Savannah’s waterways, picturesque landscapes, and bustling city life have provided inspiration to visual artists for decades. Since Telfair Museums first opened to the public in 1886, it has nurtured many of these artists by offering art instruction and showcasing temporary exhibitions of regional and local artists. Yet until the late 20th century, local and regional art was not well represented in the museum’s permanent collection.
Beginning in the 1970s, Telfair recognized its special role as Savannah’s art museum and began adding paintings of Savannah and by Savannah artists to its permanent collection, making purchases and soliciting gifts of art made in Savannah in the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s.
The works in this exhibition showcase a variety of artistic interpretations of Savannah’s streets, citizens, and landscapes from the early 20th century. Some of the artists studied at the most revered art schools in New York, while others were entirely self-taught. Their chosen formats range from intimate etchings to boldly colored oil paintings. Some romanticize the city’s people and built environment, while others rely on direct observation and realistic detail. Yet all of them convey the fascination that Savannah’s unique atmosphere, architecture, and environment has long held for locals and visitors alike.
John W. Taylor (American, 1897-1983), Savannah River Landscape, c. 1940, pencil on paper, gift of Andrée Ruellan, 1996.11
Despite bearing the title Savannah River Landscape, this drawing depicts the aqueduct where the Savannah Ogeechee canal enters downtown Savannah, and is believed to be a study for Taylor’s painting Canal at Yamacraw of 1941 (location unknown).
Christopher A. D. Murphy (American, 1902-1973), Study for Under the Cotton Exchange, c. 1925, graphite on paper, gift of Don and Mary Whisonant, 2008.2
Christopher A. D. Murphy (American, 1902-1973), Humble Homes, c. 1925, etching on paper, gift of Bess Center in memory of Dr. A. H. Center, 1999.20.2
In addition to being a talented painter, Savannah native Christopher A. D. Murphy was a highly skilled draughtsman and printmaker. In 1947, Telfair held a solo exhibition of his works in conjunction with the publication of the book Savannah, featuring text by Walter Hartridge alongside etchings and drawings by Murphy. The introduction to the book proclaimed, “Mr. Murphy has won wide recognition through his etchings… For two decades he has found inspiration in the highways and lanes of a town little touched by change. His work, executed with vigor and understanding, has received widespread recognition and acclaim.”
Elizabeth Quayle O’Neill Verner (American, 1883-1979), River Slip Savannah, c. 1926, etching on paper, gift of Mrs. John Andrew Hamilton, 1976.3.4
Elizabeth Quayle O’Neill Verner (American, 1883-1979), River Street, Savannah, c. 1926, etching on paper, gift of Mrs. John Andrew Hamilton, 1976.3.2
Elizabeth Quayle O’Neill Verner (American, 1883-1979), Christ Church in Savannah, n.d., etching on paper, gift of Mrs. John Andrew Hamilton, 1976.3.6
Elizabeth Quayle O’Neill Verner (American, 1883-1979), Harbor Light, Savannah, c. 1926, etching on paper, gift of Mrs. John Andrew Hamilton, 1976.3.5
A Charleston, South Carolina artist associated with that city’s cultural revival, Verner is best known for paintings, pastel drawings, and etchings depicting architecture and low country life. These images are from a group of several Verner created in the late 1920s in Savannah, not long after establishing her Charleston-based printmaking studio. An advocate for historic preservation in her home city, Verner also supported preservation efforts in Savannah.
Walton Blodgett (American, 1908-1963), Live Oaks, Savannah, c. 1937, pencil on paper, museum purchase, 1999.5.2
A native of Ohio, Blodgett studied under ashcan school artist George Luks in New York during the 1920s and worked for the United States government’s Works Progress Administration in Key West in 1936. He was active as a watercolor painter, illustrator, and teacher, and his work was included in museum exhibitions around the country. His illustrations appeared in publications including Art News and Scribner’s Magazine. Other examples of his work can be found in the collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
West Fraser (American, b. 1955), Savannah River, c. 1985, watercolor on paper, gift of Michael and Elizabeth Terry, 2007.12
A noted practitioner of traditional oil painting, Savannah-born West Fraser’s earlier work also included meticulous, large-scale watercolors. In this intensely realist view of the modern port at work, a large container ship is headed upriver to the port just beyond the city waterfront, guided by tugs. A number of factors facilitated this transformation in the scale of the Savannah’s port, including the creation of the Georgia Ports Authority in 1945 and the widening and deepening of the harbor over time to accommodate larger vessels. Container ships came into use on the river in the 1960s. The 1953 Talmadge bridge, still present in this view, was replaced by a higher suspension bridge in 1991.
