Though his life began continents away, Horace Talmadge Day is best remembered for his regionalist paintings that celebrate the landscape and culture of the American South. The son of American missionaries serving in China, Day exhibited early artistic talent, recording the Asian landscape of his youth in both watercolor and oil in a style inspired by Claude Lorrain. His formal training began at the age of eighteen, when he arrived in New York and enrolled at the Art Students League. From 1927-1931, he studied there under such respected artists as Kenneth Hayes Miller, Kimon Nicolaides, and Boardman Robinson. The recipient of several Tiffany Foundation summer fellowships, Day served as artist-in-residence at the Henry Street Settlement in Manhattan from 1934-1935 before being appointed the first director of the Gertrude Herbert Institute of Art in Augusta, Georgia, in 1936. It was there that Day developed an abiding affinity for Southern people and places.
In 1941, Day joined the faculty at Mary Baldwin College in Staunton, Virginia, where he would teach and lead the art department until his retirement in 1967. His tenure was interrupted by military service from 1943-1945. As a soldier, Day worked as a cartographer and as an ambulance driver with a medical unit in France. During his enlistment, he used his off-duty hours to execute plein air sketches of the European countryside and also executed a mural illustrating Army life at Camp Howze, Texas.
Beginning with his years in Augusta, Day often visited Charleston, South Carolina, with his wife and fellow artist, Elizabeth Nottingham. He delighted in the city’s charms, claiming to “see beauty in Charleston in places where many would never dream of discovering it. The landscape here is so luxuriant that it reminds me of South China.” Day’s Lowcountry vistas and urban genre scenes reflect his sophisticated handling of color and penchant for candid spontaneity. Several of his Carolina works highlight the labor and life of African Americans, figures he recorded with a keen sensitivity. As one critic observed, the artist “lavishes a brilliant technique on . . . interpretations of nature as he observes it, always at first hand. Day’s work celebrates the delights of seeing, and his sight embraces a variety of subjects that can be attempted by few painters. Equally at ease with landscape, portraits, still lifes, and figures, Horace has worked in the conviction that the age of great painting continues in our time.”
Day executed a WPA mural titled Farm and Factory for the Clinton, Tennessee, post office in 1940 and fulfilled a commission for the United States Bureau of Reclamation in Idaho. Following his retirement from teaching, Day operated a commercial gallery in northern Virginia and continued to travel widely, painting until his death. During his lifetime, Day’s work was featured in solo and group exhibitions at such notable venues as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Whitney Museum of Art, and National Gallery of Art in London. He is represented in the permanent collections of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Chrysler Museum of Art, and Gibbes Museum of Art.