The Magazine of South Carolina

A Broad Artistic Vision

Gibbes Museum of Art Reaches to Europe . . . and beyond


John Singleton Copeley's oil painting of Mr. & Mrs. Ralph Izard, 1775

The Edmondston-Alston House

Drayton Hall side chair from the collection of the Historic Charleston Foundation

The Gibbes Museum of Art in Charleston

Fruit cooler from an old Parisian dinner service

A silver epergne

by Suzanne M. Flowers

What would you expect to see while visiting the Gibbes Museum of Art in Charleston? Charleston art? If this is what popped into your head, you answered correctly. Except what’s on view now is not what you normally would see.

The museum’s permanent galleries house American paintings reflecting Charleston’s past and present—portraits of notable South Carolinians by artist such as Benjamin West, Thomas Sully and Rembrandt Peale and landscapes and genre scenes of Charleston by South Carolina artists like Elizabeth O’Neill Verner. In addition, the museum exhibits drawings, photography, sculpture and miniature rooms.

So what’s different about the Gibbes Museum of Art now?

It started five years ago when curator Angela Mack came up with an idea that would send her and many others deep into planning, traveling, researching and fundraising. She decided to bring together objects collected by aristocratic Charleston families who were on a grand tour of Europe prior to the Civil War. This idea turned out to be the most important exhibition in the history of the nearly 95-year-old museum.

Out of this complicated undertaking came a new exhibition, now on view, called "In Pursuit of Refinement: Charlestonians Abroad, 1740–1860." The exhibition encompasses nearly the entire gallery space in the museum.

It took a huge commitment from a long list of contributors—individuals, foundations, state agencies and corporate leaders like Mack Whittle, president and CEO of Carolina First Bank. "This exhibition—and the research behind it—is important documentation of the cultural history of our state and our nation," Whittle says.

"This exhibition is the first major study of Charlestonians’ special fascination with European culture," Mack explains. "The exhibition will raise viewers’ awareness of the influences of European traditions on Charleston’s indigenous art and culture through this collection of over 140 objects. . . .

"The more complicated pieces acquired for the show were those coming from Europe and those that needed conservation work."

Add to that the many scholars and donors, the improvements that had to be made to the galleries, and you have all the makings of a major exhibition.

The collection of objects was assembled from public and private collections around the world, as well as in Charleston. Approximately 22 of the objects are on loan from the Middleton Place Foundation, which exhibits its collection in The Edmondston-Alston House and Middleton Place, both located in Charleston.

Purchases made by Arthur Middleton, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and resident of Charleston, while he was on a grand tour of Europe from 1768 to 1771 are part of this exhibition. The objects are on loan from The Middleton Place Foundation and belong to Charles Duell by family descent. They are prime examples of what the exhibition is all about.

"Never before has this part of history been told," says Paul Figueroa, Gibbes Museum director.

He waxes philosophical. "If you want to study Charleston, then this is the place to come. It’s much more than just Charleston art or European art. It’s about looking out from the battery and seeing the world. It’s about how important Charleston was to establishing benchmarks in American culture."

Asked what he favors most about the exhibition, Figueroa says he likes "the overall way the exhibit is presented, the variety of the objects and the grouping of them to tell a story." Paintings, furnishings, textiles and porcelain of Charleston’s aristocratic class are among the objects exhibited. Travel journals and sketches that were used for documentation are also included.

"Everybody thinks of a blockbuster as a Monet or King Tut show, but this is a blockbuster for Charleston," says Mary Edna Sullivan, curator at The Middleton Place Foundation. "This represents Charlestonians’ collections that were at one time here with the families. . . . This is a fabulous exhibition that brings together, in an accessible place, individual objects that can get lost when separate—although the lighting and high ceilings [in the museum] allow you to focus on the individual objects also."

After this exhibition closes July 3, you will see a new and improved museum. Many capital changes took place as a result of the exhibition: new flooring, displays and walls. The objects that took five years to identify and collect will go back to Europe, other museums across the United States and private family collections. The permanent collection will go back on display, and other traveling exhibitions will come and go on a regular basis. It will be back to business as usual at the Gibbes Museum of Art—until Angela’s next blockbuster idea.

The Gibbes Museum of Art is located at 135 Meeting Street in downtown Charleston and is open Tuesday–Saturday, 10 a.m.–5 p.m.; Sunday, 1—5 p.m. If you’re interested in seeing the European exhibition, it is open through July 3. Public and private tours are available. A 376-page catalog with 90 full-color illustrations is available in soft or hard cover. This special exhibition is a part of the "Views From the Edge of the Century" project of the South Carolina Arts Commission.

Suzanne M. Flowers is past executive director of Sandlapper Society, Inc.


* Carolina First Bank

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