Artist Alice Ravenel Huger Smith was both enigmatic and straightforward.
The famed Carolina Lowcountry painter (1876-1958) took classes at the Carolina Art Association in the 1890s but otherwise was largely self-taught. She disdained travel and few outside influences are evident in her work.
She has been criticized in recent years for presenting images of an idealized antebellum South, featuring “happy ‘darkies’ and benevolent masters,” according to one modern historian.
But she was also critical in helping raise the consciousness of indigenous Carolina Lowcountry culture and was at the forefront of the preservation movement in Charleston.
While Smith is best known for 29 watercolors included in A Carolina Rice Plantation of the Fifties, she painted all sorts of pictures, from portraits early in her career to simple landscapes of long-leaf pine or swamp cypress.
Beginning this week, a collection of more than four dozen of Smith’s works will be on display through next summer in Charleston, including watercolors, oil paintings on mahogany panels and several sketches.
The artwork will be on display at both the Edmonston-Alston House and in the house museum at Middleton Place, both in Charleston.
The rice plantation watercolors belong to the Gibbes Museum of Art; numerous other paintings are in private collections and rarely seen by the public, according to the Charleston Post and Courier.
To be certain, Smith was a product of her times. The daughter of a former Confederate artilleryman, she sought to highlight the remembrances of the simpler pre-Civil War era that wealthy South Carolinians recalled in the decades after the war. Smith preferred to capture Lowcountry rural landscape to urban cityscapes of Charleston and enjoyed recording vanishing ways of life.
Those included the scenes from rural salt marshes, areas which had once been used for tidal rice cultivation but had been abandoned as the rice economy moved west and the land had fallen into disuse, to be reclaimed by salt water.
In addition, a small amount of rice was still being grown in the Lowcountry through the 1920s, giving Smith a glimpse of the industry that dated back to the late 17th century in South Carolina and had made many white planters wealthy and broken many enslaved blacks.
She worked with her father, Daniel Elliott Huger Smith, a historian, on The Dwelling Houses of Charleston (1917), a biography of the Charleston miniaturist and portrait painter, Charles Fraser (1924), A Carolina Rice Plantation of the Fifties (1936), and A Charlestonian’s Recollections, 1846-1913 (1950), the last two completed after her father’s death in 1932.
Smith’s works, like the artist herself, are unique and worth taking the time to visit.
(Top: Mending a Break in a Rice-Field Bank, by Alice Ravenel Huger Smith.)