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Thomas Hutchinson, circa 1769
Jeremiah Theus (1716-1774)

View Artist Bio
Oil on canvas
30 1/4 x 25 3/8 inches
Status: Private Collection, Huntsville, Alabama

Jeremiah Theus was among the most prolific and best-recognized portrait painters of colonial South Carolina. During his thirty-five years’ career in the mid-eighteenth century, Theus created more than two hundred portraits of members of the leading planter and merchant families of South Carolina. Many of his paintings are found in museums throughout the nation but a considerable number, perhaps even a majority of them, are in private collections. Remarkably, some are owned by descendants of the men, women, and children depicted in the works and hang today in homes that belonged to subjects of the paintings. 

 

Jeremiah Theus was born in 1716 at Chur, a town in Grison Canton, Switzerland. This canton was home to German and Swiss Lutherans called Palatines, named for the region of Germany that had been their home at the time of the Protestant Reformation. Lutherans and Roman Catholics practiced mutual religious persecution in that part of Europe, and during the 1730s many hard-pressed Palatines immigrated to America. Simon Theus and his family, which included his wife and three sons, Christian, Simon, and Jeremiah, traveled to South Carolina and settled in Orangeburg Township in 1736. Orangeburg was one of several frontier towns established by the South Carolina government specifically to settle Protestant immigrants from many European nations. These townships, which included Queensborough, New Windsor, Amelia, Purrysburg, and Saxe Gotha, were created to provide a buffer of frontier communities between the British metropolis of Charleston, the colony’s French and Spanish rivals for empire, and the Native American allies of those rivals. The township plan also aimed to increase the number of European and American-born whites in the colony at a time when African and African American slaves had become a majority of the colony’s population. Welsh, Scandinavian, German, and Ulster Scot immigrants received generous head right grants of land in the townships and support from the colonial government to help them settle in their new homes. Some of the townships failed but others took root and became important towns and cities.  The present-day city of Orangeburg is the site of the old Orangeburg Township

 

Simon Theus became a planter, merchant, and community leader of Orangeburg. His son Christian became a Lutheran pastor in the Orangeburg region; Simon Jr. was a bookkeeper and merchant; and Jeremiah took up the profession of “limner,” a painter of portraits, signs, devices, and other artistic products. He was around the age of nineteen when his family settled in South Carolina, an age that suggests he may have had some artistic training or professional practice in Switzerland. In her book, Jeremiah Theus:  Colonial Artist of Charles Town (1953, revised 1991), Margaret Simons Middleton identified some European portrait painters of the early eighteenth century, whose styles resemble that of Theus’ American colonial works. Among those painters are Jan Kuppetzky (1667-1740), Elias Gottlob Hausmann (1695-1774), and Franz Kuppold (1688-1768). She does not document any specific connections between these artists and Theus but argues at length to identify Theus with a North European portrait tradition, older and divergent from an English tradition that began with Godfrey Kneller and Peter Lely and developed into the styles of Joshua Reynolds, Allen Ramsay, and Thomas Gainsborough. As a young immigrant to the colonial South, Theus was insulated from changing styles of portraitures and, in truth, found such success with a style that seemed much in demand, that he had little reason to test new styles and methods. Art historian Martha Severens has discovered that Theus, like some of his contemporaries in America and England, used published mezzotint prints and engravings to copy clothing and furniture styles as well as postures and backgrounds as a way to keep his portraits in fashion. As a result, portraits by Theus often contain recognizable elements no matter when they were painted during the artist’s life. 

 

At around the age of twenty-four, Jeremiah Theus moved to the colonial metropolis of Charleston sometime prior to 1740 and advertised in the South Carolina Gazette of September 6, 1740, that he had opened a shop on Market Square where “all Gentlemen and Ladies may have their Pictures drawn, likewise Landskips of all sizes, crests and Coats of Arms for Coaches or Chaises. Likewise for the Conveniency of those who live in the country, he is willing to wait on them at their respective Plantations.” From that time until his death on May 17, 1774, Theus painted portraits of the planter aristocracy, Charleston merchants and members of the learned professions, their, spouses, and children. He found such a wealth of patrons and clients in lowcountry South Carolina and the Savannah, Georgia, region that, unlike his contemporaries, he was not obliged to travel northward to Philadelphia, New York, and Boston to secure a livelihood. 

