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Picture Postcards

In art, as in economics, there is a trickle-down effect. Joseph Rusling Meeker, Elliott Daingerfield, and William Aiken Walker are regional painters who play on the national stage and, accordingly, their works command a loyal following and commensurate price. But there are so many others who transcribed quintessential Southern scenes—whether the swamps of an unspoiled Florida or a Carolina cotton field—with equal vision and skill. Regionalism is about the art produced in and of a specific part of our geographic, natural, and cultural world.

Regionalism’s roots can be traced, in no small measure, to a proud and youthful America’s appetite for self-knowledge. The New World was still ripe for discovery and reports of that which was new were eagerly anticipated. The inspiration available to artists willing to make the trip was limitless, matched only by the public’s desire to know. We know now that we owe a tremendous debt to the artists who delivered broadened horizons to the masses through their travel and visual travelogues. Long before glossy brochures and Internet specials lured visitors to destinations far and wide, artists stimulated nineteenth century tourism on canvas and paper.

Curiosity first piqued by a glimpse of the unknown could often, thereafter, only be satisfied with a visit to the place itself.

Consider the example of Edward Beyer, who encountered the South after leaving his native Germany. He saw Virginia and, entranced by its beauty, took more than thirty opportunities to portray its towns and villages—even the single homesteads of its more prominent citizens—in oil on canvas. He memorialized the state’s luxury resorts, the Greenbrier and Homestead. These renderings—along with some forty other views from around the state—were reproduced as lithographs for the famed Album of Virginia. Printed in Berlin and Dresden in 1858, they spread the word to a receptive audience about the natural wonders of the New World.

Virginia’s healing springs were already popular havens when Beyer first began to document them and their surrounding countryside. George Esten Cooke painted his View of Red Sulphur Springs, Virginia in 1836 and 1837, making it one of the earliest American paintings of resort tourism in the South. This vacation destination, now in ruins, sat just west of Roanoke where it opened as early as 1832. Planters and others of prominence would repair to these hills to take the curative waters and, perhaps, give their maturing children a chance to meet others of similar circumstance.

Born in St. Mary’s County, Maryland, George Cooke showed a youthful interest in art, but first attempted various unsuccessful business endeavors before teaching himself to paint by copying other portraits. He began his itinerant career in 1821, based principally in Washington, D.C., constantly traveling in search of portrait commissions to earn a scant living. Along the way, he painted numerous landscapes and historical subjects that represent his most ambitious works.

Cooke visited the mineral springs of western Virginia on several occasions, taking water treatments himself. Relying on European picturesque landscape traditions that he had learned while studying abroad, Cooke chose for this canvas a dramatic panorama that shows the guests, manicured grounds, and impressive buildings, framed by the sublime forms of the mountains and the gorge. The stagecoach descending the mountain to the right will deposit its complement of visitors and carry away rejuvenated vacationers. William Burke, an early owner of the spa, reproduced Cooke’s painting as a lithograph, the regional distribution of which served to catch the interest of any who might feature themselves joining the gaily dressed vacationers seen here on the grounds. Cooke himself is shown at an easel in the center foreground—a common convention of view painting.

Thomas Addison Richards is largely known in the South today for his paintings of Georgia and South Carolina. Often overlooked are the facts that Richards served as the first president of the National Academy of Design and enjoyed a successful career in the pre-Civil War South as a writer and illustrator of travel books. His 1842 volume, Georgia Illustrated, espouses the beauty and inviting nature of the land: “Truly, the wilderness has blossomed as the rose! The majestic steam packet now gallantly rides lord of the stream, which so lately yielded to nought but the wild man’s paddle. The impervious and trackless desert of yesterday, is to-day, intersected in its length and breadth, by rail roads and canals, those mighty engines in the advancement of human intelligence and happiness.”

As word (via image) of the regional wonders of the South spread—through travel accounts and lithographic copies of the paintings themselves—artists fed tourism, however inadvertently. The phenomenon repeated itself a century later when artists in Charleston consciously sought to whet the appetites of potential visitors with iconic and romantic images of the Holy City. In both eras and with each stroke, the message on these picture postcards was made clear: “Wish you were here.”

George Esten Cooke (1793-1849)
View of Red Sulphur Springs, Virginia (1836-1836)
Oil on canvas
32 3/4 x 48 inches
Owner: Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Stephen Smith, Lower Gwynedd, Pennsylvania
1451 River Road · Yemassee, SC 29945 · 843.412.8738
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