Browse More Essays


I do believe that Southerners are South-proud. They are often insecure, too, and must surely provide the largest market for French and English antiques, often of less than the best quality, as well as second-tier carpets. Historically, they purchased European paintings, as did their Midwestern cousins, and these became particularly ripe for picking by those who would repatriate them in the 1970s. The favorable exchange rate only hastened these works return abroad.

It is these same collectors, though, or at least their children, who have reacquainted themselves with the South to which they were born. My father never purchased a painting in his life, despite having loaned me the money on several occasions so that I might step a little deeper into an ever-engulfing pool. He did say, though, that if he ever were to buy a painting, he would want something by Uncle Willy. Uncle Willy represented the world that my daddy grew up in. His father was a cotton buyer for Springs Mills, and, living in the country as the family did, Daddy had his own couple of acres out in front of the house. He planted it, hoed it, and harvested it—even burned it one time when he was doing something he shouldn’t have.

The cotton economy took Daddy from the farm to town and into an increasingly modern South. My mother seemed to think that Atlanta or Charlotte had prettier dresses than Spartanburg did; surely they had a larger selection, and she, like her friends seeking fashion on other fronts, looked beyond her immediate surrounds. It wasn’t just the clothes, but the furniture, porcelain, and paintings that were anything but Southern that denoted sophistication. It’s positively biblical: A hero finds no welcome in his hometown.

So-called “new-money” Southerners are still doing it today. But they are late to the game. So many others have taken Southern connoisseurship absolutely full circle and concluded that we were a people worth painting all along—something we “John Rays” have always known. We were, at least, a society whose lives and rituals deserved memorialization on canvas, even if the artists who initially appreciated that fact and did the work spoke with clipped consonants and hard vowels.

Stephen Morgan Etnier (1903-1984)
Georgetown, South Carolina (1934)
Oil on canvas
28 x 36 inches
Signature Details: Lower left
Owner: Greenville County Museum of Art, Greenville, South Carolina
1451 River Road · Yemassee, SC 29945 · 843.412.8738
Get Our Email Newsletter
Created by . Easy site updating through Backstage CMS.