The quandary of Alice Smith Series by famed watercolorist soothes the eye, raises questions

“Sunday Morning at the Great House” by Alice Smith, circa 1935, from her series, “A Carolina Rice Plantation of the Fifties.”

It’s unusual to see all 29 of these gorgeous watercolors by Alice Ravenel Huger Smith hanging together in one space. They rarely leave their sequestered storage of the Gibbes Museum, for they are sensitive to light and must be protected.

In recent years, the museum has worked with the Strauss Center at Harvard University to restore them, removing the threat of acid backings among other measures taken, an effort that has markedly improved both the appearance and prospect for long-term survival of these remarkable pictures.

Now through July 16, museum visitors can see the entirety of Smith’s famed “Carolina Rice Plantation of the Fifties” series.

The premier artist of the Charleston Renaissance, Smith sought in the middle 1930s to document a dead age.

Hers was the last generation that would be able to cull from memories of plantation life in the antebellum South, and she took it upon herself to preserve that period in a series of nostalgic images that would be accompanied by her father’s memoirs and an essay on rice cultivation by the historian Herbert Ravenel Sass.

Those who stand before these watercolors cannot help but be impressed by their loveliness, and many say so when visiting the Gibbes, according to its curators and ticket takers.

Smith was a master manipulator of watercolor, creating images, landscapes mostly, influenced by Japanese printmaking and woodblocks and romantic English art that transformed the objects of nature into symbol, myth and memory.

Interestingly, her skillful use of color, portrayal of natural light and expressive brushwork was little influenced by French Impressionism, which had taken the art world by storm in the latter half of the 19th century when Smith was first learning how to paint.

She was mostly self-taught, prone to homesickness and avoided travel abroad, Martha Severens writes in her illustrated biography of the artist, “Alice Ravenel Huger Smith.”

She made these plantation paintings during the height of Jim Crow, when black people in Charleston and throughout the country were subjected to humiliating discrimination and life-threatening abuse.

She knew of this, of course. She lived downtown, a single woman surviving on the income generated from the sale of her art. Not far away from her was intense poverty. This was the period of “Porgy and Bess,” of street calls and street fights, of hunger and vocal prayer.

Charleston was a city in limbo, its glorious wealth of the rice years diminished, its economic revival still decades away. The disquiet of her times likely provoked in her a strong sense of “longing for things to be as they were,” noted Gibbes Executive Director Angela Mack.

“Things as they were” meant relative calm and order, a historic period when blacks knew their place and white planters were firmly in charge, when life for the privileged class was simple and wealth abundant.

“Yes, times do change,” Smith wrote at the beginning of her “Reminiscences,” an autobiography she produced in about 1950. “Small places and big places alike show it. Perhaps small happenings show it as sharply as great events, and one looks with surprise at the differences that one never noticed during the endless moments of what might be called trivial evolution.”

The watercolors reflect well her sense of change, and her profound nostalgia, said College of Charleston historian and archivist Harlan Greene.

“Even at the time, she had created a beautiful fantasy of the past,” Greene said. “I think people really want to believe ‘if only’: If only the past was that lovely, that pastel.”

Her interpretations of plantation life also likely were more marketable than images of reality, Mack said.

When Winslow Homer created his 1876 canvas called “A Visit From the Old Mistress,” some observers didn’t quite know what to make of it. It was one of very few pictures that portrayed blacks and whites together (in this case, freed slaves living in a ramshackle cabin and the former mistress of the big house who, until recently, owned them). It represented a scene from the present, an inevitable awkwardness.

“In creating a canvas shared by black and white people (Homer) left the critics confused about what to look at, and frustrated that answers (and perhaps more precisely authority) were not found in the face of physicality of the mistress,” wrote Alexis Boylan in her essay “From Gilded Age to ‘Gone with the Wind,’ ” collected in the volume “Landscape of Slavery.”

Smith, too, portrayed blacks and whites together, but hers were pastoral scenes of the past, and the social hierarchy was explicit, Mack noted.

In one watercolor (the first of her series), called “Sunday Morning at the Great House,” smiling slaves and their children line up to pay their respects to the master and mistress, with the rector and his wife looking on from the first-floor piazza. It’s an orderly and idealized scene, washed clean of the ugliness of slavery.

When she paints slaves at work, they are figures, mere shapes and gestures, really, that extend from or blend in with the landscape. Toil, sweat, disease and distress are invisible. Instead, the viewer is left to marvel at Smith’s delicate brush strokes evoking the Lowcountry’s warm light, golden rice fields and blue waterways.

Gibbes curator Sara Arnold said the artist was not only expressing nostalgia for a bygone era, she was creating pictures that purposefully soothed rather than riled the viewer.

“It was also a way to restore order,” Arnold said, adding that slavery per se was not really Smith’s primary subject. She was more interested in landscape, and the ways in which it could communicate a sense of place and identity.

Smith was generally resistant to change, Arnold said. She hated the automobile. She loved to take walks. With a genetic stake in prominent Charleston families, she was also acutely aware of her exceptional lineage. To be invited to dinner at the Smith home was to have reached the upper echelons of Charleston society, noted Mack.

But that resistance was measured. In her “Reminiscences” she wrote of her divided allegiance:

“I was brought up on the heels of a struggle for personal and sectional liberty and I naturally grew to admire the generation before me. Broken in body with the iron of great despair in their soul, they were brave enough to face the ruins and build again. I have lived beyond that period and I am eager to follow a new generation in its progress, but my allegiance is divided, first to the old, then to the new. It is useless to try and relive the past just as it is unnecessary to discard everything that came before us.”

Smith’s dreamy landscapes were mostly imagined, Arnold said, but in the years before World War II, local plantations still were places where crops were cultivated and laborers plowed the soil, so it’s likely that she drew some inspiration from real life.

She donated her “Rice Plantation” series to the Carolina Art Association in 1936, ensuring the set would remain intact and cared for. Many other works she sold and, over the years since her death in 1958, Smith has won admirers near and far.

The complete series is displayed now at the Gibbes, not only to showcase the extraordinary work but to give viewers an opportunity to consider it in a new light. The impact of the whole set is quite different from the effect wrought by one or two of the pictures. The context is clearer, the beauty multiplied, the artistic quandary rendered more acute.

Arnold said it’s the Gibbes’ responsibility and privilege to share these works and to present them as honestly as possible.

“They are beautiful, but they ignore the real story of the antebellum plantation,” she said.

Are their distortions of history to be overlooked? Do we limit ourselves to admiring their elegance and grace? Does the series cross the line between art and propaganda?

“Hopefully people will ask those questions,” Arnold said.

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