Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
January 26, 2000
Maurie D. McInnis In Pursuit of Refinement: Charlestonians Abroad, 1740–1860 Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1999. 350 pp.; 90 color ills.; 85 b/w ills. Cloth $75.00 (1570033145)
Gibbes Museum of Art, Charleston, April 9-July 3, 1999.

In a painting by John Singleton Copley, rendered in Rome in 1775, Ralph and Alice Izard of Charleston, South Carolina, sit in the imaginary setting of a veranda that offers a perfect view of the Colosseum. Numerous objects frame this vista even as they compete with it for attention; such standard fare of Grand Manner portraits as a column and drapery augment particular items like a Greek krater, a contemporary Roman table, and a cast of an ancient Roman figure group. This double portrait graces the dust jacket of In Pursuit of Refinement: Charlestonians Abroad 1740–1860, the beautifully produced catalogue for an exhibition held at the Gibbes Museum of Art in Charleston between April 9 and July 3, 1999 (not seen by this reviewer). The catalogue brings to our attention the sizable number of early Charlestonians who traveled to Europe in order to see, commission, and collect works of art. While studies of specific collectors such as Joseph Allen Smith have long been part of the secondary literature, this is the first published work devoted to these travelers and patrons as a group. Featuring six essays, the catalogue also includes entries on 146 paintings, works on paper, sculptures, works of decorative art, manuscripts, books, and miscellaneous items. Some of these objects were not exhibited in Charleston, but have been included in the catalogue with an eye toward extending its utility beyond the scope of the show.

This project overlaps with the topic addressed by the exhibition and catalogue The Lure of Italy: American Artists and the Italian Experience, 1760–1914 (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 1992), but inverts the ranges of trans-Atlantic experience considered. Focusing on Charlestonians instead of a broad swath of Americans, In Pursuit of Refinement attends to these travelers’ geographic breadth rather than just their visits to Italy; indeed, one miniature in the show was painted in China (cat. no.86). Sharing two catalogue authors (Susan Ricci Stebbins and Theodore E. Stebbins, Jr.), these two projects have tangible links. Looking beyond the nationalistic boundaries set up by curators, dealers, and academics in the 1960s who asked “what is American about American art?,” these recent projects engage the problem of defining relations between places with permeable borders, in order to learn what is European about American art. In Pursuit of Refinement also contributes to another historiographic current: our knowledge of art in Charleston. It especially advances the pioneering work of Anna Wells Rutledge (Artists in the Life of Charleston, Philadelphia, American Philosophical Society, 1949). The catalogue essay by Angela D. Mack and J. Thomas Savage, “Reflections of Refinement: Portraits of Charlestonians at Home and Abroad” develops this topic by keying local portrait production to an ongoing stream of imported pictures.

Americanists as well as art historians interested in issues of taste and collecting are indebted to the project team led by Maurie D. McInnis for its rigorous documentation of itineraries, purchases and collections. McInnis’s valuable survey of major Charleston collectors abroad and at home makes a decisive contribution to the literature on American collecting. Ricci Stebbins’s expertly researched account of the antiquarian and watercolorist John Izard Middleton promises to be the standard work on that figure for some time to come. Entries include such surprises as the fact that the collector Joseph Allen Smith owned two Leonardo da Vinci drawings as early as 1801, a discovery resulting from a collaboration between Carmen C. Bambach and Lance Humphries. Richly illustrated with high-quality color plates, and including many revealing passages from letters and journals, the catalogue will entice historians of northeast American art to look southward.