 

In the late 1760s Theus was particularly busy painting portraits of the residents of Saint Bartholomew and Saint Paul parishes, south of Charleston, in present-day Colleton County. He painted thirteen portraits of the Elliott family, one of the foremost planter families in the Lowcountry. Among them are two portraits of Colonel Barnard Elliott (1740-1778). The first portrait depicts Elliott as a boy around the age of seven years. In this portrait the youth holds a fishing line in his hands. Theus painted the second portrait around 1766, the time of his marriage to his cousin, Mary Bellinger Elliott (d. 1774). At the same time he painted a companion portrait of Elliott’s bride.  All three of these portraits are among the collections of the Carolina Art Association/Gibbes Museum of Art. 

 

Theus also painted members of the Hutchinson and Skirving families. Thomas Hutchinson (ca. 1720-91?) was a prominent planter and public servant in Saint Bartholomew Parish. He owned plantations at Cheehaw, Walnut Hill, and on the Combahee River as well as an island in the Ashepoo River and a townhouse in Charleston. His daughter, Ann Holland Hutchinson (1751-1806) wed Colonel William Skirving (ca. 1746-1812) on January 12, 1769. Around the time of their marriage Theus painted portraits of the bride and her husband. 

 

Around the same time he also painted a portrait of Thomas Hutchinson Junior (ca. 1757-91), son of Thomas Hutchinson and younger brother of Ann Holland Hutchinson Skirving. Born circa 1755-57, the boy would have been about twelve years of age when the portrait was painted.  Young Hutchinson is depicted holding a shuttlecock and battledore, the implements for playing the popular game of badminton. Theus also included the badminton equipment in his portrait of young William Branford (1756-76).

 

William Skirving owned Oak Lawn Plantation in Saint Paul Parish, near the South Edisto River.  Oak Lawn Plantation and the portraits of the Skirvings and of Thomas Hutchinson Jr. were inherited by Ann Rebecca Skirving (1778-1842), daughter of William and Ann Skirving. She wed Thomas Rhett Smith (1768-1830) and Oak Lawn descended in the next generation to their daughter, Ann Hutchinson Smith (1802-1877).  William Elliott of Beaufort District (1788-183), planter, politician and author of Carolina Sports; by Land and Water (1846), wed Ann Smith and took possession of Oak Lawn. Among the Elliott’s children, Harriett Rutledge Elliott (1839-1869) married Ambrosio Jose Gonzales (1818-93), a Cuban revolutionary leader and Confederate colonel. Federal troops burned Oak Lawn and many of the other Elliott plantations in 1865, leaving only a single slave cabin at Oak Lawn. The Elliotts and Gonzales families managed to restore some of the properties after the war, fending off economic hardships throughout the postwar decades. The Gonzales’ daughter, Ana Rosa Gonzales, was renamed Harriett Rutledge Elliott Gonzales (1869-1957) and lived at Oak Lawn nearly all her life. The portrait of Thomas Hutchinson Junior was part of the furnishings of the house. When Margaret Simons Middleton published her book on Theus and his work in 1953, she reported that the “Hutchinson Boy” was at Oak Lawn.  Harriett Gonzales never married and bequeathed the painting to her godson and great-nephew, Ambrose Gonzales Hampton Jr., M.D., of Columbia.  The 1991 edition of Middleton’s book documented that change in ownership. When Dr. Hampton died in 2001, his daughter Ann Hampton LaVecchia inherited the portrait.

 

According to Ann Fripp Hampton, former wife of Dr. Ambrose Hampton, the left eye of the portrait had been damaged and repaired prior to Hampton’s ownership. In addition, it was no longer in its original frame.  In the late 1960s or early 1970s, the owner placed the portrait in a period frame and several years later, circa 1987, employed Dr. Charles Olin, a professional art restorer, to conserve the painting. In addition to its historical documentation and reproduction in Middleton’s Jeremiah Theus, the portrait has a strong provenance through descent in the Skirving-Elliott-Gonzales families. Theus’s Thomas Hutchinson Junior was exhibited at the South Carolina State Museum in 1996 in conjunction with the publication of South Carolina Portraits by the National Society of Colonial Dames. Alexander Moore

 

References

Margaret Simons Middleton, Jeremiah Theus:  Colonial Artist of Charles Town (Columbia, S.C.:  University of South Carolina Press, 1953, revised edition 1991).

 

Martha R. Severens, “Jeremiah Theus,” in American National Biography (1999 edition), 21: 498-9.

 

Unpublished essay on the Thomas Hutchinson Junior portrait by Ann Fripp Hampton, Summerville, S.C.

 

For more information on this artist and work, please contact us.

 

This essay is copyrighted by the Charleston Renaissance Gallery and may not be reproduced or transmitted without written permission from Hicklin Galleries, LLC.

 

 

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