After an absence of 20 years, the American novelist Henry James returned to his native land for a visit in 1904. What he called his "impressions" of this now-unfamiliar country he captured in a volume entitled “The American Scene,” which devotes an entire chapter to Charleston, a city that James used as a rest stop on his way to Florida by train.
One corner of Charleston especially pleased his educated eye. Henry James characterized the south wall of Saint Michael's Church as the "sweetest corner of Charleston." It is, according to James, the best "canvas" because of the building's "high complicated inflated spire" and its context of "sun-washed tombs and the inter-related slabs and the extravagant flowers."
This scene that James captured in words, many visual artists have tried to reproduce in paint and watercolor. Take, for example, the small-scale watercolor and graphite image included in an exhibition entitled "The Charleston Renaissance: Art, Architecture, Literature, and Music" currently on view at the Morris Museum of Art in Augusta. Rendered by Alfred Hutty, this piece entitled “St. Michael’s Church” combines architectural detail – the building’s sun-bleached portico – and local color – the careful placement in the foreground of three African American ladies, one balancing a basket on her head and the other two seeking some relief from the heat by wielding palm leaf fans.
This particular undated piece is not unlike the many works generated by local and visiting artists to commemorate their own or perhaps someone else's stay in Charleston.
In fact, the creation of art as a visual souvenir for tourists was probably a prime catalyst for the Charleston Renaissance itself, the revival of arts and culture in the city from 1915 through the 1940s. This was certainly a principal motivation for Elizabeth O'Neill Verner, whose name is synonymous with Charleston because of her prolific output of street scenes produced for the tourist market.
One of several Verner pieces included in the current show, a diminutive etching approximately two inches square, was also inspired by the environs of Henry James’s favorite spot in the city. This work entitled “St. Michael’s Alley” focuses on a tiny figure framed by the garden walls on both sides of the narrow thoroughfare partially cast in shadow.
Compelled to become a full-time artist because of the need to support her two children after the death of her husband, Verner, a Charleston native who studied for a time in Philadelphia, eventually became one of the city's biggest boosters. "I must send my prints far afield," she once remarked, "so the world could see that right here in America we have a city as good to look upon as any in Europe."
A founding member, in 1923, of the Charleston Etchers' Club, Verner joined other artists to buy a press and learn the art of printmaking because they realized that small, relatively inexpensive fine art prints would be attractive souvenirs for those visiting the city.
According to guest curator Jay Williams, it was not just visual artists but also architects, writers and folklorists who found a limitless source of inspiration in the beautiful city that, because of a long economic decline following the South’s defeat in the Civil War, stood as a time capsule of 19th-century manners and mores well into the early part of the 20th century.
Indeed, the current exhibition features not only 40 paintings and prints but also 9 books on loan from some of the University of South Carolina’s key repositories, including the South Caroliniana Library and the Irvin Department of Rare Books and Special Collections. Thus, next to an Alfred Hutty image of the former tenement known as Cabbage Row, one can see a first edition of DuBose Heyward’s novel “Porgy.” The original production of “Porgy and Bess” in Boston in 1935 featured a set inspired by that Charleston landmark composed of two connected row houses which once provided shelter for as many as ten families.
The paintings, prints, books and recordings of the leading lights of the Charleston Renaissance had far-reaching consequences. Their work led to the establishment of the Preservation Society of Charleston in the 1920s and the creation of probably the country’s first urban historic district in 1931. Cultural practice also became an object of conservation. John Bennett, who along with DuBose Heyward helped found the Poetry Society of South Carolina, called attention to how much the Lowcountry owed its distinctive character to the rapidly vanishing Gullah culture and he was one of those who led the way in collecting the narratives and spirituals of this important African American community.
“The Charleston Renaissance: Art, Architecture, Literature, and Music” is on view at the Morris Museum of Art in Augusta until Oct. 27. For more information, call the Morris at 706-724-7501 or visit the museum on the web.
A recipient of the Governor’s Award in the Humanities, Dr. Mack holds the rank of USC Distinguished Professor Emeritus. Of his six books to date, three are focused on local cultural history: “Circling the Savannah,” “Hidden History of Aiken County,” and “Hidden History of Augusta.”