Born in 1716 in Chur, Switzerland, Jeremiah Theus emigrated to South Carolina in 1735 with other Swiss Protestants, attracted by vivid descriptions of the colony as a land of opportunity. His training as a painter is unknown. He settled in Charleston by 1740, the date of his first newspaper advertisement. Like other American colonial painters, he was willing to undertake a variety of commissions, such as portraits, landscapes, and crests and coats of arms for coaches or chaises, and in 1744 he advertised the opening of an evening drawing school for "young Gentlemen and Ladies."
Theus was South Carolina's resident portrait painter for over three decades. His earliest works were small. Among his first patrons was plantation owner Barnard Elliott, for whom he painted a series of family portraits, each measuring about 20 by 16 inches. By the mid-1750s he began to use a larger 30 by 25 inch format, the size of most of his work. His 50 by 40 inch portrait of Mrs. Peter Manigault (The Charleston Museum) is unusually large, the pendant to the portrait of her husband by English artist Allan Ramsay. For some portraits, especially those of women, he imitated the clothing and poses seen in imported English mezzotint engravings. This use of prints is particularly characteristic of the period when he was making the transition to larger compositions (Severens 1985, 57).
Technical examinations of the National Gallery's three portraits show that these colors were enhanced by the use of an imprimatura layer, a feature of his work that has not been previously recognized.
Theus painted more than 150 portraits. His only competition came from English painter John Wollaston, who worked in Charleston in 1765-67. Theus died in Charleston in 1774, and his estate, including "pictures, prints, paints, books, and personal belongings," was sold to produce cash legacies for his family. Among the items were "a great many PORTRAITS of Men, Women, and Children," soon advertised for sale by Edward Oats (South Carolina and American General Gazette, September 9, 1774; Archives, Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts, Winston-Salem, N.C.). [This is an edited version of the artist's biography published, or to be published, in the NGA Systematic Catalogue]
Middleton, Margaret Simons. Jeremiah Theus: Colonial Artist of Charles Town. Columbia, South Carolina, 1953.
Dresser, Louisa. "Jeremiah Theus: Notes on the Date and Place of his Birth and Two Problem Portraits Signed by Him." Worcester Art Museum Annual 6 (1958): 43-44.
Severens, Martha. "Jeremiah Theus of Charleston: Plagiarist or Pundit." The Southern Quarterly: A Journal of the Arts in the South 24, nos. 1 and 2 (Fall-Winter 1985): 56-70.
Saunders and Miles 1987, 183-186.
Miles, Ellen G. American Paintings of the Eighteenth Century. The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue. Washington, D.C., 1995: 291-292.