Exhibition - Asheville’s Naturalist: Watercolors by Sallie Middleton 

Sunday, Apr 21, 2024 from 11:00am to 6:00pm


Sallie Ellington Middleton (1926–2009) has long been considered one of the most gifted botanical painters. She possessed a remarkable eye for detail, a skilled hand to record what she saw, and a keen imagination to shape her enchanted images. Watercolor was the perfect medium for Middleton, as it allowed her to carry her paints on forays into the woods, and it made for a more natural and less messy process than oil paint.  

Though she was an extremely accomplished painter, Middleton had very little formal training in art. Her uncle, the architect Douglas Ellington, was a noted draughtsman and built several important buildings, including the Asheville City Hall. Middleton spent her childhood living with her uncle at Chunn’s Cove, a home that Ellington built using eclectic building materials from several of his architectural projects in Asheville. She and her sister Martha grew up in this remarkable setting, having ample time to explore the valley and hillsides around the house. Though she briefly lived in Charleston, SC, and spent a few years in Biltmore Forest, Middleton spent most of her life living in the same home she had grown up in, and in the forests surrounding Chunn’s Cove.   

Middleton’s detailed watercolors required months, and sometimes years to complete. She would work from life, painting the same specimen day after day until it grew too big for her composition. She would then put her painting aside until the following season, when she would find a similar plant or animal at the same stage of growth and pick up where she left off. Middleton said, “I have to work quickly. When you’re working so intimately with models, you can see their colors changing almost daily.”

When asked about her technique, Middleton called her process “brush drawing” because she was able to render sharp details in watercolor. She had brushes in all sizes, including some with just a single hair—allowing her to make precise lines and load her brush with deeply colored pigment. In many of her compositions, she included a single bluebird feather, which acted as a form of signature and taught her viewers to look closely at her work, just as she looked at the natural world. In this exhibition, how many blue feathers can you find?  

Sallie Middleton quotes are from The Magical Realm of Sallie Middleton, text by Celestin Sibley, 1980, Oxmoor House, Inc.  

LOCATION: Blossman Companies Education Gallery

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