Mending the Nets

Josephine Sibley Couper
SAC 1977.2.02

oil on canvas

1925

35 x 42 inches

81 x 107 centimeters

Gift of the Spartanburg Arts and Crafts Club

about the work

According to correspondence from B. King Couper, Josephine Sibley Couper's son, the subject of this painting operated a tourist boat concession at the Rocky Neck Artist's Colony in Gloucester, Massachusetts. Reputed to have been a Civil War veteran, he would have been 70 - 80 years old at the time he sat for the painting in 1925.

about the artist

Josephine Sibley Couper was born in 1867, two years after the end of the  American Civil War; to Josiah and Emma Sibley, a fabulously wealthy  pair who owned “cotton factorage, textile manufacturers, mercantile  establishments, shipping, banks, railroads, and real estate”.  Sympathetic twentieth century biographers ascribed a number of dubious  and seemingly contradictory qualities to Couper’s father – among them,  that he refinanced southern banks after the collapse of C.S.A. issued  currency, yet was a “staunch Southern partisan who actively and  financially supported the South’s cause” yet was also “an early  abolitionist who freed his slaves, educated and trained them for trades,  and financed the start of their own businesses”. According to the same  sources, this mythic figure inhabited an equally mythic home - a  sprawling brick mansion that occupied an entire city block of downtown  Augusta with “residences, stables, and gardens.” At the age of 76,  Couper still described herself as “in awe” of the opulence of her  childhood home and wealth of her father.  


As with many historic accounts of the Southern gentry during and  immediately after the civil war, the details of Couper’s early life are  sketchy at best. However, we do know that at age 12 she embarked, with  her family, on the “European Tour” that was customary for well-heeled  Americans in the 19th century. They traveled through Ireland, Scotland,  Wales, England, Belgium, Germany, Switzerland, and France, taking in  parks, theatres, cathedrals, palaces, museums, and landmarks of all  kinds. Couper’s first demonstrated interest in the visual arts began on  this tour, where she kept a hand-drawn diary of all the art and  architecture she saw. It is interesting to note the family’s vacation  took them through Paris in 1879, only four years after a controversial  new style of painting had been named “impressionism” by french critic  Louis Leroy, after the works of upstart artist Claude Monet, which Leroy  saw as unfinished sketches or “impressions”.  


After her family’s return from Europe, Couper impressed her father with  the many sketches she had made of the journey. He engaged a private  tutor for her and from then until her marriage at age 24, she studied  intensively at home and abroad, developing her nascent talent into real  skill as a draftsman and painter. After her marriage, the subjects of  Couper’s works became domestic rather than academic. She painted  portraits of her husband, children, and friends, and views of the  landscapes surrounding her home and garden. In 1900 the family moved to  Spartanburg, where Couper founded the Spartanburg Arts and Crafts Club  with friend and fellow artist Margaret Law. In 1907 this organization  brought the then highly-acclaimed Robert Henri to Spartanburg and  solicited donations of 10, 15, and 20 cents “on the streets”, in  Couper’s words, to purchase the artist’s The Girl With Red Hair, which  remains in Spartanburg today in the permanent collection of Spartanburg  Art Museum.  


After the death of Couper’s husband in 1913, she resumed her travels and  study of painting in international ateliers, eventually settling in Tryon, NC in 1934, where she remained, painting, until her death in  1957. Until the last, Couper was a striking sight on the streets of  Tryon, where residents recalled her anachronistic “erect figure, great dignity, flashing azure blue eyes, complete with white gloves and  gold-headed walking cane. ‘Stand straight,’ she would frequently  admonish the young folk around her, emphasized with a brisk tap of her walking cane…[she was] the epitome of a southern lady.”