20th Century Painting in Tennessee; essay by Celia Walker (2023)

Editor's note: The following essay was rekeyedand reprinted on July 9, 2002 in Resource Library Magazine with permissionof the Cheekwood Botanical Garden and Museum of Art and the Tennessee HistoricalSociety. The essay was originally included in the Spring 2002 issue of theTennessee Historical Quarterly, copies of which are available fromthe Tennessee Historical Society. If you have questions or comments regardingthe essay, please contact the Cheekwood-Botanical Garden and Museum of Artdirectly through either this phone number or web address:

A Century of Progress:20th Century Painting in Tennessee

by Celia Walker

20th Century Painting in Tennessee; essay by Celia Walker (1)Theroots of twentieth century Tennessee painting are rich in diverse stylesand subjects, that, in turn, changed dramatically over the last one hundredyears as Americans exchanged ideas with artists in other countries. Therate of change accelerated as the twenty-first century approached:thetransfer of information became independent of transportation, educationalresources grew, and theories of art making rapidly evolved. (left:Berha Herbert Potter (American, 1895-1949), Lulu and John Sharber,c. 1937-45, oil on canvas, , 50 x 42 1/2 inches. Collection of Mr. and Mrs.W.D. Haggard IV)

Yet, even in the midst of so many changes, including theway paint was applied and the kinds of media available to the painter, thecreative impetus remained constant for fine art.The best twentiethcentury painters, like those before them, have been driven to express auniversal idea in their work. Turn-of-the-century painters found the universalin history and literature, which spoke to them of eternal values. Regionalistpainters depicted rural life in a way that became symbolic of the South.

Abstract artists found meaning in dreams and strove toportray the mysterious and spiritual through their personal expressions.Thebest contemporary artists are still searching for the universal and manyare looking to other cultures and times to bring them closer to that concept.That continued search is a challenging and admirable task and its producthas enriched the lives of thousands of Tennesseans.

European painting styles dominated Tennessee's turn-of-the-centurypainting, as they did the rest of the country's canvases.Italian,British, German, and French techniques are found among the state's artistswho had the wherewithal to study outside of Tennessee. Those who could nottravel often modeled their work on that of their better-heeled peers. Theirsubjects are inspired by the Victorian obsession with self-improvement,reflecting past assumptions that fine art was a product intended to teachtraditional values.

A handful of artists worked outside of formal academicsubject traditions. Their homespun scenes developed out of an American traditionfor genre that reached full bloom in the mid-nineteenth century canvasesof George Caleb Bingham and William Sidney Mount. Their paintings formedthe basis of a small but growing group of painters whose ideas would eventuallytake hold in the 1930s in the Regionalist school, as seen in Tennessee inthe landscape painting of artists like Fritzi Brod (1900-1952) and WillHenry Stevens (1881- 1949).

As the century progressed art publications and exhibitionsbrought new work and new ideas to Tennessee.Some of the state'searliest examples of abstract painting were associated with Tennessee'suniversity art departments.Contact with the new form of paintingcame from the teachers at the college art departments and art publications.Exhibits in the university galleries tended to feature challenging paintingthat the older art associations still considered taboo.Thistoo speaks to the tensions between the "amateur," women-dominatedart associations and the "professional," male-dominated highereducation program. The push and pull between figurative painting, preferredby most patrons, and abstraction, thought by many critics to be the intellectuallysuperior art form, was not limited to Tennessee.Only in thelast twenty-five years, when figurative work has again taken on a politicallychallenging narrative, has the struggle between formal traditions abated.

Contemporary artists are challenging the notion that artdevelops in a linear fashion, continually "improving" on itselfin the name of change. They have abandoned the modern love of scandal, fortoday there seems to be little left with the power to shock anyone. Theirpaintings may explore a universal concept but they do it in a typicallypersonal manner.And while their goal may still be self-improvement,as the previous century's Victorians, it is not tied to sociological standardsbut to personal experience. They no longer seek the "new" so muchas the significant.

Professionalism and Art Training in Tennessee

Today, it is hard to conceive of a time when there wereno formal art schools, museums or galleries in Tennessee. The state's firstestablished painters were nurtured in the mid-nineteenth century when Americanart schools of any sort were few and generally located on the east coastwhile any serious students of the arts made their way to Europe for training.Fewartists possessed the family wealth or private patronage to afford trainingaway from home.Choices were limited for artists who lacked thefunds to go away to school, and only a handful of private local teacherssupplemented their income with art instruction.Women had evenfewer options, since most art schools did not allow women to paint fromthe nude.The painters lucky enough to receive meaningful artinstruction, largely in Paris and New York in the last quarter of the nineteenthcentury, became the teachers of the first generation of twentieth centuryTennessee painters.

