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Humphrey Sommers

Theus, Jeremiah
Place Made:
Charleston South Carolina United States of America
Date Made:
oil on canvas
HOA: 30; WOA: 25
Accession Number:
SITTER: Humphrey Sommers was born in 1711 in “the west of England.” In 1740 he came to South Carolina where he became a brickmason in Charleston. By the 1750s he had become a contractor, receiving prestigious jobs such as portions of the construction of St. Michael’s Church. He was calling himself “gentleman” in 1764 and then “esq.” by 1771. He was a good example of the mobility of the 18th century Charleston society. His first wife was Susannah; his second was Mercy whose portrait by Theus is owned by the Minneapolis Art Museum (MAM acc. 25.402). Sommers built one of the best surviving Rococo houses in Charleston. Located on Tradd Street, the house which was built 1769-70 and was the inspiration for MESDA’s two Charleston rooms (MESDA acc. 0000.7, 0000.8).

ARTIST: Jeremiah Theus (1716-1774) was born in Switzerland and immigrated to South Carolina with his family came to South Carolina when he was nineteen. His father, Simon Theus received a land grant for 250 acres on the Edisto River in Orangeburg, South Carolina.

Jeremiah Theus was in Charleston and working as an artist by 1740 when he placed an advertisement in the South Carolina Gazette. He wrote that “all Gentlemen and Ladies may have their Pictures drawn, likewise Landskips of all sizes, Crests and Coats of Arms for Coaches and Chaises. Likewise for the Conveniency of those who live in the Country, he is willing to wait on them at their respective Plantations.” Over the next three decades Theus would establish himself as the painter of choice for the Lowcountry elite. It is estimated that more than 170 portraits by Theus survive.

Like most eighteenth-century artists, Theus sometimes relied on English mezzotints to inspire the poses and costume of his sitters. There are a number of works, for example, that use a variation of the dress worn by Maria the Countess of Coventry in a mezzotint by Richard Houston after a painting by Francis Cotes. An example of this print is in the National Portrait Gallery of the United Kingdom. (NPG UK acc. D34175). However, these same mezzotints were also an important mechanism by which London fashion of was transmitted to Charleston. The refinement of dress and pose in Theus’s sitters was a reflection of their status in the larger 18th century material world.

RELATED WORKS: MESDA has copied two rooms, a parlor and a bedchamber, from the Sommers house on Tradd Street in Charleston (MESDA acc. 0000.7, 0000.8).

MESDA has five portraits by Theus: Sarah Proctor (Daniell) Willson (MESDA acc. 2024.52); Elias Ball III (MESDA acc. 2739); Humphrey Sommers” (MESDA acc. 3974); Hannah Dart” (MESDA acc. 4087); and Ann (Theus) Lee, the artist’s daughter (MESDA acc. 1179).

REFERENCES: Margaret Simons Middleton, “Jeremiah Theus: Colonial Artist of Charles Town” (Columbia, South Carolina: University of South Carolina Press, 1991)

Carolyn J. Weekley, “Painters and Paintings of the Early American South” (Williamsburg, Virginia: Colonial Williamsburg and the Yale University Press, 2013)

DESCRIPTION: Oil on canvas portrait of man. He faces the viewer at a three-quarters view, and he is turned to the right. He wears a white stock, and his right arm is inside his coat.

Credit Line:
MESDA Purchase Fund