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


A Century of Progress: 20th Century Painting in Tennessee

by Celia Walker


The roots of twentieth century Tennessee painting are rich in diverse styles and subjects, that, in turn, changed dramatically over the last one hundred years as Americans exchanged ideas with artists in other countries. The rate of change accelerated as the twenty-first century approached:  the transfer of information became independent of transportation, educational resources 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 the way paint was applied and the kinds of media available to the painter, the creative impetus remained constant for fine art.  The best twentieth century painters, like those before them, have been driven to express a universal idea in their work. Turn-of-the-century painters found the universal in history and literature, which spoke to them of eternal values. Regionalist painters depicted rural life in a way that became symbolic of the South.

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

European painting styles dominated Tennessee's turn-of-the-century painting, as they did the rest of the country's canvases.  Italian, British, German, and French techniques are found among the state's artists who had the wherewithal to study outside of Tennessee. Those who could not travel often modeled their work on that of their better-heeled peers. Their subjects are inspired by the Victorian obsession with self-improvement, reflecting past assumptions that fine art was a product intended to teach traditional values.

A handful of artists worked outside of formal academic subject traditions. Their homespun scenes developed out of an American tradition for genre that reached full bloom in the mid-nineteenth century canvases of George Caleb Bingham and William Sidney Mount. Their paintings formed the basis of a small but growing group of painters whose ideas would eventually take hold in the 1930s in the Regionalist school, as seen in Tennessee in the landscape painting of artists like Fritzi Brod (1900-1952) and Will Henry Stevens (1881- 1949).

As the century progressed art publications and exhibitions brought new work and new ideas to Tennessee.  Some of the state's earliest examples of abstract painting were associated with Tennessee's university art departments.  Contact with the new form of painting came from the teachers at the college art departments and art publications. Exhibits in the university galleries tended to feature challenging painting that the older art associations still considered taboo.  This too speaks to the tensions between the "amateur," women-dominated art associations and the "professional," male-dominated higher education program. The push and pull between figurative painting, preferred by most patrons, and abstraction, thought by many critics to be the intellectually superior art form, was not limited to Tennessee.  Only in the last twenty-five years, when figurative work has again taken on a politically challenging narrative, has the struggle between formal traditions abated.

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


Professionalism and Art Training in Tennessee

Today, it is hard to conceive of a time when there were no formal art schools, museums or galleries in Tennessee. The state's first established painters were nurtured in the mid-nineteenth century when American art schools of any sort were few and generally located on the east coast while any serious students of the arts made their way to Europe for training.  Few artists possessed the family wealth or private patronage to afford training away from home.  Choices were limited for artists who lacked the funds to go away to school, and only a handful of private local teachers supplemented their income with art instruction.  Women had even fewer options, since most art schools did not allow women to paint from the nude.  The painters lucky enough to receive meaningful art instruction, largely in Paris and New York in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, became the teachers of the first generation of twentieth century Tennessee painters.

Lloyd Branson (1853-1925) was one of a handful of 19th century Tennessee painters to study at the National Academy of Design in New York City.  The 1873-74 student roster of the National Academy of Design (founded 1826) lists Lloyd Branson and "W. Gaul" (William Gilbert Gaul, 1855-1919) as students in the Antique School along with such classmates as Abbott Thayer, Thomas Anschutz, and Frederic Church.  At the Academy, students were trained to paint first from antique casts and then from live models.  Teachers at the Academy were steeped in the academic tradition, having trained in Europe, often at the royal academies, and they taught their students to believe in the dignity of fine art.  Their pupils returned to Tennessee imbued with the desire to paint grand pictures, only to discover that there were few opportunities to make a living beyond portrait painting. Lloyd Branson, fresh from New York and studies in Europe, established a new level of quality for painting in East Tennessee. He, in turn, taught the next generation of painters in Knoxville (Catherine Wiley, Adelia Lutz and Beauford Delaney, among others) and helped and encouraged many of them to obtain formal art training.  Branson returned to Knoxville when it stood on the verge of an economic boom, as evident through its Appalachian exposition in the early 1900s.  Still, it must have been difficult to leave that celebrated sphere of New York City in 1876 and return to a place where Branson really had no peers. (left: Enoch Lloyd Branson (American, 1853-1925), Hauling Marble, 1910, oil on canvas, Courtesy of The Frank H. McClung Museum at The University of Tennessee, Knoxville, 37 x 54 12 inches)

