1716–1774

Theus, Jeremiah

Artists

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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. 

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