A native of Charleston, Elizabeth O’Neill Verner was an artist, teacher, and preservationist and probably the best-known woman artist of South Carolina of the twentieth century. Pastels and printmaking were her preferred media and her images of residences, churches, street scenes, and portraiture, were widely recognized for their skill and authenticity, and for capturing the spirit of Charleston. She began her studies in art with Alice Ravenel Huger Smith and continued at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia beginning in 1901 for two years with noted instructor, Thomas Anshutz. Following her time at the academy, she taught art in Aiken, South Carolina, before returning to Charleston. In 1907, she met and married E. Pettigrew Verner and raised their two children. She pursued art, returned to study with Smith, and depicted the local scene, which she recorded and infused with the unique character and local color that distinguishes Charleston.
Verner pursued art in her spare time, but only as an avocation. In 1923, she began etching and soon opened a studio where she produced prints that earned recognition. She became best known for her drawings and etchings of the city of Charleston. In land- and cityscapes, she often focused on the architecture and environment while deemphasizing the figural presence. However, she also expanded her range to become an able portraitist and figurative painter, achieving note for representing African American subjects in ennobled likenesses.
The death of her husband in 1925 necessitated her finding a means of support, which she did by seeking out commissions for her work. One such commission was dedicated to the historic preservation of Savannah, a cause for which she became an ardent advocate throughout the South. Among her other commissions were from the Mount Vernon Ladies Association; Rockefeller Center; Historic Williamsburg; the City of Fayetteville; Harvard Medical School; the United States Military Academy; Princeton University; and the University of South Carolina, to portray their buildings and grounds in drawings and etchings.
She continued to edify herself and in 1930, she studied etching at the Central School of Art in London, and in 1937, visited Japan where she learned sumi painting (brush painting with black ink). And, in 1934, she began working in pastel after seeing an exhibition in Boston of the floral pastels of Laura Coombs Hills. She devised a particular technique of working in pastel on raw silk that is mounted on a wooden support.
Verner continued to travel in the ensuing years, returning to Europe, and visiting the Caribbean and Mexico, executing scenes of her trips. Her other accomplishments include her work as a book illustrator and help in founding the Charleston Society of Etchers and the Southern States Art League.
Considered the matriarch of the Charleston Renaissance, which flourished during the1920s and 1930s, Verner, along with Alice Smith, Anna Heyward Taylor, and Alfred Hutty, were the nucleus of a veritable art colony in Charleston. In recognition of her contribution to the arts, the state of South Carolina named a prestigious annual art award after Verner. Her works are represented in the collections of national institutions such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Smithsonian American Art Museum, as well as leading museums across the Southeast.