In Pursuit of Refinement finds its limits in the realm of thematic development. While the catalogue repeatedly represents travel and works of art as attributes and vehicles of refinement, it does not recognize how the idea of “pursuing refinement” is inherently conflicted, for the striving characteristic of pursuit jars with the ease associated with its objective, refinement. How did refinement come to be a collective concern among certain groups in Charleston? From what anxieties about coarseness did people seek relief? How did the content of Charlestonians’ newly acquired works of representational art engage local concerns? While the catalogue authors propose that early Charlestonians traveled abroad more, collected more art, and were more anglophilic than any contemporary Americans, these claims have less flattering counterparts in the realms of race- and class-specific fears and tensions. Not only were Charlestonians the wealthiest Americans throughout much of the eighteenth century, but they also possessed the largest slave populations and had the most potent Native American presence of any East Coast region. In 1748, the Charleston Library Society announced its intent to hand down “the European arts and manners to the latest times” in order “to prevent our descendants from sinking into” the “savage disposition” and “the gross ignorance of the naked Indians” (Rutledge, 109). Joyce E. Chaplin’s An Anxious Pursuit: Agricultural Innovation and Modernity in the Lower South, 1730–1815 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1993) has explored these and related concerns for much of the period. One wonders how owning foreign, legitimated art helped assuage some Charlestonians’ tense relationship to their experience of progress in concurrent endeavors.

The catalogue sometimes evinces a boosterish and, for all the interconnections explored, an exceptionalist quality. An isolationist strain is also in evidence: All the materials are at hand for elaborating on or qualifying the broadly brushed claims of Richard Bushman’s The Refinement of America: Persons, Houses, Cities (New York: Vintage Books, 1992), but this topic is not pursued. Alternatively, the representation of local social history is selective and fragmentary. A newspaper notice from 1773 describes a fluid system of advancement in the eighteenth century (63), but the quoted passage leaves off the part discussing the consequent accumulation of debt and stultifying social interactions (compare Rutledge 117, describing the situation as “gloomy”). This description of ready mobility in the eighteenth century sits uneasily with a causal model that identifies the impulse to collect paintings in the nineteenth century with a blurring of class boundaries and new wealth (40). Nor is the description of an early nineteenth-century “retreat of the Carolina establishment into a genteel and select clique” (61) grounded in a continuum of changing arrays of social organization (see also the 1834 letter quoted on p. 21).

As Pierre Bourdieu has shown, connoisseurship remains an oft-practiced mode for claiming social distinction. For this reason, it is all the more important to locate ideas of refinement in history and to identify their procedures and strategies. Because In Pursuit of Refinement concerns one place in America and many places in Europe—and thus no single site—the topic is ideal for critical discussion of cognitive styles and discursive practices migrating among art worlds. By contrast, to advance the point that “firsthand experience of the masterpieces of European art distinguished Charleston’s elite from most other nineteenth-century Americans” (20), an essay on cultural tourism culminates with descriptions of how Ralph Izard Middleton and Charles Izard Manigault mastered connoisseurship skills that enabled them to make independent and confident judgments of the quality of the Venus de Medici (20–21). In so doing, the essay reproduces rather than analyzes its subjects’ beliefs that such opinion-making shows that a person, a group, or the place from which they come can at last achieve refinement. Alternatively, such beliefs might be considered tentative and tenuous solutions to historical problems in which art is implicated, but only as an epiphenomenon.

Copley’s Izards draw attention to some relevant psychological and phenomenological issues. They have traveled a long way from home to be in their elaborate setting, but instead of taking in the sights they turn inward: Ralph gazes without focus as he holds a drawing of the sculpture; Alice leans forward and points to the drawing. With this double portrait, Copley created a work of art that sets the Izards amid works of art, but he did not endow his figures with the psychic finish, closure, and autonomy that have their material counterpart in completed works of art. With John in the process of pondering some matter and Alice awaiting his conclusion, the painting’s narrative tension leaves the Izards hovering on just the other side of being achieved selves—a striking contrast to the contained composure characteristic of the likenesses that Copley painted in the colonies. More than a depiction of instabilities beckoning for resolution, Mr. and Mrs. Ralph Izard speaks to the promises of satisfaction proffered by works of art and by the travel to other places and times that contemplating such works requires or invites. In this manner, the painting identifies sites and practices that have had great power for attracting and displacing the desires of specific groups of people. Similarly, the ground-breaking catalogue In Pursuit of Refinement draws attention to how early Charlestonians traveled to Europe in order to collect, commission, import, and otherwise engage works of art. The project clears the way for further considerations of these men and women and their art.

David Steinberg
Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture