Some major historical figures seem so elusive they don't quite seem real, almost as if they lived in a slightly different dimension that only occasionally intersected with ours. Take Lloyd Branson. Maybe Knoxville's first professional artist, he's sort of famous. Known for portraits and commissioned historical tableaux, he's generally considered a conservative painter in terms of his style, a journeyman generally willing to do what it takes to make a living in a hardheaded industrial town. Some of his work's practical, a response to fashion.
Still, you can stare at two of his finest early oils, like, "Hauling Marble" or "Women at Work," and not get enough. They seem international. The former, owned by University of Tennessee's McClung Museum, hangs at the Knoxville Museum of Art. The latter's currently on display, too high on the wall, at the Museum of East Tennessee History.
Both of them earned praise at the New York's National Academy of Design, in 1891. They wouldn't be out of place in the Smithsonian, which does own several of Branson's paintings.
Also on display, until June 24, are more interesting Branson works in the history museum's East Tennessee Art & Artists exhibit.
Branson's 21st-century reputation got a boost thanks to his role as an important mentor and patron to Beauford Delaney, the talented young black kid who became an important figure in New York and Paris, and who is today regarded as one of the nation's leading African-American modernists.
Branson's art is bright and vivid, but his life seems a little ethereal, its details hard to nail down. He was born somewhere in Union County, but several printed sources and his tombstone differ about his birthdate, 1853 versus 1854. We know he spent some time in Europe in the 1870s, at the behest of patrons, studied with "the leading artists of the day," but details are scarce—except that he has, or at one time had, paintings on display somewhere in Paris.
Though known to be sociable, a nimble conversationalist, Branson never married, never had children. There are conflicting, mutually exclusive rumors about his private life. People speculate, of course. One photograph I've seen may be a dry joke: the artist posing at his easel like Rembrant in a self-portrait—as if Branson's painting the photographer. He looks a little wild-haired and bohemian in youth; erudite, abstract, with a formal collar and pince-nez, in old age.
A contemporary remarked, "He has been known to spend hours quietly on the streets observing the faces of those passing along."
He kept studios on Gay Street, where the Tennessee Theatre is now. For years, during and after his greatest national fame, he lived there, too. Later, he boarded with a family in a house on Broadway, just south of Edgewood, where he stayed well into his 60s.
Two artists closely associated with Branson, Delaney and Catherine Wiley—who are also the two best-known artists from Knoxville even today—were committed to mental institutions. Wiley's breakdown came right after Branson's death. Branson himself seems to have been perfectly sane.
His long-term workspace was torn down when they built the Tennessee Theatre in the 1920s. The studio across the street where he worked after that, until his death in 1925, was torn down, too. Almost all of his studios and homes have been torn down, gone for decades. Until recently I didn't know that there was any physical remnant of his life to look at.
In North Knoxville, off Broadway, there's a quiet residential street called Branson Avenue. You might assume it was named for Knoxville's most famous Branson—but perhaps not that he lived there. Or that, considering that every other building he was associated with vanished long ago, that it might still be standing.
But there it is, a sort of ill-used old bungalow, at 1423 Branson. Four thick, round columns hold up the roof where the half-second-floor's dormer peeks out.
Branson Avenue was called Rhode Island Avenue when the artist moved here around 1921. He was in his late 60s, but this was his first home of his own. He got quite a welcome; within a year or so after his moving in, the street was renamed Branson Avenue.
Most of the house is now covered in vinyl siding, but once the house was clad with cedar shakes, a few of which still cling on in the back. The windows are boarded up, but somebody keeps pulling down the plywood to get in. What little remains of the side window pane is jagged, and has some blood on it. Maybe art lovers just pull the plywood down to breathe the atmosphere of a local legend. Maybe not. History rarely smells inviting.
The yard has gone feral. A once-elegant boxwood struggles to one side, as a sycamore crowds the roof.
This is where Lloyd Branson spent his final four years or so, working. He did more patriotic work as he got older, and one of his later works, finished when he lived in this house, was a portrait of East Tennessean Alvin York.
And this is where he died, suddenly at age 71, of a heart attack. Branson was never wealthy, but his funeral, conducted in this house, drew a more impressive array of mourners than most millionaires do: artists, photographers, former mayors, editors, authors, big-shot attorneys. Everybody loved this guy.
Two miles to the south is Old Gray Cemetery, where he's buried on a maple-shaded hillside under a large, rough-cut granite stone bearing his name, a mention of "Sycamore Shoals," one of his historical paintings, and his distinctive monogram, LB.
His old house has been for sale. On Monday, Knox Heritage signed an option on it, and with the help of an anonymous donor, may buy it, stabilize it, and sell it to a private owner, with preservation covenants to keep it more or less as it was when one of East Tennessee's greatest artists lived there.