Editor's note: The following article was reprinted in Resource Library on February 26, 2009 with permission of the author and the Greenville County Museum of Art. If you have questions or comments regarding the text, please contact the author directly at Greenville County Museum of Art, 420 College Street, Greenville, SC 29601 or through either this phone number or web address:


The Southern Collection: A New Look at American Art History

by Martha R. Severens


Since William H. Gerdts' monumental Art Across America was published in 1990, art historians have begun to look at regional art in a new light. Scholars are discovering the works of previously obscure artists who flourished in remote corners far from the floodlights of New York, Philadelphia, and Boston. It is now clear that the inclusion of regional artists and their work is requisite to tell the true history of American art.

The recently published Greenville County Museum of Art: The Southern Collection, with 142 color images and containing 126 essays on individual Southern artists, provides a significant chapter in the history of regional American art. While well-known in art historical circles, many of these artists were previously unknown to the general public. The Southern Collection is arranged chronologically; a historical thread weaves throughout, tying together the individual essays and re-examining American art history through Southern-related examples.

In his introduction to the catalogue, Gerdts wrote, "Until now Southern accomplishments have been too little recognized. Yet here in the Greenville County Museum's collection, where each work of art is of consistently high quality, a most compelling argument is advanced for redressing this oversight. In this union of the South's finest artistic efforts, the stereotypical limitations of both regional and mainstream culture are dispelled in the revelation that the true spirit of America resides in the rich diversity of its land and its people."

Remarkably, the Greenville County Museum of Art built the collection and published the catalogue in just ten years. The collection was originally envisioned to give museum visitors a grounding in the history of American art. Its arrangement allows visitors to literally walk through history, from the conception of American art in the early 1700s to the present.

Prior to the Southern Collection, the Museum's focus was contemporary American art. Greenville's first art museum was established by a group of artists and arts enthusiasts in the early part of the twentieth century. Over time, various venues were used to display work by area artists: first, at a gallery funded in part by the Works Progress Administration, and subsequently, in the county office building. Supporters included community leaders, artists, and members of the Junior League. In 1958 the group purchased the Gassaway Mansion, a forty-room house built in the 1920s.

The Gassaway Mansion served community needs for fifteen years, during which time the organization obtained a charter from the State of South Carolina and hired a professional director. However, aspirations for a permanent collection and travelling exhibitions soon outgrew the facility, and plans were made for a new building.

The location chosen was Heritage Green, sandwiched between the library and community theater. Funding was provided by a public-private partnership between Greenville County and benefactors Holly and Arthur Magill, who donated $750,000 toward the project. The Greenville County Museum of Art, designed by Craig, Gaulden & Davis, a local architectural firm, was erected and opened its doors in March of 1974. The style of the building is unabashedly modern, with a rough-cast concrete exterior and spacious galleries on four floors.

As expected, the new building heightened Greenville's interest in and enthusiasm for the visual arts, but it was not until 1979 that the Museum truly became the focus of pride for area residents. Holly and Arthur Magill purchased over 250 temperas, watercolors, and drawings by Andrew Wyeth, and placed them on loan. The Magills' intention was to put the institution on the cultural map and help it gain credibility as a venue for significant traveling exhibitions.

In 1985, the Museum began to build the Southern Collection. An annual Museum Antiques Show was instituted to raise funds for its acquisitions; to date it has raised over $700,000. Corporate and individual donors contributed significantly, as did the Magills after their Wyeth collection sold in 1989.

For the Southern Collection, the museum intentionally acquired works by artists frequently overlooked by other museums, namely women and African-Americans. As Gerdts notes, the Museum's definition of Southern is "inclusive"; not all of the artists were natives. While it is true that the majority were born in the South, others in the collection came as tourists, retirees, on commission, or as teachers who left a legacy among their students.

