By Peter Ingle

More than 40 watercolors by Alice Ravenel Huger Smith remain on display in a special exhibit that is split between Middleton Place on Highway 61 and the Edmonston-Alston House on East Bay Street. Continuing through October 29, this is a rare opportunity to see a large group of some 50 works (on loan from private collections) that have never been displayed together and may never be again.

Alice Smith was an artist who saw a scene she liked and painted it. Simple as that. Yet, behind her simplicity looms a charm of ethereal beauty that renders her work as elusive as the artist herself. Of course, living during the emergence of impressionism and having a predilection for watercolor helped; the former with its emphasis on reflected light; the latter with its luminosity and sense of ease (despite watercolor being one of the most demanding mediums).

Even if you’re familiar with this artist, being able to see a large group of her works at one time deepens your insight in a way that viewing just one, or even several, of her pictures can’t provide. At both locations, however, be aware that you won’t have a lot of time to spend with the art because it comes as part of the regular house tours, which pause periodically but keep moving — so you’ll have to be definite about looking as you go through the rooms. Alternatively — recommended — is to buy a ticket (get them online at middletonplace.org) for one of the special Thursday and Saturday tours which focus exclusively on the art.

When you do visit, here are a few things to look for in the paintings and a few pieces to watch for in particular.

Things to appreciate

Only a handful of works in both locations are in oil (on mahogany panels) and nearly all of those seem like experiments that Alice found fun but restricting. Next to them, it’s obvious why watercolor on paper set her free. Free to roam outside, yes, but even more free to let loose an artistic vision that was deeply personal, intrinsically spiritual and always based on what she saw rather than on a prescribed way of composing her pictures.

Early in her career, Alice was a meticulous draftsman of architectural subjects, but when it came to watercolors, compositional strategy and structure weren’t her priority. Her eye for a good scene, supported by a strong affinity for nature, was enough. That’s what she relied on and that’s what comes across most in her work. She also loved light — the suppleness, softness and power of light, the effect light has on color, the illusion of depth caused by light and, perhaps most of all, the spiritual suggestiveness of light. While her subject matter varied — from birds to trees to landscapes to people—her fascination with light remained the same. She couldn’t seem to get enough of it as she tried relentlessly to capture its mysteries.

There is also, in many of Alice’s pieces, a strong vertical element. Whether purposely or not, she lures you first into her compositions, then up and down more than across them. Partly because of this, her works have a strong depth of perspective. You feel like you can step into her paintings or reach your arm right inside them — into all that marvelous space she explored with her brush.

Perhaps tied to the verticality of her compositions is how Alice filled her canvases to the brim. Rarely do you find an open sky or bare foreground. Usually there is form and color and light everywhere. At the same time, her pictures never feel crowded or overdone. They maintain an air of simplicity to which they keep returning and a soft profundity in which they keep resolving themselves.

Pieces to watch

Although it’s not easy to pick one painting that stands out from the rest, if I had to choose only one to live with, it might be “Lord of the Edisto,” which hangs in the main hall of the Edmonston-Alston House. Among its many attributes, this distinguished piece has wonderful perspective, with eagle’s nest in foreground, bird in middle ground and storm in background. Tying these together is an admirable work of foreshortening to make the long branch extend into the distance. Above all, this piece exemplifies how Alice’s limited training was overshadowed by her unique artistic vision and spiritual inclinations.

What you see is a mature eagle perched on a bare branch with its back toward you pelted by rain as it peers into the background of the picture where the vastness of a storm is looming. There is something paternal about the eagle who may be either waiting for its mate to return safely from hunting, or considering whether it is unwise to venture from the nest to find food. At the same time — and this is where the marvel of Alice’s expression takes over — there is a sacredness about the creature who seems also to be meditating on the force of nature and the fury of its Creator.

Something perhaps not accidental about this piece is its similarity to the self-portrait that hangs in the front hall at Middleton Place (a piece, by the way, that was added after the exhibition opened and which is Alice’s only known self-portrait). This watercolor of torso and head, depicting the artist at age 32, is flush with warm browns, creams and yellows. Especially notable are the delicate treatment of the hair (revealing a hint of gray), the refined facial features, a lack of jewelry, her calm intensity, the warm glow around her and the fact that she, like her eagle, is turned away from the viewer. It is certainly not the angle a patron would choose, yet it’s how she depicted herself, as though acknowledging a side of herself — a mystery — that we cannot see and will never know.

