One of the South’s leading artists during the second quarter of the twentieth century, Elizabeth O’Neill Verner depicted a variety of subjects, including landscapes, florals, portraits and genre studies, but she was chiefly admired for her evocative images of Charleston --- its architecture, its alleyways, its vendors and views. “She has caught the spirit,” playwright DuBose Heyward wrote. “Only an artist who shares the traditions that form the spiritual background of his locale can hope to capture this elusive element” (News and Courier, 1979).
Born in Charleston, the daughter of a rice broker, Verner began drawing as a child, and studied locally with Alice Ravenel Huger Smith before spending two years under Thomas Anshutz at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Returning to Charleston in 1903, she married Pettigrew Verner and raised two children. During this period she studied informally, painting scenes of Charleston in her spare time, and studying Japanese prints and printing techniques with Alice Smith. In 1923 she took up etching. Two years later she established her own studio, and began a successful career as a printmaker and pastellist. Verner exhibited often and widely, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and other institutions acquired examples of her work.
The 1930s marked the high point of Verner’s career as an etcher, and the beginning of her interest in pastel. She began experimenting with the medium in 1934, after seeing an exhibition of floral pastels by Laura Coombs Hills at the Doll and Richards Gallery in Boston, but she was unhappy with the way pastel worked on paper, and considered her early attempts unsuccessful (David Hamilton, 2006). In 1937 during a visit to Japan, Verner studied ink painting with a Japanese master, and came up with the idea of applying the crayons to raw silk glued to a wooden support. Her method was to draw on the silk while it was still wet, allowing her to work in vibrating layers of color, and then working back into them again. Once the silk had dried, she added the final touches. Verner called the process Vernercolor. Later she used Guatemalan ash instead of silk.
Pastel became Verner’s favorite medium, as it ideally combined the elements of both drawing and painting. The new medium led to new motifs. Although flower women had appeared as accessories in her etchings, they became the primary focus of her pastels. Their animated gestures and colorful costumes made them attractive subjects for the artist, who depicted them in studio light, singly or in groups, in fresh and surprising compositions—sometimes seen from a bird’s eye view, or in intimate close-ups, where one can almost smell the flowers offered by one, or the smoke curling from the pipe of another.
While continuing to depict flower women, Verner turned to other subjects in the 1940s: live oaks draped in moss; tall cypress trees standing in abandoned rice preserves; rural cabins with blue doors and windows; and the streets and alleyways of Charleston—always a favorite motif. During the decade her color became brilliant, her works were filled with light, and her crayons developed a creamy touch.
An extremely articulate artist, Verner taught, lectured, and authored four books illustrated with her etchings, including Prints and Impressions of Charleston (1939); Mellowed by Time (1941); Other Places (1946); and Stonewall Ladies (1963). She also illustrated DuBose Heyward’s Porgy, published in 1925. Nancy Rivard Shaw
David Hamilton, telephone conversation with the author, July, 2006.
The News and Courier, Charleston, South Carolina. May 2, 1979.
Myers, Lynn Robertson. “Doing and Creating: A Biographical Sketch,”
Mirror of Time. Columbia: University of South Carolina, Press 1984.