Outsider artists come in from the cold
“I do believe,” confessed Alfred Hutty, “that Charleston is somewhat indebted to my humble self for making her charms better known to the world.”
There is truth to his assertion. Indeed, starting with his first visit to the city in 1920 and continuing for 30 years thereafter, Hutty created images – oils, watercolors and particularly etchings – that brought national attention to the charms of the Holy City. To those outside the South, he was the principal interpreter of the Carolina Lowcountry.
Yet, largely due to the predominant insularity of the native arts community, Hutty never gained from his adopted city the respect that he deserved. That relative neglect may now be a thing of the past thanks to a new exhibition, five years in the making. Mounted by the Gibbs Museum of Art in Charleston and currently on view at the Morris Museum of Art in Augusta, “The Life and Work of Alfred Hutty: Woodstock to Charleston” features 60 oil and watercolor paintings, pastel drawings and prints by one of the leading figures of the Charleston Renaissance.
Born in 1877 in Michigan but raised in Missouri, Hutty came into his own when he moved to the arts colony at Woodstock in the Catskill Mountains of New York State. His principal residence thenceforth was a renovated farmhouse in which his granddaughter still lives; a detached barn became his studio. While deriving his principal income from the design of stained glass for the Tiffany Studios, he worked diligently on his oil paintings, eventually exhibiting in important group shows.
The year 1920 proved a turning point in his life; that is when Alfred Hutty came to Charleston for the first time. The contrast between his work before that momentous trip and after is chronicled in two specific pieces in the current show. The first is an oil painting from 1917 entitled “Virgin Morning;” it features birch trees on a snowbound hillock. The second is a 1920 oil entitled “Magnolia Gardens.” In the latter, we see a Lowcountry landscape familiar to our eyes but alien to those outside our region: moss-draped trees reflected in a black water pond.
Hutty was hooked; he returned for three successive winters to teach at the school established by the Carolina Art Association. The students appreciated what he taught them, but he soon aroused jealousy among the other professional artists in the burgeoning Charleston market, and, due to their backroom maneuvering, Hutty was eventually replaced by instructors who were native to the area.
This rivalry escalated after Hutty began to make the prints – etchings and then drypoints – with which he is most associated. Even though Hutty freely shared his knowledge with anyone interested in learning about printmaking – he helped found the Charleston Etcher’s Club in 1923 and acquired the first printing press for the group – the fact that his prints sold better and attracted more critical attention than those of the Charleston-born artists made him a target.
Perhaps the leader of the opposition was Elizabeth O’Neill Verner, now an iconic figure in Carolina arts history; in her early years as a professional artist, she learned much from Hutty, even copying many of his subjects, but she never admitted any debt. She even went so far, it is generally assumed, as to blackball him from membership in the Southern States Art League, an organization that she helped establish.
For his part, the laconic Hutty quietly went about his work. Sketching on the streets of Charleston and refining his images in his winter studio at 46 Tradd Street, he mounted a one-man show at the Fort Sumter Hotel on the Battery every spring, and his works were included in important exhibitions in other parts of the country.
The attractive catalog accompanying the current retrospective exhibition at the Morris boasts an exhaustive survey all of Hutty’s known prints from 1920 to his death in 1954; 40 of those works are represented in the current show, including examples of his most characteristic subjects: historic landmarks, such as St. Michael’s Church and the Sword Gate on Legare Street, and back alley scenes, often featuring African-Americans engaged in the tasks of everyday life.
“The Art of Alfred Hutty: Woodstock to Charleston” is on view at the Morris until Oct. 28. For more information, call (706)724-7501 or visit the museum on the web at www.themorris.org.
A recipient of the prestigious Carolina Trustee Professorship in 2008, Dr. Mack holds the G.L. Toole Chair at USC Aiken.