Tennesseans were only beginning to appreciate the ways that art could enhance their lives. The first city art associations were formed in the late nineteenth century, when urban development and economic opportunities were expanding the audience for educational activities.  These groups and the others that followed in the early twentieth century would lay the groundwork for art schools, art museums, and art appreciation. Art advocate and artist Mary Magdalene Solari (1849-1929) became an inspiration for artists, particularly female artists, working in West Tennessee.  Solari returned to her native Italy in 1878 to escape the yellow fever epidemic and to study art. In 1885, she became one of the first women admitted to the Academy of Florence, where she learned to paint in the tradition of the old masters.  After returning to Memphis in the early 1890s, she devoted her time to art instruction and art advocacy. (left: Mary Magdelene Solari (Italian American, 1849-1929), The Cardinal, c. 1880, oil on canvas, On loan from Christian Brothers University, Memphis, Tennessee, 15 3/8" x 12 14 x 1 inches, CS#0004)

The same was true of Willie Betty Newman (1863-1935), a Middle Tennessean who earned a series of scholarships at the Cincinnati Art 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 study art. She returned to Nashville around 1900 and established the Newman School of Art where she trained artists to paint the idealized, romantic subjects that she saw in Brittany and to explore the Impressionist technique that had already seen its heyday in Paris. Solari and Newman, and others like them, prepared the way for modern university art schools.  Their efforts in art instruction and education, often organized and directed by women, were displaced (and consequently forgotten) in the rush toward professional art training at mid-century.


Progress in Art Exhibition

In the first quarter of the twentieth century, Tennesseans took advantage of new opportunities in private art instruction.  But an important aspect of art education, the study of art on public exhibition, was lacking in Tennessee. Inspired by international expositions of the last half of the nineteenth century, Tennesseans organized expositions in Nashville (the Centennial Exposition of 1897) and Knoxville (the Appalachian Expositions of 1910, 1911 and 1913).  Art exhibitions were featured at these expositions and the Centennial Exposition in particular brought nationally recognized painting to Tennessee. Attending the Centennial's art exhibits was the first exposure for many Tennessee resident artists to the Barbizon and Impressionist schools of painting.

Across the state, a number of women art patrons who were determined to promote art education and appreciation among Tennesseans, also recognized the need for exhibition venues. When asked in 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 fight is too long and too difficult.  For that reason one struggling to be an artist often gives up. Again it means that our own young people must leave home to continue their art studies, when the reverse might be true, and others might be coming to our state to study if we had an art gallery of high standing." (left: Aaron Douglas (American, 1899-1979), Alta, 1936, oil on canvas, Fisk University Art Collection, 23 x 18 inches)

Memphis had taken the lead by establishing the Brooks Memorial Art Gallery (now the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art) with a donation from Bessie Vance Brooks in honor of her late husband, Samuel Hamilton Brooks.  Organizations such as the Knoxville Art Circle (1898), the Chattanooga Art Association (1924), and the Nashville Art Association (1893), whose original purpose was to provide a private resource for artists and art enthusiasts to view and discuss art, gradually expanded their mission to offering the same services to the general public.  These associations slowly evolved into the first museums in the state.  They were supported by regional organizations like The Southern States Art League (1922-1950), and national groups such as The American Federation of Arts (established 1909) and The Grand Central Art Galleries, who organized traveling art exhibitions that toured the South.


Progress in Art Appreciation

Tied with these activities was the growing awareness of a need for recognition among and for Tennessee's artists.  State and regional fairs provided local opportunities for artists to be recognized for achievement. But in order to garner regional or national recognition an artist had to exhibit in a group show like those of The Southern States Art League or at a prestigious association like The National Academy of Design that sponsored exhibition venues outside of Tennessee. For many artists, exhibiting at the Academy offered the only opportunity to receive coverage in a major newspaper. During the 1930s, southern artists were often treated as oddities in these national arenas and the paintings chosen for inclusion were often southern genre subjects. Indeed, Tennessee's figurative painters usually found themselves in a no-win situation when painting local scenes.  Regional and national exhibitions typically favored these kinds of subjects, yet they tended to marginalize Tennessee painting. (left: Burton Callicott (American, b. 1907), The Gleaners, 1936, oil on canvas, Collection of Memphis Brooks Museum of 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 paint regional subjects. Knoxville-born Beauford Delaney (1901-1979), who had settled in Greenwich Village in the period that became known as the Harlem Renaissance, worked in the WPA-sponsored Harlem Artist Guild in New York City during this time. Regionalism maintained a hold on Tennessee art during the 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 Tennessee artists.  The Depression had brought artists like Aaron Douglas (1899-1979), who was working in New York, to Tennessee. Douglas had received numerous commissions to paint murals and create graphic illustrations while in New York and he had developed a signature silhouette style before he was hired at Fisk University. His work and the work of others like him who moved to Tennessee to teach at colleges and universities began to shape the state's painting.

