- Painters and Paintings in the Early American South by Carolyn J. Weekley
Painters and Paintings in the Early American South is the culmination of forty years’ work, painstakingly assembled and presented by Carolyn J. Weekley. Her acknowledgments alone make clear the magnitude of this endeavor, providing a road map of the archives, museums, colleagues, and collectors with whom she has worked in pursuit of information crucial to an understanding of the fine arts in the southern colonies between 1564 and the 1790s. The result is a massive and thorough enumeration of the contributions painters made to early southern culture, a significant and lasting research resource relying heavily on primary archival material to ground our understanding of the network of patrons and artists active during this period.
Weekley begins with the laudable premise that there is no “southern” style endemic to the works produced by early generations of American artists, and rightly concludes that the tendency toward ascribing specifically and uniquely southern characteristics to American art is in large part a legacy of the Civil War. I would further note that even more recently—during the Bicentennial of 1976—the promotion of civic and by extension regional pride prevailed over commemorating a more balanced view of our history. That bias is only now being seen for what it is—making clear the need for a corrective approach to understanding the complexity of American art from its inception to the present day. This is not to underestimate [End Page 576] the power of local preference and custom, or insist on a generic American style—but to point out that many of the artists discussed in this volume plied their trade up and down the thirteen colonies, and as Weekley notes, did not appreciably change their styles in so doing.
But the Civil War did leave one daunting legacy with which Weekley grapples throughout her work: the often frustrating lack of records before the war, exacerbated by the lamentable destruction of records during and after it. The ragged economy in the post–Civil War years plays a supporting role here, as careful research on artwork and records across the South lagged well behind the scholarship devoted to art made in the northern colonies. As a result, Weekely’s career has been spent sleuthing everything she could find, each piece of information contributing to a better understanding of the cultural and aesthetic drivers during this period.
Much of the information she has found takes the form of genealogical networks of southern families and the artists they patronized. There is, as a result, a steady flow of detailed and interconnected family histories, and at times the volume reads like a conversation about various extended family trees rather than an analysis of the artworks produced. There is a pragmatic reason for this close attention to family ties: whereas research on the key paintings and sitters in the northern colonies is vast, this volume represents the most comprehensive effort to date to account for a southern history of artistic practice. To readers steeped in and fascinated by genealogy, this book provides an impressive web of connections; for a lay reader seeking to understand the various roles the fine arts played in colonial life and in the transition to nationhood, it can be tough going. The text favors this genealogical approach; the extended captions on the paintings themselves provide only a modicum of art historical analysis of the artworks.
Not surprisingly, then, the vast majority of paintings included as illustrations and described are portraits. Weekley has made every effort to include landscapes and coastal views wherever possible, but very few examples either survive or can be ascribed to an artist working in the South. A set of charming coastal marine views she includes as illustrations are made by an observing British artist—a reminder that landscape painting did not begin to flourish as a separate and significant genre until after the Revolution. (A parallel may be drawn between this and seventeenth-century Dutch landscape painting, which flourished...