Skip to main content

A Voyage of Discovery

ISSUE:  Summer 1984
The Art of the Old South: Painting, Sculpture, Architecture, and the Products of Craftsmen, 1560—1860. By Jessie Poesch. Knopf. $50.00.

In one splendid volume, Jessie Poesch has managed to sum up this whole matter of a special Southern art. Since it is so pleasantly and informally written, one tends to forget that this is a work of wide-ranging scholarship, of value to the serious student. The general reader, and even perhaps the serious student, will feel that he has been invited on a voyage of discovery. Some of the works illustrated have only now come to light, and others, although known, have not previously been extensively studied.

The requirement of covering three hundred years and ten or more states has led to a happy result. Quality could not be the sole criterion. Poesch has chosen, and chosen wisely, to represent widely separated areas and diverse periods of taste. In no sense is this a selection of “the best” in Southern art, although, of course, much of the best has found a place. What we have is a lively cultural history. The illustrations tell the tale, supported by Poesch’s conveniently coordinated text. Her identification of patrons and artists supplies that invaluable sense of background, that third or cultural dimension to art history, which is no little part of the charm and value of her book.

The study has been broken down into four parts: “Beginnings, ” 1560—1735; “An Established Society,” 1735—1788; “A New Nation,” 1788—1825; and “The Sense of Separation,” 1825—1860. In her introduction, Poesch admits that “given the smaller population and the rural character of much of the American South until recent times, it is probably true that, relatively speaking, fewer buildings, paintings, sculpture and finely crafted objects were actually produced. . . .” This was particularly true, and not even special to the South, in the earliest period.

Formal analysis plays a considerable part in Poesch’s study of buildings. The earliest of these is of Christ Church, Lancaster, Virginia, an impressive building, planned by King Carter and built in 1730. The walls are massive, and, compared with private houses of the period, the effect is severe. It is almost as though the architect were saying, when it comes to serious matters, we must create a serious building. City planning was also a serious challenge to the people of the new land. As one example of such work, we have A Ground Plat of the City and Port of Annapolis, 1748. Most interesting of all, perhaps, are the illustrations of the work of the early “artist-naturalists.” We start with John White, a virtually unknown protege of Sir Walter Raleigh. His watercolors of the life of the Indians and of the flora and fauna encountered in the exotic land of Roanoke are preserved in the British Museum. One hundred and fifty years later there is the work of Mark Catesby, c.1724, also described and illustrated. To me, at least, these watercolors of plants and birds are fully as charming as the work of the later and more accomplished John James Audubon.

In Part II, 1735—1788, we have reached the great age of Southern architecture. Here we have, among others, Drayton Hall, 1735—1742, complete with measured drawings and architectural description. The ornamental woodwork is especially fine and well illustrated. The detailed treatment of this house of purely British antecedents leads us into studies of various other national influences on the architecture of the region. We have Spanish in Florida, German in Old Salem, French in Louisiana, a rich cultural heritage. Gardens have become important and are included. We have a stunning aerial view of Henry Middleton’s Gardens on the Ashley River, South Carolina, accompanied by a site plan and a verbal description: “To move through the succession of smaller gardens is as if to move consciously through a series of rooms and spaces, some open but bordered, others more closed and intimate, a sundial here, a mound there, with different plants, textures, colors, lights, and shadows.” A garden, in other words, viewed as a work of art. Small vernacular houses and log cabins complete the architectural study.

In the order of subject matter laid down by the author, painting, sculpture, and furniture follow. Among the straightforward and somewhat stiff likenesses in the portrait collection, always showing the attempt to emulate English models, a Charles Willson Peale suddenly appears, to demonstrate the more naturalistic approach to come in the development of American portraiture. In America portrait painting was essentially a private, bourgeois art. We may be bored by General Washington on the dollar bill, but in this and the later section on portraits in Part III we have a sort of visual biography of the ordinary man and woman on the Southern scene.

Part III, on the other hand, is prefaced by an 1830 engraving of the most public of public buildings, Jefferson’s design for the new capitol in Richmond. A classic building inspired by the Maison Carre, it is a fitting symbol indeed for this Part III, the New Nation. Jefferson, Poesch tells us, was proud of this building, and well he might be. Houdon’s full-length figure of Washington, the nation’s most heroic figure, was placed squarely in the central salon. We may note in passing that the Virginia Capitol is not Jefferson’s finest architectural work. It was to some degree a compromise, and surely the complex of buildings at the University of Virginia is indisputably finer. Nevertheless, we must applaud the symbolism of the author’s choice.

After this striking introduction, we come to a fascinating study of residential building in the Deep South, the area with which Poesch herself is most familiar. Sugar has transformed Louisiana, yet French and Spanish influences linger on in these planters’ homes. Neoclassical interiors may show “a French nuance.” Most typical is the adaptation to their common climate of the galleried or “West Indian” houses scattered throughout the countryside.

