from The Magazine ANTIQUES, January/February 2012 |
The recent appearance of two portrait miniatures leads to new information about backcountry South Carolina artist Isaac Brownfield Alexander.
Last year Elle Shushan, a leading expert on portrait miniatures, alerted curators at the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts (MESDA) about the pending sale of a rare work by a southern artist-a delightful image of a young girl in a mid-nineteenth-century domestic interior (Fig. 1). The miniature came with an accompanying note that reads, “Ann L. Hershman/5 years old/1840/Camden, S.C./By I. B. Alexander.”1 MESDA acquired the work, and subsequent research uncovered the rich and multilayered story of both the young sitter and the artist who painted her.
Fig. 1. Ann Lucetta Alexander [later Hershman; 1835-1915] by Isaac Brownfield Alexander (1812-1884), Camden, South Carolina, 1840. Watercolor on ivory, 4 ¼ by 3 ¼ inches. Ann’s light-colored clothing and the absence of curtains suggest that the image was completed during the hot summer months. Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts at Old Salem, Winston-Salem, NorthCarolina.
Using ancestry.com, MESDA curators located Ann Lucetta Hershman’s death certificate, dated August 18, 1915.2 It documented that, indeed, Ann was five years old when her likeness was painted, for she was born on March 22, 1835. More importantly, it identified her father as the artist himself, Isaac Brownfield Alexander. Census records confirmed the discovery: in 1850 thirty-eight-year-old artist I. B. Alexander is recorded in Camden, South Carolina, with his wife Elizabeth and their children, including a fifteen-year-old daughter named Ann. In the 1860 census the Alexanders are listed on the same page as Ann and her husband, John T. Hershman (b. 1835), the Louisiana-born publisher of the Camden Journal.3
Until now, Isaac Alexander has been a somewhat sketchy figure in the annals of southern art. He evaded Charleston’s pioneer art historian, Anna Wells Rutledge, in her classic work Artists in the Life of Charleston, though two examples of his work from the Carolina low country survive at Charleston’s Gibbes Museum of Art. One, signed and dated 1839, depicts Georgetown, South Carolina, planter William Irvin Sparkman holding the source of his personal wealth, a sheaf of rice (Fig. 2); the other is of Charleston’s early female novelist and playwright Sarah Pogson Smith (1774-1870).4
Fig. 2. William Irvin Sparkman [1813-1846] by Alexander, Georgetown, South Carolina, 1839. Signed and dated “I.B. Alexander/1839” on the back of the mat. Watercolor on ivory, 3 by 2 ¼ inches. Gibbes Museum of Art, Charleston.
One possible reason for his elusive identity is that Alexander was not from Charleston. Unlike better-known miniaturists from major coastal cities, such as Charles Fraser (1782-1860) of Charleston and Edward Greene Malbone (1777-1807) of Newport, Alexander was a product of the southern backcountry. His Scotch-Irish family settled first in Cecil County, Maryland, and in the mid-eighteenth century migrated to the fertile farmlands of MecklenburgCounty, North Carolina. Isaac’s paternal grandfather, Abraham Alexander (1718-1786), chaired the Mecklenburg Convention in 1775, where raucous Presbyterians proclaimed their independence from the British crown a full year before the Declaration of Independence was signed in Philadelphia. His father, Dr. Isaac V. Alexander (1750-1812), had been educated at Princeton, and moved to Camden, a prosperous upcountry South Carolina town located on the Wateree River, where spirited backcountry settlers comingled with sophisticated Charlestonians.5
In 1824 Isaac and his brother Henry Dana Ward Alexander (1810-1865) left South Carolina for two years of boarding school at the American Literary, Scientific and Military Academy in Norwich, Vermont.6 An early classical education undoubtedly influenced Isaac’s self-portrait, also recently discovered and painted, according to family tradition, on his twenty-first birthday (Fig. 4). In it he presents himself as a young scholar with books spread out before him and a bust in the background. The source of Alexander’s practical and art education remains a mystery, but in 1841 he advertised his skills as an artist, jeweler, and silversmith in the Camden Journal, noting that he would continue “to paint likenesses and miniatures as heretofore, and will, for that purpose, attend at the residence of such as may wish it.”7
In addition to the two family miniatures, the Alexanders’ house in Camden also survives. Now called Tanglewood and occupying a large tree- and shrub-filled lot on Monument Square, it is a two-story frame dwelling on a raised basement with a Carolina low-country style porch (Fig. 3). It was built around 1831, the year Isaac married Elizabeth Gilman (1815-1871); according to family tradition the house and lot were a gift from her mother.8
Fig. 3. Tanglewood in Camden as it appears today. Based on Ann’s position in front of the window and the corner, it appears that she was painted in the room immediately to the right of the front door. Photograph © Jane Faircloth/Transparencies, Inc.
