If an artist in early American history wanted to be a painter, they could get jobs painting signage, buildings, and such things. Some in big cities may have been able to paint a theater set, but a select few were able to make careers of doing “art.”
Up through the 18th century, painters were almost exclusively commissioned to do portraits. With no colonial museums, art galleries and virtually no local art teachers, painter who were serious about furthering their careers would travel around a region or even many states away from their homes looking for work.
Benjamin West, the “father of American painting,” grew up doing portraits and was the first American painter (1760) to go to Europe and be classically trained. It wasn’t until the 1820s that America’s first homegrown art movement developed. Artists like Thomas Doughty, Asher Durand and Thomas Cole turned from portraiture to painting the landscapes in the Hudson River valley.
Just as the Hudson River School was in its infancy, the first known painter to visit Greenville was Joshua Shaw, a Brit who in 1820 gave us the earliest image of our village and the most iconic feature of it, Reedy River Falls.
A few years later, South Carolina Gov. John Lyde Wilson commissioned a painter referred to as “Mr. Sera” to paint two scenes of the Reedy Falls and one of Table Rock Mountain. In the late 1820s and 1830s, Greenville was a frequent stop for traveling portrait painters like Daniel Wheaton, R. Hanna, B. Headden and O.B. Loomis. A ready pool of clients were found in wealthy Lowcountry planters and officials who spent summers in Greenville.
Another British-born landscape painter, Thomas Addison Richards, moved to Charleston in the mid-1830s and soon painted a beautiful panoramic view of the Reedy Falls along with Vardry McBee’s grist mills on the left, “Main Street’s” early footbridge, and the tiny village in the background. The lure of the Falls attracted another landscape painter, William Howell Watson, to paint a panoramic frontal view, again, with McBee’s mills on the left and this time with a somewhat larger footbridge spanning the river in the background.
Finally, an artist who left his mark in both the portrait and landscape documentation of 19th century Greenville was William Harrison Scarborough, a Tennessean who worked throughout the South. His painting of the Reedy Falls was a tighter view than previous versions but included the same familiar boulders as well as a smaller version of the bridge in the background. A diary entry written by Dr. John Peyre Thomas records the events of a visit to Greenville in 1835 when Scarborough painted his portrait over a series of days. When finished, he showed it to his children and wrote, “To my great satisfaction, the likeness was immediately perceived, even Jack exclaimed that there was Papa. Emily also immediately called out. In fine the only defect was allowed to be a little too much breadth between the eyes, which is to be remedied. I however considered Jack’s evidence as entirely conclusive.”
While Greenville was certainly not on par with Charleston as a haven for artists, it’s remarkable and important that painters like these ones have left us a visual record of early Greenville.
John M. Nolan is owner of Greenville History Tours (greenvillehistorytours.com) and author of “A Guide to Historic Greenville, SC” and “Lost Restaurants of Greenville, SC.”