Turning to “the West,” that is, to Tennessee, one finds the Virginia influence predominant. We are taken on a tour, following in the footsteps of America’s most feted guest, the Marquis de Lafayette. For the building of General Winchester’s Cragfont near Gallatin, Tennessee the craftsmen had been brought from the East, including one Frank Weatherred, who did his fine Federal mantel with its marbleized chimney-piece illustrated here. Some 15 years earlier this same Francis Weatherred had worked in Albermarle County, Virginia on a perhaps somewhat similar house, Enniscorthy, the home of John Coles II. By the early 1800’s Palladio, in the form of giant porticoes, had come to Natchez. We have here that rather questionable legacy, the romanticized image of the “antebellum” house, which was actually not limited to the white columned form, nostalgic as this picture may be.

To such a misconception, the portraits of the age may come as a welcome corrective. Here are these men and women, dressed in their best, but unmistakably they are real and everyday people. Again, as with Jefferson’s building, we may feel that we have been given representative rather than the best examples of Southern portraiture. A special contribution is the two genre scenes of black life on the plantation: one is the familiar watercolor of the Negro wedding from the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Collection at Williamsburg, and the other, less known, is of the famous Richmond fiddler Sy Gilliat, playing for the children of his white employers. Some romantic sketches of landscape follow, one, A Group of Trees by the James River Canal Locks, 1797—1798, by the young Benjamin Henry Latrobe, has a strangely oriental cast, perhaps a reflection of the new mercantile contacts with the Far East. A final section on the cabinetmakers of the period makes a full and interesting use of recent regional research in this area. Some of the best pieces illustrated are from “Private Collections,” a little explored source, for which we should be particularly grateful.

If the third section, A New Nation, celebrates the work of Thomas Jefferson, the last section, Part IV, The Sense of Separation, 1825—1860, marks something of a retreat toward the personal. The archetypal image has become the plantation house, the epitome of Southern living. This, of course, is an oversimplification. Many and complex were the strands underlying the “Sense of Separation” between the Southern and Northern states, but it is perhaps significant that it did not, at this time, affect the arts. The Jeffersonian ideal was in decline but not more so in one section than in another. As Poesch points out, the Southern artist remained sensitive to trends well beyond any sectional limitation. She gives us an enlightening study of the influence of the Gothic, the Italianate, and even of the Middle East on Southern architecture of the period. One has only to look at such illustrations as that of the Flynn House in Columbus, Mississippi to see how subtly such diverse influences could be combined with the older Federal tradition. In the Flynn House, slender columns and fretwork have caused the concept of the portico to become strangely Gothic. Such effects, in fact, were seen most frequently in the Deep South, where much of the new building occurred.

In this period American portraiture became considerably more accomplished and for this very reason, perhaps, somewhat less interesting. Far more exciting, certainly in this study, are the new genre paintings, showing accurate, almost photographic, representations of the social scene. The cover picture is one of this kind. They seem to be a relatively new discovery, for “few of these views are known, but if they were or are as vibrant and lively as the scene of Oakland House and Race Course, Louisville, signed and dated 1840, then another facet of the history of painting in America remains to be discovered.”

The art of painting, indeed, was still seeking new fields when the war put an abrupt end to all such endeavor. Late paintings of the 1850’s are seen to represent a mood or to make a social comment. In interior decoration a taste for the neorococo, now for the first time called Victorian, exists side by side with the concern for realism seen in painting of the period. A wonderful and somehow successful example of this unlikely mix is seen in the “Warfield Cup,” a silver racing trophy where a realistic depiction of the race is surmounted by a rococo floral border.

The increasing position of the independent black craftsman is noted in this section, but newest, and most important of all, is the first appearance of a major woman artist in these pages. She was, of course, unrecognized in her own day, and indeed only now has she been brought to light in the unassuming guise of a quilt maker. In all the years covered in this most comprehensive study, only one woman preceded her. By her own admission Henrietta Deering Johnston had painted her pleasant but undistinguished portraits only to supplement her husband’s failing income. Anything else would have fatally compromised her claim to respectability. In the America of her day (c.1718), and to an even greater degree in succeeding years, she would have been thought only one notch above a common prostitute. Even in 1856 the artist of whom we now speak did not attempt to compete in any way with her male contemporaries.

The lady called Virginia Ivey created an all-white quilted counterpane, raising her design by what was called “stuffed work.” Her subject was an ambitious one, The Fair Ground near Russellville, Kentucky. Because her medium forbade the use of perspective, she invented her own technique. “The design is all laid out in the flat; that is, animals, carriages, and people in profile, trees and leaves with flattened, salient forms defined, and only single views of buildings shown. The concept is totally nonacademic.” Nonacademic indeed! Poesch finds that “all the excitement of a country fair is suggested. . . .the warm smells, the gathering of the people, the competitions being judged, the socializing, and the gossiping. It is a charming and delightful document of social history.” It is also a work of art in any sense that art may be defined.

This is far more than a coffee-table book. Somehow, in spite of its diversity, it gives a coherent picture; the art forms illustrated are vibrant, alive, part of a recognizable whole. Jessie Poesch, from her vantage point as a professor of art history at Tulane, has given full due to their regional character, to the influences that shaped Southern Art. At the same time we have a sense of a larger continuity, of the place of these works in American art. Read as a whole, The Art of the Old South offers an enlightening experience; read for one’s own pleasure, in bits and pieces as one chooses, it is a sheer delight.


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Recommended Reading