Hattie Saussy: Rediscovering an artist

Retrospective is an ‘origin story’ of sorts for the Savannah art scene

MANY ARTISTS have been a part of Savannah’s rich artistic history, but some have, perhaps inevitably, lost a bit of prominence over the years.

The Telfair Academy turns the spotlight back to key local figure Hattie Saussy with its current exhibition, “Hattie Saussy: Rediscovery of an Artist.”

Saussy, a Savannah native, was born in 1890 to two prominent families. Her status enabled her to travel to New York and Europe to study. It also meant she only exhibited her work, never selling it.

“Because she didn’t need to sell her work, her work did not receive as much recognition as it could have if she had, say, stayed in New York and gotten gallery representation there,” explains Courtney McNeil, Chief Curator of Collections and Exhibitions.

“So this is a bit of a rediscovery of this artist. We at the Telfair are very familiar with her—five of her works are part of our permanent collection—but more broadly for those who are not intimately involved with the Telfair, her reputation has certainly waned with her passing in 1978,” says McNeil.

McNeil notes that this exhibition is the first retrospective of Saussy’s work in many years and is a traveling exhibition, originating at the Oglethorpe University Museum of Art in Atlanta.

“The museum had a local collector that donated a number of Saussy’s works to the museum to celebrate that they undertook several years of research to locate not just works from their collection, but works from museums around the Southeast to put together this retrospective of their work and travel it around,” says McNeil.

The show is a homecoming of sorts, since Saussy exhibited her work at the Telfair many times and was a staple in Savannah’s art scene.

“She was really active, not just as an artist but also in art organizations, helping to found the Association of Georgia Artists, active in the Savannah Art Club,” says McNeil.

While Saussy is best known for her striking portraits, the exhibition covers all the work she did through her lifetime, from portraits done while hiking to watercolor still lifes created in her home after breaking her hip.

“Watercolor is a challenging medium, but it’s great to work with on a smaller scale and when you’re confined to your home,” McNeil says. “She had to rely on the scenes in her home.”

The exhibition is also a tie to the Telfair’s #art912 initiative, dedicated to the artists who live and work in Savannah today.

“We feel it was important to highlight the fact that there was this vibrant artistic community here in Savannah even during Hattie Saussy’s time,” says McNeil. “In many ways, it’s because of people like Hattie Saussy, who are not just working as artists and exhibiting their work but creating organizations to support artists and acting as advocates for the field, that the legacy of that is very much seen in the artists who live here and work here today. It’s like the origin story of #art912.”

Saussy was often impressionistic in her style, particularly with her brushstrokes. Her technique and years of learning show in her work and was very skilled at representing light, as she could convey a certain time of day in her landscapes.

Saussy’s talent and ability could have given her worldwide attention and acclaim, but family was ultimately most important to her. She moved back to Savannah from New York after her brother passed away.

“Saussy decided she needed to be here to support her mother, so you could argue that being an artist came second to helping her family,” McNeil muses.

However, Saussy’s legacy lives on in the people she knew. The opening lecture on June 29, McNeil notes, was packed full of people who knew her.

“People who weren’t related to her by blood called her Aunt Hattie or Cousin Hattie,” she recalls. “She had this benevolent outlook towards anyone she encountered. People were excited to get together to honor her legacy.”

The exhibition closes on Sept. 24, leaving plenty of time for Saussy’s rediscovery.


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