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

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

Abstract Expressionism took hold in New York in the 1930s and 1940s in the work of Hans Hofmann and his circle. Artists wanted to express their concerns and hopes in a rapidly changing world in a universal way that was not tied to representation. The first examples of abstracted painting in Tennessee date from the late 1940s and 1950s and they came from artists who were also professors.   In Knoxville, Charles Kermit Ewing (1910-1976), the first director of the art department at the University of Tennessee, hired a core of progressive painters on his staff, who gathered together with likeminded local artists to form the Knoxville Seven.  Walter Hollis Stevens (1927-1980), Carl Sublett (b.1919), and other members explored the spiritual in art, utilizing Expressionist painting techniques and universal, mythic symbols.  In Memphis, Burton Callicott (b. 1907) began working in an abstracted form in the 1940s and moved progressively toward the nonobjective.  Callicott referenced Hans Hofmann's painting theory, as taught at the Memphis Academy of Art,  as a source of his inspiration. The hard-edged post-Cubist geometric designs that were also being seen in New York in the late 1930s in the work of artists like Alexander Calder began to appear in Nashville in the 1950s in the work of Philip Perkins (1904-1970). Perkins studied with Fernand Leger and worked with Yves Tanguy and he had been working with geometric abstraction since the 1940s.  He introduced many Tennessee painters to the style in his teaching during his extended residences from the 1940s through the 1960s.


Contemporary Art and the Importance of Medium

Advances in the creation of paint in the 1950s changed the way artists worked. The invention of acrylic paints that dried faster than oils and required no priming allowed artists to paint more spontaneously. In many ways, art of the last forty years has been about medium.  Many contemporary artists incorporate nontraditional materials in ways that may give art conservators headaches for years to come. The use of painting collage by Red Grooms (b. 1937) in the 1960s is an early example of this desire to reach into the viewer's space in a way that Baroque painters only dreamed about. Much of the push seems to come from the desire to make painting an interactive process: as technology has allowed greater inclusion of users with programs, so artists have strived to break out of the confines of traditional two-dimensional canvases.

During the 1960s and 1970s, as the second generation of the New York school extended the range of Abstract Expressionism into new forms of paint application, Tennessee-born painters began to receive national notice.  Red Grooms, whose painting grew out of Pop art, and Robert Ryman (b.1930), a painter of powerfully quiet nonobjective canvases, were casualties of the lack of artistic opportunity in Tennessee during the 1950s. Both left Nashville in the 1950s to pursue art careers in New York. But within a decade, the Hunter Museum of Art (established 1952), the Cheekwood Museum of Art (1960), and the Dulin Gallery of Art (1962) opened in Tennessee, providing crucial exhibition opportunities for artists and encouraging the influx of artists to our state, as predicted by Bertha Herbert Potter a quarter century earlier. The 1970s witnessed the rise of commercial art galleries across the state.

Contemporary painting in Tennessee is part of the fabric of the nation's art. Our state is rich in talented resident artists. This exhibition cannot include all of the outstanding artists whose work deserves recognition. Nor can this narrative and the following catalogue entries tell the full story of 20th century painting in our state.  My hope is that this catalogue and the previous work that has been done by art historians across the state will inspire scholars to help to tell the story of the great artistic heritage of Tennessee.

© The Tennessee Historical Society


About the author

Celia Walker is Senior Curator of American Art at Cheekwood Museum of Art, Nashville, Tennessee.  Recently she has completed work on Cheekwood's collection catalogue, the Summer 2002 Tennessee Historical Quarterly, and Fisk University's  Two 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 in Tennessee will appear in the forthcoming Creating Traditions, Expanding Horizons: 200 Years of the Arts in Tennessee, a project of the Tennessee Arts Commission and the Tennessee Historical Society.

Read more articles and essays concerning this institutional source by visiting the sub-index page for the Cheekwood Museum of Art in Resource Library Magazine.

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