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