Lloyd Branson (1853-1925) was one of a handful of 19thcentury Tennessee painters to study at the National Academy of Design inNew York City.The 1873-74 student roster of the National Academyof Design (founded 1826) lists Lloyd Branson and "W. Gaul" (WilliamGilbert Gaul, 1855-1919) as students in the Antique School along with suchclassmates as Abbott Thayer, Thomas Anschutz, and Frederic Church.Atthe Academy, students were trained to paint first from antique casts andthen from live models.Teachers at the Academy were steeped inthe academic tradition, having trained in Europe, often at the royal academies,and they taught their students to believe in the dignity of fine art.Theirpupils returned 20th Century Painting in Tennessee; essay by Celia Walker (2)to Tennesseeimbued with the desire to paint grand pictures, only to discover that therewere few opportunities to make a living beyond portrait painting. LloydBranson, fresh from New York and studies in Europe, established a new levelof quality for painting in East Tennessee. He, in turn, taught the nextgeneration of painters in Knoxville (Catherine Wiley, Adelia Lutz and BeaufordDelaney, among others) and helped and encouraged many of them to obtainformal art training.Branson returned to Knoxville when it stoodon the verge of an economic boom, as evident through its Appalachian expositionin the early 1900s.Still, it must have been difficult to leavethat celebrated sphere of New York City in 1876 and return to a place whereBranson really had no peers. (left: Enoch Lloyd Branson (American,1853-1925), Hauling Marble, 1910, oil on canvas, Courtesy of TheFrank H. McClung Museum at The University of Tennessee, Knoxville, 37 x54 12 inches)

Tennesseans were only beginning to appreciate the waysthat art could enhance their lives. The first city art 20th Century Painting in Tennessee; essay by Celia Walker (3)associations were formed in the late nineteenth century,when urban development and economic opportunities were expanding the audiencefor educational activities.These groups and the others thatfollowed in the early twentieth century would lay the groundwork for artschools, art museums, and art appreciation. Art advocate and artist MaryMagdalene Solari (1849-1929) became an inspiration for artists, particularlyfemale artists, working in West Tennessee.Solari returned toher native Italy in 1878 to escape the yellow fever epidemic and to studyart. In 1885, she became one of the first women admitted to the Academyof Florence, where she learned to paint in the tradition of the old masters.Afterreturning to Memphis in the early 1890s, she devoted her time to art instructionand art advocacy. (left: Mary Magdelene Solari (Italian American,1849-1929), The Cardinal, c. 1880, oil on canvas, On loan from ChristianBrothers University, Memphis, Tennessee, 15 3/8" x 12 14 x 1 inches,CS#0004)

The same was true of Willie Betty Newman (1863-1935), aMiddle Tennessean who earned a series of scholarships at the CincinnatiArt Academy that enabled her to study in France at the Académie Julian,which had found great success due to its policy of allowing women to studyart. She returned to Nashville around 1900 and established the Newman Schoolof Art where she trained artists to paint the idealized, romantic subjectsthat she saw in Brittany and to explore the Impressionist technique thathad already seen its heyday in Paris. Solari and Newman, and others likethem, prepared the way for modern university art schools.Theirefforts in art instruction and education, often organized and directed bywomen, were displaced (and consequently forgotten) in the rush toward professionalart training at mid-century.

Progress in Art Exhibition

In the first quarter of the twentieth century, Tennesseanstook advantage of new opportunities in private art instruction.Butan important aspect of art education, the study of art on public exhibition,was lacking in Tennessee.Inspired by international expositions ofthe last half of the nineteenth century, Tennesseans organized expositionsin Nashville (the Centennial Exposition of 1897) and Knoxville (the AppalachianExpositions of 1910, 1911 and 1913).Art exhibitions were featuredat these expositions and the Centennial Exposition in particular broughtnationally recognized painting to Tennessee. Attending the Centennial'sart exhibits was the first exposure for many Tennessee resident artiststo the Barbizon and Impressionist schools of painting.