A small group of works relate to the region primarily through their subject matter. For example, the circa 1794 portrait of General Nathanael Greene by Charles Peale Polk. Polk is neither a Southern artist nor a Southern native, but Greene commanded American forces in the South during some of the most crucial battles of the Revolutionary War. Towns throughout the South were named in his honor, including Greenville, South Carolina. In October, 1826, John C. Calhoun, from nearby Fort Mill, offered the following toast in honor of Greene: "The village of Greenville, picturesque and lovely in its situation, may it so prosper as to be worthy of the memory of him whose illustrious name it wears."[1]

Calhoun, South Carolina's most important ante-bellum figure, is also the subject of a portrait in the collection. George P. A. Healy portrayed Calhoun as a dynamic and forceful leader. Healy turned the sitter's head into the light and placed him against a stormy sky, giving the impression that Calhoun was a kind of Messiah. This canvas was done from life, and was painted while Healy was in the employ of Louis-Philippe, King of France. Healy's task was to create a gallery of great American statesmen for the palace at Versailles. For this endeavor, he not only copied portraits by Gilbert Stuart, but traversed the Atlantic to capture life portraits of Calhoun, Henry Clay, and Andrew Jackson.

Several of the Museum's most imposing paintings are included in the collection because their subject matter relates to the region's history. One of these canvases, Benjamin Hawkins and the Creek Indians, remains a mystery. Only recently has research convincingly revealed that its main figure represents Benjamin Hawkins, a North Carolinian who taught agriculture and husbandry to the Creeks in Georgia. To some degree the canvas can be seen as propaganda depicting the government's program for handling the "Indian problem." Thomas Jefferson sent Hawkins to "educate" the Native Americans, with the hope that they would settle on farms, and allow white settlers to occupy traditional tribal hunting lands.

Circumstances surrounding this painting's commission, however, and the identity of its author are unknown. It is exceptional for its time (c. 1805) because it contains elements of portraiture, landscape, genre, and still life: few other historical paintings date to the years around 1800. Attempts to attribute the Greenville canvas have generated such names as members of the Peale family; Thomas Coram, a painter in Charleston who did views of area plantations; Robert Edge Pine, who did a portrait of Hawkins; and Edward Savage, who took over Pine's studio at his death.

In actuality, the painting may have been created by more than one hand: its detail and texture of the still life at the right differs from the softer, almost sfumato portrayal of the Creeks. Hawkins stands out, not only for his social prominence and dress, but because he is highlighted, as if on stage in front of a painted backdrop. The landscape was probably not done on site. It shows the settlement at a curve in the Flint River, as well as a curious distant view of a church steeple and a sailing ship (possibly emblematic of trade with a larger world).

More overtly symbolic is Luther Terry's large canvas, An Allegory of the North and the South, painted in 1858. Terry, a Connecticut Yankee, spent most of his career in Rome, rendering copies of old masters for American collectors. In 1867, Henry T. Tuckerman described the painting as a "curious allegorical subject; it is intended to represent the 'North and South'; a female figure in a sitting posture occupies the centre, and personifies America; on her right is another, recumbent on a cotton bale, slightly draped, with tropical fruits at her feet; while on her left, a third figure, completely draped, holds a volume upon which she is intent; it needs not the New England village in the distance to indicate that she is the fair representative thereof."[2] Tuckerman does not mention that slaves toil over crops of oranges, cotton, and tobacco in the landscape behind the figure of South, nor does he note the title of the volume held by North: The Useful Arts and Sciences. Once again, the circumstances of the painting's commission are unknown, although the painting itself alludes to the sisterly interdependence of the two regions; it is perhaps, a call for reconciliation.

The Civil War impacts many pieces in the collection. Several artists, including John Ross Key, David English Henderson, and William Aiken Walker, served the Confederacy by drawing fortifications and maps. Key's panoramic view of Charleston harbor during the second bombardment of Fort Sumter in 1863 reveals topography and machines of war in a cool, detached way. Figures of soldiers are diminutive, movement is frozen, and its elevated viewpoint removes the viewer from war's intensity and bloodshed.

