Most people have heard of the Italian Renaissance. Some have heard of the Harlem Renaissance. But did you know that Charleston also had a major Renaissance that changed the lowcountry landscape in the early 20th century?
After the end of Reconstruction, the South was able to make a comeback — thanks to a slight uptick in the economy. Charleston residents were no longer wondering how to make ends meet and were finally able to nurture creative talents.
Time Period of the Charleston Renaissance
The official time period of the Charleston Renaissance was from World War I to World War II. (Approximately 1917 to 1941). During this time period, we see a lot of art, music and literature coming out of Charleston.
And yes, the dance style the Charleston was named after our great city during this time period, though it was popularized up north. The beat of the song (and of the dance) was mimicked after Charleston dockworkers. The dance was modeled after the Juba, an African-American style dance.
There were as many poets and writers as there were painters. There was even a healthy amount of music and dance originating from Charleston during this time period.
While music and dance were popular, do see mostly visual and literary art exploding in Charleston during this time period.
Events Leading Up to the Charleston Renaissance
In order to talk about this surge of art and culture, we need to first look at the events leading up to the Charleston Renaissance.
Before World War I, Charleston had been in an economic slump. Before the Civil War, it was a bustling city. After the Civil War, much of South Carolina had all but been destroyed. First, during the war and then during a major earthquake that rocked the South in 1865.
General Sherman famously strategically burned much of the South during his March to the Sea in 1865 (as seen in the film “Gone With the Wind”). This forced many troops to surrender. While Charleston didn’t experience the same fate as many southern cities and towns, it still suffered damages.
After the Civil War, during Reconstruction, Charleston also suffered economically. The city had relied on slave labor for centuries.
By World War I, industry was booming again in the South; the economy was on the rise. This allowed many artists the freedom and security to create once again.
Artists Associated With the Charleston Renaissance
The Charleston Renaissance is mostly associated with the visual arts (as is the Italian Renaissance). Yet, many artists of all mediums headed to Charleston to paint, draw, sculpt and write.
Writers Associated With the Charleston Renaissance
Many writers were associated with the Charleston Renaissance, but there were four writers who are most famously associated with it:
Dubose and Dorothy Heyward
Possibly the most famous playwrights in Charleston during this time period were the Heywards. Even if you’ve never heard of them, you’re probably familiar with their work. They wrote the play “Porgy and Bess,” which was later adapted into an opera by George Gershwin.
Dorothy penned several other plays, including “Cinderelative,” “Set My People Free” and “South Pacific” (yes, that “South Pacific”).
John Bennett was an author and illustrator. He specialized in children’s stories, based on black and Gullah folk tales. His book “Master Skylark” was on the McCall’s ‘100 Best Books of All Times’ list.
You’ll definitely run into the name Pinckney during your visit to Charleston. In addition to her famous family, she was known for writing several famous novels, including “Three O’clock Dinner.” She also transcribed African-American songs for the Society for the Preservation of Spirituals.
Visual Artists Associated With the Charleston Renaissance
Like in most renaissances, the visual artists active during the Charleston Renaissance are probably more famous than the other Charlestonians on this list.
Alice Ravenel Huger Smith
You’ll also hear the name Ravenel while in Charleston; there’s a pretty famous bridge named after this family. Alice Ravenel Huger Smith was one of the leading visual artists in this time period. She painted mostly watercolors, though she experimented with several mediums while attending the Carolina Art Association.
Alfred Hutty was an impressionist landscape painter. He specialized in prints, drawings and paintings of Charleston buildings and life. Though originally from the Midwest, Hutty was entranced by Charleston’s beauty and its decay.
Anna Heyward Taylor
Anna Heyward Taylor was born into a prominent southern family. She attended the South Carolina College for Women and studied with the famous painter, William Merritt Chase. After serving in the American Red Cross in France and Germany during World War I, she returned to the U.S. and began working with woodblock printing, oil and watercolor.
She began etching and drawing after the death of her husband in 1925 to support herself and her children. She worked with other Charleston Renaissance artists, such as the Heywards, illustrating the novel, “Porgy.”
Art History Visual Styles and the Charleston Renaissance
The styles prominent during this time period were styles popular in Europe and the rest of the U.S. You’ll find plenty of impressionist-style paintings, portraits and landscapes. Much of the work coming out of Charleston was of its residents and architecture.
The landscape pieces were often romanticized and idealized versions of the South, while the architectural pieces and portraits showed both the unwavering strength and its decay after the Civil War.
Museums and Institutions Involved in the Renaissance
Several museums blossomed during the Charleston Renaissance, including the Gibbes Museum of Art (originally the Carolina Art Association Gallery) and the Charleston Museum. Both institutions are still around today, and you can visit both.
The Charleston Museum is one of the oldest museums in the U.S. and has an extensive collection of decorative art. The Gibbes Museum of Art is home to a huge collection of lowcountry art — spanning multiple centuries.
Family owned and operated from the beginning, Walks of Charleston is passionate about the history, architecture and culture of Charleston and is dedicated to sharing it with you for a memorable experience on every tour.
“Everywhere is walking distance if you have the time”
– Steven Wright