20th Century Painting in Tennessee; essay by Celia Walker (4)Across the state, a number of women artpatrons who were determined to promote art education and appreciation amongTennesseans, also recognized the need for exhibition venues. When askedin 1928 what would happen if the state's artists could not exhibit at home,Bertha Herbert Potter responded: "As a rule, it means that the fightis too long and too difficult.For that reason one strugglingto be an artist often gives up. Again it means that our own young peoplemust leave home to continue their art studies, when the reverse might betrue, and others might be coming to our state to study if we had an artgallery of high standing." (left: Aaron Douglas (American, 1899-1979),Alta, 1936, oil on canvas, Fisk University Art Collection, 23 x 18inches)

Memphis had taken the lead by establishing the Brooks MemorialArt Gallery (now the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art) with a donation fromBessie Vance Brooks in honor of her late husband, Samuel Hamilton Brooks.Organizationssuch as the Knoxville Art Circle (1898), the Chattanooga Art Association(1924), and the Nashville Art Association (1893), whose original purposewas to provide a private resource for artists and art enthusiasts to viewand discuss art, gradually expanded their mission to offering the same servicesto the general public.These associations slowly evolved intothe first museums in the state.They were supported by regionalorganizations like The Southern States Art League (1922-1950), and nationalgroups such as The American Federation of Arts (established 1909) and TheGrand Central Art Galleries, who organized traveling art exhibitions thattoured the South.

Progress in Art Appreciation

Tied with these activities was the growing awareness ofa need for recognition among and for Tennessee's artists.Stateand regional fairs provided local opportunities for artists to be recognizedfor achievement. But in order to garner regional or national recognitionan artist had to exhibit in a group show like those of The 20th Century Painting in Tennessee; essay by Celia Walker (5)Southern States Art League or at a prestigious associationlike The National Academy of Design that sponsored exhibition venues outsideof Tennessee. For many artists, exhibiting at the Academy offered the onlyopportunity to receive coverage in a major newspaper. During the 1930s,southern artists were often treated as oddities in these national arenasand the paintings chosen for inclusion were often southern genre subjects.Indeed,Tennessee's figurative painters usually found themselves in a no-win situationwhen painting local scenes.Regional and national exhibitionstypically favored these kinds of subjects, yet they tended to marginalizeTennessee painting. (left: Burton Callicott (American, b. 1907),The Gleaners, 1936, oil on canvas, Collection of Memphis Brooks Museumof Art, Memphis, Tennessee, 47 12 x 35 12 inches (framed), 94.7)

During the 1930s, Tennessee's Public Works of Art commissions,which celebrated rural and urban American genre, fed the impetus to paintregional subjects. Knoxville-born Beauford Delaney (1901-1979), who hadsettled in Greenwich Village in the period that became known as the HarlemRenaissance, worked in the WPA-sponsored Harlem Artist Guild in New YorkCity during this time. Regionalism maintained a hold on Tennessee art duringthe 1930s and 1940s in the work of such artists as Ella S. Hergesheimer(1873-1943) and Burton Callicott (b. 1907).

The Rise of the University System and the Influence of Its Teachers

The 1940s was also a transitional period for many Tennesseeartists.The Depression had brought artists like Aaron Douglas(1899-1979), who was working in New York, to Tennessee. Douglas had receivednumerous commissions to paint murals and create graphic illustrations whilein New York and he had developed a signature silhouette style before hewas hired at Fisk University. His work and the work of others like him whomoved to Tennessee to teach at colleges and universities began to shapethe state's painting.

Because many of these artists came to teach and becauseof the concurrent rise in attendance due to soldiers returning home withthe G.I. Bill, these mid-century painters would exert great changes in thestate's painting. Tennessee also received it share of political refugeeslike Jack Grué (1896 - 1956) who left Europe in the wake of WorldWar II, bringing European methods of painting to Memphis.

Tennesseans were taking advantage of increased opportunitiesto study outside of the state, where they were exposed to modern movementsat schools, museums, and in popular culture. Carroll Cloar (1913-1993) wasone such artist, who studied at the Arts Students League of New York Cityin 1936.Cloar expanded the options of regionalist art, whichmakes him an important figure in Tennessee painting. His surreal use ofmanipulated photography and references to previous styles of painting suchas pointillism are akin to today's postmodern painting.