Notice, too, how the beautifully translucent skin on her face reveals the blood vessels underneath. With such expert handling of the medium, it’s no wonder that her watercolors have been mistaken for oil. Like most good portraits, particularly self-portraits, this one warrants long study to fathom all its wonders (and secrets).

Among numerous other paintings in the front hall at Middleton Place are two landscapes that hold special fascination. The first is “Heron and Lily in Swamp,” which depicts a heron with wings outstretched to land on a pond where waits a white lily. What makes this piece special is its dramatic use of light that gives the heron an angelic quality. It could easily be the archangel Gabriel alighting with an “annunciation” for the unsuspecting Mary. Compared to many of Alice’s works that are characterized by stillness, this one is electric with movement and meaning.

On the opposite wall is “Gladiolas in Swamp,” which demonstrates Alice’s verticality in the way it leads your eye up and down as you marvel at the light and shadows and at the spectacular gladiola in the foreground. Particularly evocative is how the shadows of the trees are cast on the water to be considerably longer (taller) than the objects they reflect, which gives the swamp a haunting, lurking aspect.

A special treat awaits you upstairs at Middleton Place in the formal bedroom. Hanging in the corner and lighting up the entire room is Alice’s brilliantly colored “Lotus in Great Blake Reserve.” The first thing that strikes you is the bold reflective light and a mesmerizing pallet of yellows, whites, greens and blue. The painting is immediately pleasing to the eye, yet at first glance, its impressionistic power seems exaggerated, almost artificial. But the more you look at it, the more Alice reveals a variety of marvels.

First is the stunning depiction of lily petals (and their wonderful stems) in the foreground, each delicately painted and brimming with life. Their meticulous detail helps your eye focus enough to see into what at first looks like a white splotch in the middle ground. Inside the haze are several egrets standing in the shallow water, but you don’t see them right away, partly because of the bright white and partly because your attention gets grabbed by the egret taking flight — a flight that could be a painting all by itself. Alice has perfectly captured the egret’s low, lumbering flight and the gauze-like trail which egrets — slow to get airborne — leave behind as their feet step along the water to gain flight. Also beautiful is the bird’s reflection, which creates the visual effect of getting the egret ‘up’ in the air.

The egret’s motion also guides your eye to a richly painted thicket of woods in the top corner that has a mystery all its own and which, along with the lilies, is the most detailed section of the painting. Everything else is a play of diaphanous colors that suggest both the miracle of nature and the unabated heat of midday. With so much dazzling light, the entire painting threatens to take flight out of its frame were it not for the dark blue patch of water at bottom right that anchors the composition (and bears the artist’s well disguised signature).

Like Alice’s contemplative eagle and angelic heron, her egret has a hallowed aspect, as was pointed out to me by Mary Edna Sullivan, curator of the exhibits. That not-accidental splotch of white in the middle ground easily suggests one of the lilies morphing into — being transfigured as — a bird that takes flight: Not toward us or across the pond, but into the background, destined for that magical wood in the distance. Clearly, this painting is much more than a bold stab at impressionism. It’s a personal and artistic vision full of implications.

One more painting of note (among many) hangs back at the Edmonston-Alston House in the downstairs hall. Titled “Heron in Surf,” it was painted in 1935 when Alice was 59. By that time in her life, abstract modernism had established itself and Alice, steeped (even if not educated) in impressionism, was embracing the concept of form for form’s sake as a valid expression of art. This gorgeous “watercolor of water” is almost a melding of two periods in art history. It captures the surf in all its impressionistic majesty while rendering water solely in abstract colors and shapes — with the unusual specter of a heron embroiled in the surf adding dramatic tension to the scene.

Needless to say, there’s a lot to see in this dual (Duell?) exhibit revealing the remarkable way that Alice saw the world of nature and the extent to which she genuinely adored it. Rest assured that, after you have seen these works (before they disperse to their private owners) you’ll come to see Miss Smith’s other spectacular watercolors — at the Gibbes — with fresh appreciation.

 

            For information about Thursday and Saturday art tours at both locations, visit middletonplace.org.

 

            Peter Ingle, a native of Charleston, is founder of the online arts publications CharlestonToday.net and owner of StrategicBusinessWriters.com.

 

 

 

IMAGE CREDITS: Images courtesy of Middleton Place Foundation, Charleston, SC.

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