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Herons In Flight,
Alice Ravenel Huger Smith (1876–1958)

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16 ½ x 31 1/8 inches
Signature Details: Alice R.H. Smith
Status: Private Collection, Spartanburg, South Carolina

Alice Ravenel Huger Smith was born in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1876. She had the schooling of a gentlewoman of that day, which included classes in drawing and painting at the Carolina Art Association. However, she did not visit great galleries nor attend a university. Essentially she was self-taught as an artist. At first her artistic talent was directed at designing dance programs, tally and place cards, fans and glove cases.  Then she sketched Charleston street vendors, for which she found a ready market. She gave it up, lest success at a lower form of art tempt her not to pursue higher forms. About 1902 she began receiving commissions to copy ancestor portraits, with which Charleston abounded. When she had mastered that field, she gave it up too. Around 1906 she began painting in watercolor, which became her most successful medium. At the same time, she was increasingly drawn to landscapes as subjects.

About 1910 she met Birge Harrison, founder of the Woodstock Art Association in New York. His views on landscape painting reinforced her own, and he is the only artist whose influence she ever acknowledged. From 1917 to 1919 she studied Japanese prints, even after she gave up producing them (and continued to collect rare Japanese U-Kiyoye prints). The delicate coloration of her subsequent watercolors reflects this Japanese influence. In the early 1920s she did etchings, and taught the technique to other Charlestonians, most notable Elizabeth O'Neill Verner. After 1924 Smith worked almost exclusively in watercolors, which she found most conducive to depicting the soft, hazy atmosphere of the Carolina low country, her chosen subject matter.

Smith wrote in 1936 that "throughout my life I have been trying to paint the rich planting section of South Carolina, that long strip of flat lowlands lying within the influence of the tides, which extends to about 40 or 50 miles from the sea." Her subjects were marshes, beaches, cypress swamps, palmettos, sluggish streams meandering through rice fields, egrets, herons and ibises. She portrayed the moods created by changing weather and light. Her atmospheres had an air of mystery. Hers were works of poetic realism. They were not literal transcriptions of particular places, but were imaginary if plausible views infused with details taken from past observation. Yet these details were implied, not drawn. Her method was painterly, not photographic.  Usually her coloring was Japanesque. Almost always her landscapes show quiet and calm. Over five decades she recorded the soul of her region at a given period. It was a period past its peak, in decline in her lifetime. Hers was the last generation that could have captured it.

As early as 1913 Smith had contributed illustrations to a book, A Woman Rice Planter. She later illustrated Twenty Drawings of the Pringle House in King Street, Charleston, to which her father contributed the text. In 1917 she illustrated The Dwelling Houses of Charleston, in 1931 Carolina Low Country, and in 1935 Adventures in Green Places by Herbert Ravenel Sass. In 1936 Sass wrote A Carolina Rice Plantation of the Fifties, to which she contributed thirty watercolors. The paintings were exhibited throughout South Carolina, as well as in Augusta, Georgia; Charlotte, North Carolina; Laurel and Gulfport, Mississippi; and New Orleans. She donated the paintings to the Gibbes Museum in Charleston.

In the mid-1930s she helped the Gibbes organize a series of exhibits of miniatures. Her interest in miniature painting went back to 1924, when she and her father collaborated on a biography of Charles Fraser, the Charleston miniaturist. In 1940 she wrote an introduction to the publication of Fraser's "A Charleston Sketch Book." She also helped the Carolina Art Association with exhibitions. She was active in the Music and Poetry Society and in 1947 was an incorporating member of the Historic Charleston Foundation.

Smith had a studio on Atlantic Street in Charleston, near those of Elizabeth O'Neill Verner, Anna Heyward Taylor and Leila Waring. They joined forces for a series of studio teas. It was in the 1920s that Alice Smith began to gain national recognition.  In 1921 she exhibited eighty-four drawings, prints and watercolors in various Southern cities. For the next thirty years she exhibited widely, in North and South Carolina, Virginia, Washington, Baltimore, and Philadelphia, New York, Massachusetts, Newport, Rhode Island, Michigan, Minnesota, Milwaukee, Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia, Texas, Florida, New Orleans, and Mississippi. In 1923 she was represented in an exhibition organized by the American Federation of Arts. In 1927-28 her work appeared in a show of American prints in Florence and Paris. In 1928, she was also invited to participate in an international watercolor exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago. Her work is represented in the collections of the Brooklyn Museum, the High Museum in Atlanta, the Hunter Museum in Chattanooga, and in museums in Albany, Chicago, New Orleans and, of course, Charleston. Dealers sought her out and placed her works in private collections across the country. She died in Charleston in 1958.

The South on Paper: Line, Color and Light, Robert M. Hicklin Jr., Inc., Spartanburg, South Carolina, 1985, p. 58.

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This essay is copyrighted by Robert M. Hicklin Jr., Inc. and may not be reproduced or transmitted without written permission.

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