Key's canvas has an interesting history. Painted in the fall of 1865, it was exhibited in Baltimore and precisely described: "The fort, rising out of the calm waters of Charleston harbor, constitutes the central object of the scene. It is battered and broken on one of its faces.... In the foreground is James Island, of which Confederates kept possession throughout the war. In the middle of this slip of sandy soil, covered partially by marsh grass and dotted here and there with palms and trees of stunted growth are the remains of an old Martello tower."[3]

Subsequently, the painting was owned by a member of the British Parliament and, beginning about 1937, it was falsely displayed as a work by Albert Bierstadt at the Union League Club in Philadelphia. In various publications and exhibition catalogues, the painting was generally excused as an early work by Bierstadt, master of the grand western landscape. In a convincing article reattributing the painting to Key, Alfred C. Harrison argued that as a Northerner, it would have been difficult for Bierstadt to capture its vantage point; however, the view would have been quite familiar to the Confederate cartographer Key.[4]

Two Charlestonians, John Beaufain Irving and Louis Rémy Mignot, achieved considerable success prior to the advent of the war. Irving remained in the South for the duration of the conflict, but moved to New York at its conclusion, where he resided until his death.

On the other hand, Mignot lingered in New York at the beginning of the war, but in 1862 sold the contents of his studio and went to England. He developed canvases from sketches he had taken during 1857, traveling with Frederic Edwin Church to Ecuador. Mount Chimborazo is dominated by the country's tallest volcano and stylistically reflects the influence of the English masters John Constable and Joseph W. M. Turner.

In the mid-1870s a London newspaper described a Mignot painting, Table Lands of the Rio Bamba, in words that could apply to the Museum's canvas: "The lofty plateau stretches away as far as the eye can reach, its sandy surface broken into countless mounded loaves crested with stunted vegetation. Above the horizontal mists of the table-land, rises at an immense distance the mountain range of the Andes. In the foreground are strange plants and grasses, with a vast earthquake chasm, its depth lost in thick vapour overhead, the sun is dissipating the morning exhalations of fantastic forms, and earth and sky are flush together in the fervid glow of the tropics."[5]

Some of the most popular artists in the Southern Collection are women native to the region. In general, these artists sought their education in the Northeast. Helen Turner, Catherine Wiley, Mary Tannahill, and Blanche Lazzell studied at the Art Students League, while Anne Goldthwaite took classes at the National Academy of Design.

Turner's impressionistic Girl with Lantern has served as the Greenville County Museum's icon on promotional materials. Like most American Impressionists, Turner embraced the sunlit outdoor subjects, high-value colors, and heavy, dappled brush work of the French Impressionists, but she retained a sense of structure and order in her compositions. In Girl with Lantern, the setting dissolves into shimmering vegetation, but the figure forms a strong vertical, which in turn, is counterbalanced by the girl's projecting arm and by the fence railings.

In addition the Southern Collection includes several artists who selected the region as a place to settle. Martin Johnson Heade may have been enticed initially by Florida's bountiful fishing, as well as the generosity of his patron Henry Flagler. Ensconced in one of the studios behind Flagler's Ponce de Leon Hotel in Saint Augustine, Heade spent the last twenty years of his life painting area wetlands with the same luminous quietude with which he had rendered Northern marshes.

In the twentieth century, many major artists came South as teachers, some for an extended period. Although Georgia O'Keeffe was at Columbia College in Columbia, South Carolina, for only six months, the interval was a critical turning point for her career. While her situation held little interest -- she called the city "a nightmare" and a "half-dead place" -- she was enthralled by the Southern countryside.

O'Keeffe wrote to a friend, "It's been wonderful weather down here ­ it would hardly be possible to tell you how much I've enjoyed it -- All the little undergrowth in the woods has turned bright -- and above -- way up high -- the pines -- singing.... It is wonderful."[6] In other letters, she alluded to the isolation that drove her to create. The resultant drawings were her first experiments with abstraction, and the body of work that attracted the attention of Alfred Stieglitz.

George Bellows, another important American artist, taught at the University of Virginia. The Museum's large Massacre at Dinant derives from a series of paintings and lithographs he undertook in response to the savage destruction of small villages in Belgium during World War I. When he enlisted in the army, Bellows had hoped to be assigned to the newly formed camouflage unit, but he never went abroad.

