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 Jeremiah Theus  (1716 - 1774)

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Lived/Active: South Carolina      Known for: portrait and some landscape painting, teaching

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Ad Code: 3
Jeremiah Theus
from Auction House Records.
Elizabeth Allen Deas (1742-1802), marriage portrait at the age of sixteen
Artwork images are copyright of the artist or assignee
This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Born in Chur, Switzerland, Jeremiah Theus became the most important artist of the colonial era in Charleston, South Carolina, and most of his paintings remain there and in Savannah, Georgia.  He had little competition and was a favorite of the more prominent plantation and merchant families.

His early training is unknown.  He and his parents emigrated to Orangeburg Township, South Carolina about 1735.  In 1740, he advertised in Charleston as a limner of portraits, "landskips," and crests for coaches.  He was immediately successful, and became the regions' most established artist, painting about 150 portraits.

For 30 years, he traveled a radius of about 100 miles from his Charleston studio to paint subjects in the Carolinas and Georgia.  His figures are adequate but to some critics appear quite stiff with features that tend to be similar in each portrait.

In 1744, he opened an evening drawing school for men and women.  He prospered, had a comfortable home, and owned seven slaves.

Sources include:
Michael David Zellman, 300 Years of American Art
Peter Hastings Falk, Editor, Who Was Who in American Art

Biography from Charleston Renaissance Gallery:
JEREMIAH THEUS (1716-1774)

Though born in Chur, Switzerland, Jeremiah Theus became the premier colonial portrait painter of South Carolina, portraying the elite of plantation and merchant society for over three decades. He emigrated with his family and arrived in the region in 1736, the sources and extent of his artistic training unknown. By 1740, however, he was established in Charleston, where he advertised his skills as a portraitist.  In time, having a likeness painted by Theus became a testament to the subject's societal status. The portraits often reflect the sitter's material wealth, conveyed in the refinement of their dress, jewelry, and demeanor.

Commissioned by then-Governor of Georgia James Habersham (1715-1775), Habersham did a pair of portraits portraying his oldest and youngest sons: James Habersham, Jr. (1745-1799) and John Habersham (1754-1799). Their father's immense wealth derived from an import-export business that blossomed as Georgia became a royal colony. Habersham acquired extensive land holdings, which he transformed into thriving rice plantations, becoming a leading producer of that staple crop. A steadfast loyalist, when the governor returned to England, Habersham assumed the role of acting governor in 1771. His two older sons, however, did not share his loyalist orientation and became stirred by the revolutionary fervor of the day. The youngest son, John, is portrayed in Theus' portrait at age eighteen. He emulated his father and worked in the merchant firm established by his eldest brother, James, Jr., prior to 1774. Following the death of his father, John joined the revolutionary effort. He was twice taken prisoner by the British, but gained release each time and participated in the liberation of Georgia, helping with the post-war effort. At the war's end, he restored the plantation he inherited from his father and lived as a planter.

Theus's portrait style reflects the informed influence of British antecedents. His only competitor was the fellow portrait painter, John Wollaston, who was also active in Charleston in the middle 1760s. Theus's career was long and prolific, and he painted many of the South's most prominent citizens between 1740 to 1774. His style became more assured as he matured, as seen in this fine example, painted toward the end of his career.

This essay is copyrighted by the Charleston Renaissance Gallery and may not be reproduced or transmitted without written permission from Hicklin Galleries, LLC.

Biography from The Johnson Collection:
Jeremiah Theus was Charleston's premier portrait painter during the mid-eighteenth century. He was Swiss born, but immigrated to the colonies with his family in 1735 when he was nineteen years old. In an effort to attract more European Protestants to South Carolina, the colonial government provided funds to transport the immigrants to inland townships and paid for farm equipment as well as a year's worth of food for the families. The Theus family settled on a land grant located on the Edisto River in Orangeburgh Township (now known as Orangeburg County). Before long, the Theus children set out to make their livings in their adopted country. One brother became a Presbyterian minister, another became a merchant, and Jeremiah moved to Charleston to become an artist.

In 1740 a notice appeared in the South-Carolina Gazette advertising the newly arrived artist. It was noted that, "…all Gentlemen and Ladies may have their Pictures drawn, likewise Landskips (sic) of all Sizes, Crests, and Coats of Arms for Coaches or Chaises. Likewise for the Conveniency (sic) of those who live in the Country, he is willing to wait on them at their respective Plantations." Theus opened a small studio at the intersection of Broad and Meeting Streets, a central location in the city.

During his career, Theus had little competition in Charleston and was very successful. He worked in what is referred to as "limner" style, a method of painting that emphasized decorative clothing and precise, detailed brushstrokes. The term "limner" is often used in reference to untrained early American artists, and while Theus may have received some training as a child in Switzerland, he had no formal training as an adult. Theus' portraits are remarkably similar in appearance and it seems that he often copied the wardrobe from English Mezzotints (prints) that he kept in his studio. The typical Theus portrait had close set eyes, a long nose, full lips, and a highly ornate dress or waistcoat. Theus usually limited his compositions to the bust and head of a sitter, rarely painting full figures.

A year after moving to Charleston, Theus married a girl also from Orangeburgh Township. His first wife died during the birth of their sixth child, and Theus remarried shortly afterward fathering four more children. By the time of his death in 1774, he had acquired a house in Charleston, 200 acres in Orangeburgh Township, a town lot in Orangeburgh and seven slaves. These material assets attest to the artist's successful career. His paintings are now included in the permanent collections of The National Gallery of Art, The Smithsonian Institute, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, and The Gibbes Museum of Art in Charleston.

The Johnson Collection, Spartanburg, South Carolina

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