Eliot O’Hara (American, 1890-1969), Savannah Dock Fire, c. 1930s, watercolor on paper, gift of Eliot O’Hara Picture Trust, care of Harmon-Meek Gallery, 2005.18
A prominent watercolorist, O’Hara’s painting was likely painted on the spot on River Street where he observed smoke clouds from a fire in progress at one of the river wharves. Large fires have broken out at the port at many times in the city’s history from tremendous blaze in the 1880s which swept across barrels of resin at the naval stores yard to a recent incident in which a warehouse of tires caught fire. This painting may depict the billowing smoke from a blaze that consumed a large shed held nitre, used in making fertilizer, at the Central Of Georgia Railroad docks in March of 1935. O’Hara, who taught winter art classes at Telfair in 1934 and 1935, won numerous awards for his work, and published eight books on watercolor technique over the course of a long career.
Anna Colquitt Hunter (American, 1892-1985), From Seaboard Docks, c. 1953, oil on canvas, gift of Mrs. Harriet Huston, Dr. and Mrs. Peter Scardino, Dr. and Mrs. Lawrence Lee, Mr. and Mrs. Malcolm Bell, Jr., Mr. J. Daniel Zarem and Friends of Anna Hunter, 1981.19
Anna Hunter led a long, remarkable life as a journalist, artist and preservationist in her home city of Savannah. A widowed mother, Hunter began writing for the Savannah Morning News in the 1930s and served her country overseas during World War II. Hunter later returned to Savannah, writing a society column and art reviews. After taking a children’s art class, she began making art of her own and became part of the artists’ community on the riverfront. Called the “Grandma Moses of the South”, Hunter painted naïve but charming scenes of Savannah, including this view from the Seaboard Air Line Railroad docks on Hutchinson Island. In addition to art, Hunter’s legacy includes the Historic Savannah Foundation, which she organized with a group of Savannah women in 1955. She kept a riverfront studio until her death in 1985.
Augusta Oelschig (American, 1918-2000), Untitled (Front Yard Baseball), c. 1953, oil on canvas, gift of Mary Ellen and John P. Imlay, Jr., 2016.10
Born in Savannah to owners of a retail florist shop and nursery, Augusta Oelschig was artistically inclined from an early age. After earning her BFA from the University of Georgia in 1939, Oelschig returned to Savannah and began earning acclaim for works depicting contemporary African American life in her hometown. From the late 1940s through the 1960s Oelschig grew increasingly passionate about social issues and, in addition to painting local scenes, began to explore sensitive social and political topics including racial injustice and nuclear warfare.
Alexander Brook (American, 1898-1980), Savannah Street Corner, c. 1938-48, oil on canvas, gift of the artist, 1972.22.7
An important player in the New York art world of the 1920s and 30s, Alexander Brook served as assistant director at the Whitney Studio Club (a precursor to the Whitney Museum) and exhibited his own work widely. Between 1938 and 1948, Savannah served as both a source of inspiration for Brook and an intermittent home, and his studio on River Street became a focal point for artist friends from New York and local artists alike. Brook favored subjects from Savannah’s less affluent neighborhoods, saying, “I am more concerned, both sympathetically and aesthetically with the simpler and sadder things about me.” The building shown in Savannah Street Corner may be the Union Branch Baptist Church, which stood in the neighborhood known as Frogtown on the city’s west side. Though the painting is signed, the unfinished figures on the left and the barely concealed revisions to the church steeples indicate that the work is unfinished.
Andrée Ruellan (American, 1905-2006), Savannah, c. 1942, oil on canvas, museum purchase, 1998.8
This painting typifies the straightforward, naturalistic presentation of contemporary life of the “American Scene” style of painting popular during the 1930s and 40s. Andrée Ruellan first visited Savannah in 1941; on later trips, she worked with New York artist Alexander Brook in his Savannah studio. Described as a child prodigy, she was invited to exhibit drawings with Robert Henri and George Bellows when she was only nine. At age 15, she earned a scholarship to the Art Students League. In this painting the viewer can easily read the Dixie Paper Co. sign on the top of a building beside the Barnard Street ramp leading down to the Savannah River. Typical of Ruellan’s work from the 1940s, this work depicts the ordinary, daily activities of the city’s active river district.
Christopher A. D. Murphy (American, 1902-1973), Antioch Docking, c. 1925, oil on canvas, bequest of the James McKenna Estate, 2007.16.2