Miniature discoveries

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.

 

 

 

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by Émile Jacques Ruhlmann (1879-1933), 1926. Macassar ebony, amaranth, and ivory. Metropolitan Museum of Art. By Cynthia Drayton

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