated fine art. Benbridge’s portraits were highly successful, as were his miniatures. Of note in the exhibition are his strongly painted, perceptive portraits of prominent Charleston landowners James and Charlotte Pepper Gignillat. His late, odd likeness of “Mr and Mrs William Boswell Lamb and Their Daughter Martha Anne,” who became leading citizens of Norfolk, Va., makes them look eerily like little people playing grownups amidst symbols of wealth.

A relatively obscure Benbridge student who deserves to be better known, Thomas Coram (1756/57–1811) was a British-born engraver and painter of landscapes around Charleston, like “Mulberry Plantation,” which offered a rare glimpse of slave quarters flanking the road to the plantation house. Coram’s paintings “are well executed and are important as historical documents by an artist who may well qualify as America’s earliest landscape painter,” says Weekley.

Equally intriguing is a small watercolor, “The Old Plantation,” probably 1785–1790, which Weekley says is “probably the most famous late Eighteenth Century South Carolina painting that shows an exterior scene with landscape elements.” It “also ranks as the earliest view of Southern slaves.” In the middle distance of the friezelike row of black slaves dancing and living it up is a view of the manor house and slave quarters. The artist, John Rose (1752/53–1820), lived in Beaufort, S.C. The watercolor, which reflects the work of a possibly trained, experienced watercolorist, likely depicts Rose’s plantation.

Perhaps the most unusual likeness on view is “George Booth” by an inexperienced and largely untrained painter, William Dering, who arrived in Virginia in the late 1730s when there were few portraitists with whom to compete. Although the awkwardly painted portrait makes the figure appear much younger, George Booth was in his late 20s when the likeness was painted. Posed between two female busts with a garden and buildings in the distance, he proudly grasps his bow and arrow while his dog holds a small dead bird, testimony to his master’s archery skills. “Although naïve in its rendering, the pose and setting make the portrait one of the most pretentious of its time,” observes Weekley.

The leading colonial artist in Charleston was Swiss-born Jeremiah Theus, whose prolific portraits were strongly modeled in ramrod stiff poses with expressions that are intense and individual. Reflecting the growing concern with style and fashion, he emphasized in works like “Mrs Peter Manigault (Elizabeth Wragg)” the almost metallic highlights on his female sitters’ costumes and draperies.

Among the numerous portraits of wealthy Virginia gentlemen on view, standouts include Charles Bridges’s “Mann Page,” of the owner of Roswell, a large plantation in Gloucester County, Va.; Cosmo John Alexander’s “Samuel Griffin,” depicting a civic leader and officeholder from Williamsburg; and Robert Feke’s “William Nelson,” showing a leading citizen of Yorktown, Va. A New Englander who painted up and down the Atlantic coastline, Feke (1705–1751), is considered by many the most important artist in America before John Singleton Copley. In Virginia as elsewhere, his likenesses featured sumptuously rendered fashion, graceful poses and atmospheric settings reflecting his clients’ success and refinement. His sitters, like Nelson, appear at ease with their prosperity and themselves.

A pleasant revelation in the exhibition is the portraiture of a virtually unknown painter, John Durand (active 1765–1782), who worked in Virginia off and on in the Eighteenth Century. In spite of limited technical skills, he melded boldly designed, strongly outlined, flattened forms and an acute sense of color into surprisingly appealing likenesses, such as “Lucy Skelton Gilliam,” wife of a Virginia planter “of middling wealth, as were many of Durand’s customers,” notes Weekley. 

Curator Weekley stresses that these early artists of the South “did not work in isolation,” suggesting the need for a broader context in order to understand the early artists who served Southern clients — and by extension, for understanding the taste of those early consumers of art. This exhibition and its catalog largely succeed in carrying out her mission of “linking painters in Southern cities to their contemporaries in New England, England and the continent…., [tracing] some of the complex connections that affected both the art and artists of the early South.”

The 438-page, fully illustrated catalog contains extensively researched, revelatory chapters by Weekley. Published by the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation in association with Yale University Press, it sells for $75 hardcover, and is bound to be the treatment of the subject for a long time.

DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum is on the campus of Colonial Williamsburg. For information, 855-756-9516 or www.history.org.

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