Set in the parlor, Ann’s portrait proudly depicts the social and economic success achieved by her father. Ann is dressed in fashionable children’s clothing-a white smocked dress with gathered pantaloons, stockings, and laced black leather shoes. Attention is lavished on the domestic details of the parlor: the elaborate grain of the mahogany pier table, the exotic figure of the brass-bound box, a carpet on the floor, green Venetian blinds hanging from the window with large gilt cloak pins protruding from the frame, a grain-painted chair rail and baseboards, and a small landscape painting in a carved and gilded frame on the wall.
The intricate level of detail seen in Ann’s portrait presages an important change in her father’s career. In the 1840s and 1850s he embraced the emerging technology of photography and set up daguerreotype studios in Camden and Columbia, South Carolina, as well as in Charlotte, North Carolina.9 Producing a scientifically accurate image in a similar size and format, the daguerreotype simply eliminated the need for miniature portraits on ivory.
Fig. 4. Self-portrait by Alexander, 1833. Watercolor, graphite, and ink on paper, 5 by 4 ⅛ inches. Collection of Mary Goodman, on loan to the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts at Old Salem.
In 1860 Alexander’s career took a decidedly political turn. With a virulent strain of secession fever, he attended the Charleston convention at which South Carolina seceded from the Union and painted the silk banner that was chosen to hang over the table as delegates signed the Ordinance of Secession. In Alexander’s image, the fifteen slave-owning states are represented as the stones that form an arch, with South Carolina as the keystone. A palmetto tree with a coiled serpent occupies the center along with a banner proclaiming the new “Southern Republic.” The free states are shown as rubble at the base of this new southern edifice.10
Today, the newly discovered portraits of Isaac Brownfield Alexander and his daughter Ann provide fresh insights into the life and career of an early upcountry South Carolina artist. His self-portrait provides a compelling image of the twenty-one-year-old scholar and soon-to-be miniaturist and silversmith. The likeness of his five-year-old daughter in the parlor of their Camden home is a miniature southern masterpiece.
1 American Furniture and Decorative Arts, Skinner, Boston, August 14, 2010, lot 643. 2 South Carolina Death Records, 1821-1955, at www.ancestry.com. 3 1850 and 1860 United States censuses, Kershaw County, South Carolina, ibid. 4 Martha R. Severens, The Miniature Portrait Collection of the Carolina Art Association (Carolina Art Association, Charleston, 1984), p. 3. A miniature portrait of Eliza Levy Anderson (d. before 1839) in the Jewish Heritage Collection, College of Charleston Library, is attributed to Alexander based on her Camden origins and its similarity to his other known works; see A Portion of the People: Three Hundred Years of Southern Jewish Life, ed. Theodore Rosengarten and Dale Rosengarten (University of South Carolina Press, Columbia, 2002), p. 119. 5 Thomas J. Kirkland and Robert Macmillan Kennedy, Historic Camden, Volume I: Colonial and Revolutionary (State Company, Columbia, S. C., 1905), pp. 342-343. While Alexander escaped the attention of many art historians, this local history refers to his “considerable talent as a painter of miniatures on ivory.” 6 William Arba Ellis, Norwich University, 1819-1911 (Capital City Press, Montpelier, Vt., 1911), p. 48. 7 Quoted in E. Milby Burton, South Carolina Silversmiths, 1690-1860 (Charleston Museum, Charleston, 1968), p. 7. 8 Howard Woody and Davie Beard, South Carolina Postcards, Vol. VIII: Camden (Arcadia Publishing, Charleston, S. C., 2003), p. 68. The graves of Alexander and his wife, his parents, and many of his children are in the Old Presbyterian Church cemetery, a few blocks from Tanglewood. Ann Hershman is buried in the Old Quaker cemetery with other members of the Alexander and Hershman families. 9 Harvey S. Teal, Partners With the Sun: South Carolina Photographers, 1840-1940 (University of South Carolina Press, Columbia, 2001), pp. 15, 27, 129. His son, William S. Alexander (1856-1891), became one of Camden’s most prolific early photographers. 10 The banner is in the South Carolina Historical Society, Charleston; see also Woody and Beard, South Carolina Postcards, Vol. VII: Kershaw County (Arcadia Publishing, Charleston, S. C., 2002), pp. 28-29.
ROBERT A. LEATH is Chief Curator and Vice President of Collections at Old Salem Museums and Gardens in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.