Abstract Expressionism took hold in New York in the 1930sand 1940s in the work of Hans Hofmann and his circle. Artists wanted toexpress their concerns and hopes in a rapidly changing world in a universalway that was not tied to representation. The first examples of abstractedpainting in Tennessee date from the late 1940s and 1950s and they came fromartists who were also professors.In Knoxville, CharlesKermit Ewing (1910-1976), the first director of the art department at theUniversity of Tennessee, hired a core of progressive painters on his staff,who gathered together with likeminded local artists to form the KnoxvilleSeven.Walter Hollis Stevens (1927-1980), Carl Sublett (b.1919),and other members explored the spiritual in art, utilizing Expressionistpainting techniques and universal, mythic symbols.In Memphis,Burton Callicott (b. 1907) began working in an abstracted form in the 1940sand moved progressively toward the nonobjective.Callicott referencedHans Hofmann's painting theory, as taught at the Memphis Academy of Art,asa source of his inspiration. The hard-edged post-Cubist geometric designsthat were also being seen in New York in the late 1930s in the work of artistslike Alexander Calder began to appear in Nashville in the 1950s in the workof Philip Perkins (1904-1970). Perkins studied with Fernand Leger and workedwith Yves Tanguy and he had been working with geometric abstraction sincethe 1940s.He introduced many Tennessee painters to the stylein his teaching during his extended residences from the 1940s through the1960s.

Contemporary Art and the Importance of Medium

Advances in the creation of paint in the 1950s changedthe way artists worked. The invention of acrylic paints that dried fasterthan oils and required no priming allowed artists to paint more spontaneously.In many ways, art of the last forty years has been about medium.Manycontemporary artists incorporate nontraditional materials in ways that maygive art conservators headaches for years to come. The use of painting collageby Red Grooms (b. 1937) in the 1960s is an early example of this desireto reach into the viewer's space in a way that Baroque painters only dreamedabout. Much of the push seems to come from the desire to make painting aninteractive process: as technology has allowed greater inclusion of userswith programs, so artists have strived to break out of the confines of traditionaltwo-dimensional canvases.

During the 1960s and 1970s, as the second generation ofthe New York school extended the range of Abstract Expressionism into newforms of paint application, Tennessee-born painters began to receive nationalnotice.Red Grooms, whose painting grew out of Pop art, and RobertRyman (b.1930), a painter of powerfully quiet nonobjective canvases, werecasualties of the lack of artistic opportunity in Tennessee during the 1950s.Both left Nashville in the 1950s to pursue art careers in New York. Butwithin a decade, the Hunter Museum of Art (established 1952), the CheekwoodMuseum of Art (1960), and the Dulin Gallery of Art (1962) opened in Tennessee,providing crucial exhibition opportunities for artists and encouraging theinflux of artists to our state, as predicted by Bertha Herbert Potter aquarter century earlier. The 1970s witnessed the rise of commercial artgalleries across the state.

Contemporary painting in Tennessee is part of the fabricof the nation's art. Our state is rich in talented resident artists. Thisexhibition cannot include all of the outstanding artists whose work deservesrecognition. Nor can this narrative and the following catalogue entriestell the full story of 20th century painting in our state.Myhope is that this catalogue and the previous work that has been done byart historians across the state will inspire scholars to help to tell thestory of the great artistic heritage of Tennessee.

© The Tennessee Historical Society

About the author

Celia Walker is Senior Curator of American Art at CheekwoodMuseum of Art, Nashville, Tennessee.Recently she has completedwork on Cheekwood's collection catalogue, the Summer 2002 Tennessee HistoricalQuarterly, and Fisk University'sTwo Paths to Progress:W.E.B. Du Bois, Charles S. Johnson and the New Negro Arts Movement [CD-ROM],co-curated with Susan Knowles. Her essay on 20th century painting inTennessee will appear in the forthcoming Creating Traditions, ExpandingHorizons: 200 Years of the Arts in Tennessee, a project of the TennesseeArts Commission and the Tennessee Historical Society.

Read more articles and essays concerning this institutionalsource by visiting the sub-index page for the CheekwoodMuseum of Art in Resource LibraryMagazine.

Search for morearticles and essays on American art in Resource Library. See America's Distinguished Artists for biographical information on historic artists.

This page was originally published in 2002 in ResourceLibrary Magazine. Please see Resource Library's Overview section formore information.

Copyright 2012 TraditionalFine Arts Organization, Inc., an Arizona nonprofitcorporation. All rights reserved.

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