Impressionism in the American South
Impressionism, imported from France in the late 19th-century, was the first injection of abstraction into mainstream American art. It came ashore with artists who had been exposed to this revolutionary style while training in Paris and painting in the countryside. The eastern United States fortified this first wave of Impressionism, which then traveled successfully across the continent.
The South became a popular destination for American Impressionistic painters because of its unique combination of light and historic architecture. It was common for an artist to take up residence in places like New Orleans, Charleston, and St. Augustine while producing works that rivaled those of their European comrades. Here are just a few of the pieces that are representative of that late 19th century and early 20th century movement.
Alson Skinner Clark was from the Northeast, but after studying in Paris in the 1890’s, he settled in Charleston, where he captured the essence of the historic South Carolina city.
Alson Skinner Clark Catfish Row
Catfish Row, as the African-American waterfront district was called, was one of his favorite subjects.
Anthony Thieme Sunlight and Shadows
Thieme was a noted impressionist of coastal New England scenes, but after his studio was destroyed by fire in 1946, he traveled south to Charleston, South Carolina and was greatly inspired by the dense tropical foliage and the warm coastal light. He spent two months in Charleston, painting prolifically, before continuing on to Florida, the Caribbean, and Central America. Until his mysterious death in 1954, Thieme spent his summers in Rockport and the winter months based in St. Augustine, Florida.
Anthony Thieme Negro Cabins
Anthony Thieme Southern Doorways
Emma Lampert Cooper Courtyard, Beaufort, South Carolina
Female artists also found the Low Country to be irresistible.
Charles Whitfield Richards
Alfred Heber Hutty St. Phillip’s Church
The most prolific of the Charleston Impressionists was Alfred Heber Hutty, who was considered to be a leading figure in the Charleston Renaissance. Alfred Hutty began his painting career in Woodstock, NY, where he developed a traditional impressionistic painting style while training with tonalist landscape painter Birge Harrison (1854-1929). Although he rejected emerging modernist trends, Hutty experimented with many media, including etching, lithography, drypoint, murals, and sculpture. While making his first of many extended trips to Charleston, South Carolina, in February 1920, Hutty discovered rich subject matter including plantations, gardens, old churches, and historic homes. Hutty’s delicate pencil drawings and etchings of the city streets became his most celebrated images. Considered an artist-tourist, Hutty’s images of Charleston reveal an important interaction and relationship with the place. Some of his work is considered contradictory, presenting a nostalgic but also critical view of southern culture and the dilapidated historic architecture he encountered.
Alfred Heber Hutty
Alfred Heber Hutty Low Country Marsh
Elizabeth O’Neill Verner Pink House on Chalmers Street
Elizabeth O’Neill Verner (1883-1979) was born and raised in Charleston and is perhaps the best known artist of the Charleston Renaissance, a movement of southern realist painters working in the first half of the twentieth century.
Elizabeth O’Neill Verner Avenue at The Oaks
William Gilbert Gaul Looking Out to Sea
A native of Jersey City, New Jersey, William Gilbert Gaul became largely identified with the South and portrayals of the Civil War.
William Gilbert Gaul Glorious Fighting
In 1881, he inherited a farm in Van Buren County, Tennessee, from his mother’s family. He lived on the farm for four years to fulfill the terms of the bequest. During this period, he painted pastoral landscapes, rural genre scenes, and remembrances of the recent American conflict. His war paintings are characterized by a dramatic appeal and strong academic technique while his genre scenes often hinge on a poignant or sentimental depiction of a single figure.
William Gilbert Gaul Farm in Van Buren, Tennessee
William Gilbert Gaul Cottage in the Woods
George Street in Rain Anthony Thieme
Harold S. Maddocks Spuds
Richard E. Miller St. Augustine Afternoon Tea
Roberta Jennings Bridge of Lions, St. Augustine
With such a strong French history, New Orleans was the subject of many impressionistic paintings, not the least of which was by the French master, Edgar Degas. His mother and grandmother were both born in New Orleans.
Edgar Degas The Cotton Office
Edgar Degas Cotton Merchants
Edgar Degas Estelle Flower Arrangement, New Orleans
William Woodward Napoleon House in New Orleans 1904
In 1821, Nicolas Girod, former Mayor of New Orleans, supposedly hatched a plot, along with notorious French pirate, turned reputable citizen, Jean Lafitte, to rescue the disgraced Emperor Napoleon from his St. Helena exile, and bring him to New Orleans. Word of the emperor’s death on St. Helena reached New Orleans just as Girod was preparing to embark. Napoleon House was furnished to please a despotic Bonaparte in a democratic America.