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Outside the Canon

Maybe the best description of what I did in the early years is missionary work. I plowed a lot of ground, sowing seeds of interest in Southern art. Slowly but surely, we turned over the cards—one by one, artist by artist, region by region. From the start, the heavy hitters were easily identifiable. Their names—Conrad Wise Chapman, Elliott Daingerfield, and William Aiken Walker, local products all—had become synonymous with particular places or schools, their names readily traced to important collections and exhibition records. Additionally, painters of national and international renown visited and recorded their impressions: Frederic Remington in Tampa during the Spanish-American War, Winslow Homer in Virginia during the War Between the States, and Edgar Degas in New Orleans, circa 1872, to name just a few. But other names surfaced, too—sporadically, surprisingly, steadily. While the pillars of Southern art towered, the fuller picture of the field as a whole was only made complete, rich, and interesting through this process of “bubbling up.” Some of my favorite moments in this journey have been those of discovery—underscored by due diligence—that resulted in the eventual elevation of a deserving player to the larger stage.

As I tilled the soil and learned my lessons, so did others: collectors, scholars, historians. Leading museums—the Ogden Museum of Southern Art in New Orleans, Morris Museum of Art in Augusta, and Greenville County Museum of Art in South Carolina—have advanced our collective understanding of the painters, schools, and subjects by placing them in the larger context of American art and by endowing them with institutional imprimaturs. Those once deemed outside the canon have gradually been invited into the arena of acceptance.

Bostonian Elizabeth Boott Duveneck traveled South in 1883, taking another spur of the same rail Lyell Carr rode. While in Aiken, South Carolina, she painted two versions of an oxcart driven by a man and tended by a boy, each of which was then exhibited at the Doll & Richards Gallery in Boston in 1884. During that same era, Alexander Charles Stuart of West Chester, Pennsylvania, documented the shipping commerce in and around Hampton Roads, Virginia, before drifting even further South to St. Augustine and Eustis, Florida, in 1883 and 1884, where he practiced obstetrics. Business must have been good because he evidently found little time to paint once there, as we see very few canvases from those years.

Johannes Adam Simeon Oertel was an Episcopal priest who ministered to various congregations around the South toward the end of the nineteenth century. Several of his paintings can be found today in the All Saints’ Chapel on the campus at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee, as well as at Saint James Episcopal Church in Lenoir, North Carolina. While we’ve offered a handful of his religious subjects over the years, we’ve met with far more success with landscape and genre scenes painted during Oertel’s pastorates in the two Carolinas.

Gari Melchers maintained a studio in Falmouth, Virginia, the home to which he retreated when not working with the expatriate colony in Egmond, Holland. In the studio known as Belmont—behind the stone wall overlooking the meadow and Rappahanock River, where he painted both hunters and cows—hangs a canvas picturing black children in a one-room school at Adams Run, South Carolina, halfway between the Ashley and Combahee Rivers, not far above the flow of the Edisto.

Sidney Dickinson painted the portraits of bankers and captains of industry in chalk-striped suits holding cigarettes, portraits that today hang in many of the private clubs in New York. He was far from that metropolis in 1917 and 1918, and again in the 1920s, when he spent time in Calhoun, Alabama, a small town in Lowndes County, not far from Montgomery. There, he painted a series of canvases of Calhoun’s Negro and mulatto citizens juxtaposed against the red clay landscape and the cotton mills in which they worked, places that provided both the social and commercial framework for their lives. These paintings can be enjoyed today at the Greenville County Museum of Art in South Carolina. Steve Koman and Bob Austin introduced me to the group when we met the artist’s son in a cold storage warehouse in West Hartford, Connecticut. Claw hammers, crow bars, and power drills in hand, we loosed the tops from any number of crates to sort out the Alabama paintings from the bankers’ visages. All were fair game, according to the junior Mr. Dickinson, but the $4,000 per canvas price tag was non-negotiable. Bob was entree to the source and Steve, my partner.

Anthony Thieme, the Dutch-born painter so often associated with Cape Ann and Rockport, Massachusetts, worked in South Carolina and then Florida, beginning in 1946 and continuing until his death in 1954. The work he produced below the Mason-Dixon Line is among his most popular, and it affords us the opportunity to call this European-come-Yankee a Southern painter.

Lawrence Mazzanovich already had Connecticut credentials when, after a bitter divorce, he found his way to Tryon, North Carolina, and its small colony of artists. His new wife taught piano there in their home in Gillette Woods, not thirty miles up the road from my home in Spartanburg. Her star pupil was the local prodigy Nina Simone, who apparently slept on a sofa on their porch. The artist’s existing paintings are almost equally divided between those painted at Cos Cob and the later works done in North Carolina. Is he only a Connecticut impressionist?

Hobson Pittman was from Tarboro, North Carolina, but spent his career at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts as an art instructor in residence. His style, undeniably unique and replicated by no one else, produced pure magic when applied to the swampy landscape around Charleston, at Mepkin Abbey and beyond. Pittman is reputed to have left each of his nieces and nephews a million dollars at his death, along with numerous paintings—or, at least, so said one of the nieces. Having run through her liquidity, she came to me to sell her trove of pictures, and we count among them some of the best works by the painter we have had the privilege to handle.

Edward Gay married a South Carolinian and produced several delightful beach scenes at the Isle of Palms, South Carolina. And then there was William Henry Johnson, the African-American expatriate. Johnson was born in Florence, South Carolina, but spent his professional career in Denmark, Norway, and France. Though passionately collected by discerning connoisseurs and represented in major museums across America and around the world, the most notable collection of Johnson’s works outside the Smithsonian is held by the Greenville County Museum in the artist’s native state.

There are other artists, other names, of course. When I meet a dealer unknown to me—a picker or a runner, someone out on my same road searching for the best he can find and anything that he can promote—I am generally asked just who and what it is I am looking for. What names, what subjects? Truth be told, I would not have answered Sidney Dickinson if that richly painted red clay had not given away the artist’s visit to my South. The list of painters I might offer in response is inherently incomplete and ever expanding. When describing their particular interest in art, many people are prone to respond that they don’t know much about art in a formal sense, but that they know what they like. I’ve come to believe that “what they like” is so very often tied to what they do know—the force of familiarity and experience on taste and preference. For us Southerners, it was all outsider art at one time or another, but the tent has expanded, and there’s room at the table for those deserving.

Sidney Dickinson (1890-1980)
The Morning Ride (1918)
Oil on canvas
40 1⁄4 x 34 1⁄4 inches
Signature Details: Upper right
Owner: Collection of the Greenville County Museum of Art, Greenville, South Carolina
1451 River Road · Yemassee, SC 29945 · 843.412.8738
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