Alice Smith Self Portrait 1908

Alice the Trailblazer

By Anne Tinker

Unlike most women of her time, Alice became a nationally renowned artist and successful businesswoman despite little formal training. At the age of ten, her grandmother told her that she should become an artist to earn a living. Since men dominated the arts at the time, she sought out mentors such as Tonalist artist Birge Harrison, Japanese print collector (and distant cousin) Motte Alston Read, and author Owen Wister. These men contributed to her development as an artist and helped her establish connections for the marketing of her work. She went on to be a mentor for others, including many women artists.

As a leader in the cultural movement of the 1920’s and 1930’s in the Carolina Lowcountry, Alice collaborated closely with her artist friends Elizabeth O’Neill Verner, Leila Waring, and Anna Heyward Taylor. The four of them established art studios in close proximity to each other on Atlantic and Church Streets, and this Charleston Renaissance “artist colony” became a popular tourist destination.   

Such collaborations helped women artists in the South gain recognition and advance their careers. However, at the time, these opportunities were only available to those who were white. In 1921 Alice joined together with other Southern artists to form the Southern States Art League, which had 1,000 active members, two-thirds of whom were women. The league’s annual exhibitions offered women artists a unique opportunity to sell their work. Alice participated actively in the league’s exhibitions throughout the South and funded a cash prize for the best watercolor each year. As another example of her collaborative approach, in 1923 Alice, with the assistance of artist Alfred Hutty, brought a group together to form the Charleston Etchers’ Club, which had nine inaugural members, seven of whom were women. Etching was profitable, since each etched plate produced multiple prints which were popular with tourists.

Alice guided and supported other artists throughout her life, such as her student and mentee Elizabeth O’Neill Verner. Another mentee was Alicia Rhett, who painted a portrait of Alice as a tribute to her beloved teacher. Alicia Rhett was an artist but known best for her role as India Wilkes in Gone with the Wind in 1939. Later in life, Alice continued to advise and support young artists, including sharing her house and giving watercolor lessons to her good friend Talulah McInvaill, whose son Dwight is the inspiration for this book on Alice.