Bellows' knowledge of the atrocities in Belgium came from newspaper accounts. Nevertheless, he created vivid and compelling images that rival those of Francisco Goya in their revelations of the horrors of war. In Massacre at Dinant, the perpetrators are represented by the bloody rifles at the canvas's far-left edge. The victims, arranged like actors on a stage, come from all walks of life. The story unfolds from left to right as each victim reacts to his impending death.

The five oils and twenty prints in this series attest to Bellows' personal and emotional response to the killing of innocent victims. Ironically, by the time he finished the paintings in November 1918, the fervor of the war was fading and the canvases remained unsold until the time of his death.

Perhaps no teachers in the South left a more lasting legacy than those at Black Mountain College. During its relatively short existence (less than twenty-five years) Black Mountain College attracted a broad range of artists and experimental thinkers, including Merce Cunningham, John Cage, and Buckminister Fuller. Many artists with ties to the college are represented in the collection, including Josef Albers, Elaine de Kooning, Jacob Lawrence, José de Creeft, Ilya Bolotowsky, and Kenneth Noland.

The Depression brought artists from other regions into the South. Government programs like the Works Progress Administration commissioned artists to decorate public buildings, many located in small, Southern towns. Once chosen, the artist had to work with administrators in the Section of Fine Arts, and often, with community representatives. Usually the format was a mural. Artists in the Southern Collection who benefited from this support include Doris Lee, John McCrady, Jacques van Aalten, Philip Guston, and Simka Simkhovitch.

A Russian immigrant living in Connecticut, Simkhovitch was selected for murals in Beaufort, North Carolina, and Jackson, Mississippi. In connection with the latter, he developed the Museum's three-part canvas which illustrates the growth of Mississippi. Evidently Simkhovitch was under the false impression that race relations were harmonious in Mississippi: the heroic figure of an African-American dominates the center of his proposal.

The finished composition reverts to stereotypic images of African-Americans as cotton-toting laborers and banjo-playing minstrels. The mural, now presiding in a courtroom, has been covered in recent years during court sessions. If Simkhovitch's original depiction had prevailed, perhaps the painting would be visible today.

Works relating to and by African-Americans are a particular strength of the collection. Jacob Lawrence, Romare Bearden, Carrie Mae Weems, and Sam Gilliam are all represented. Five works by South Carolina native William H. Johnson are included in the collection. Like many of his Southern counterparts, Johnson migrated north and studied at New York's National Academy of Design. With the support of George Luks and Charles Hawthorne, Johnson went abroad, where he encountered less racial discrimination. While in France, and later Scandinavia, Johnson developed his own form of expressionism based on the paintings of Vincent van Gogh, Chaim Soutine, and Oskar Kokoshka.

In the late 1930s, Johnson returned to the United States and settled in New York. Despite the Depression, he was enthralled with the energy and excitement of Harlem, and invented a uniquely personal style exemplified in Lift Up Thy Voice and Sing. Inspired by the cultural renewal that was taking place, Johnson shifted both his European subject matter and expressionist style dramatically to scenes of fashionably dressed African-Americans in city cafés and nightclubs. Rendered in bright colors and often heightened by bold stripes and patterns, flattened forms dominate his compositions. The brassy, strident, and upbeat sounds of the Jazz Age, along with its melancholy undertones find visual counterparts in Johnson's work.

Johnson did not abandon his European experience entirely, but assimilated it into his later work, which is inconceivable without the dynamic vision of Cubism and the vibrant palette of Fauvism. Equally important was Johnson's own discovery of African art. His interest in tribal sculpture, fostered by Picasso, was nourished in the museums and galleries of New York.

Lift Up Thy Voice and Sing embodies many qualities of Johnson's late work, including exaggerated gestures, a fundamental two-dimensionality, and the bold patterning of stripes. The scene may reflect his teaching experience in Harlem or memories of his own schooling in South Carolina. The upside-down American flag, a signal of distress, refers to the struggles African-Americans faced in this country, but is also an encouraging symbol of their resolve to rejoice in their American heritage.

Like Johnson, contemporary artist Emmett Williams is a native of South Carolina who has spent a great deal of time abroad. Primarily a word smith, Williams was affiliated with Fluxus, an international movement that intermingled visual arts with music, performance, poetry, and objects from everyday life.

Like its precursor, Dada, Fluxus was at times politically charged, anti-intellectual, and tongue in cheek. Williams' Portrait of Jasper Johns is both a tribute and satire. It consists of emblematic, enigmatic references to Johns, a pivotal figure of twentieth-century art who is well-represented in the Museum's collection. Johns' own work was critical to the evolution of Pop and Conceptual Art, to which Fluxus is closely tied. Williams' use of product labels and advertising is specifically demonstrative of Pop Art.

Contemporary artist Stephen Scott Young derives subject matter from everyday episodes, embracing realism with a style close to the tradition of Winslow Homer and Andrew Wyeth. Like them, he prefers the watercolor medium. Although Young paints landscape, still life, and genre scenes, his forte is the figure portrayal. Young has rendered The Veterans with a broad range of detail and a variety of techniques.

Young was invited to Greenville, South Carolina, in connection with a solo exhibition, to seek out subject matter that appealed to him. The Veterans is the first in a series of works commissioned by the Greenville County Museum of Art to create a Portrait of Greenville. On a side street, Young encountered Willie Norris and Dewitt Jackson, two local World War II veterans. Because it was Memorial Day weekend, the two naturally reminisced about their war experiences, and the artist drew from the encounter. This is not, however, Young's first painting to explore the topic of patriotism; as the son of a wounded Vietnam veteran, Young is sensitive to the ideal of military duty.

One of the final illustrations in the Museum's catalogue, Young's painting is in many ways a celebration of the Southern art legacy documented in Greenville County Museum of Art: The Southern Collection. By re-examining American art from this fresh perspective, the Southern Collection challenges conventional parameters that have confined previous studies. It is a bountiful tribute to what has passed, and an inspiration to uncover additional reserves of regional talent.


1 As quoted by A. V. Huff, "A History of Greenville County," unpublished manuscript, 79 - 80.

2 Tuckerman, Book of the Artists (1867; reprint, New York: James F. Carr, 1967), 451.

3 Baltimore Gazette, December 16, 1865, as quoted by Alfred C. Harrison, "Bierstadt's Bombardment of Fort Sumter Reattributed," Antiques, February, 1986, 420.

4 Harrison, 420.

5 Illustrated London News, quoted in Tom Taylor, "Sketch of the Life of Louis Rémy Mignot," Catalogue of the Mignot Pictures (London: 25 Bond Street, and Brighton: The Pavilion, 1876), 3.

6 Excerpts from letters from O'Keeffe to Anita Pollitzer, January 4, 1916 and February 28, 1916 as quoted in Pollitzer, A Woman on Paper (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1988), 121, 131; and October 20, 1915, as quoted in Cowart, Jack and Juan Hamilton, Georgia O'Keeffe: Arts and Letters (Washington, DC: National Gallery of Art, 1987), 145.


About the author

Martha Severens has been curator at Greenville County Museum of Art for over 15 years. She has also been curator at the Portland Museum of Art (Maine) and Gibbes Museum of Art (Charleston, South Carolina). She holds a bachelor's degree from Wells College and a master's degree from Johns Hopkins University. She is the author of Greenville County Museum of Art: The Southern Collection, The Charleston Renaissance, and William Halsey. She has also written about David Hare, Alice Smith, and Andrew Wyeth.


Resource Library editor's note

The above text was reprinted in Resource Library on February 26, 2009, with permission of the author and the Greenville County Museum of Art, which was granted to TFAO on February 10, 2009.

This article appeared in the December 1995 - January 1996 issue of American Art Review and pertains to a catalogue published by the Greenville County Museum of Art, more information about which can be found at http://www.greenvillemuseum.org/shop.html.

Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Shana Herb Johannessen for her help concerning permissions for reprinting the above text.

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