Knoxville Skyline? Unknown Branson Painting, the Summer's Artistic Mystery

The people at Case Antiques on Sutherland Avenue have interesting jobs, and recently made a surprising discovery. A Chattanooga estate sale turned up a previously unknown painting by Lloyd Branson.

One of Knoxville's best-regarded artists, Branson (1854-1925) maintained a studio on Gay Street for decades. Spanning 50 interesting years in American art, Branson's work shows a variety of styles, and a wider variety of quality; a few of his oils, reflecting his European training, can be called truly fine art. They hang in museums and libraries. Others pander to the masses—or, sometimes, to portrait subjects who may have demanded a little too much retouching. Branson was a lone professional artist in a pragmatic industrial town. He he aimed to please, and generally succeeded.

There's still some mystery about his life. Some claim he was briefly married, in his youth, while others are quite sure he never was. Details about his time in Europe are scarce, and we don't know much about his living arrangements in Knoxville, except in his final few years when he lived in a modest bungalow on Branson Avenue, a street which was renamed in his honor. As I mentioned in this space a few months ago, that house has been a stye in recent decades, prey to vagrants, but thanks to an anonymous donor it will likely be rehabbed and reinhabited.

This Branson painting that just turned up had been framed behind glass, a little askew in an old gilt frame. It's unknown where it's spent the last century or so, but for some years it hung on a wall in a house in Chattanooga.

Unlike anything else in Branson's portfolio, it's a dark painting of a city skyline: a gouache, something like watercolor, but more opaque. Painted in inexpensive pasteboard of a sort available a century ago, it's undated, but the mounting, in the back, bears adhesive tape with the logo of McRary & Branson. The elaborate Victorian lettering of that logo makes a striking contrast with the stark, modern-looking style of the painting itself.

That portrait studio for which Branson worked—it offered both photographs and paintings—went out of business around 1903. Of course, it's possible he just kept the tape on hand for jobs like this and used it for years after the business folded. Any date is inevitably a guess.

It's a twilight scene, an image of two steel tracks leading to a lighted streetcar, receding in the distance. The poles that hold the streetcar cables stand like eerie sentinels.

Between the foreground and brooding skies in the distant background is the silhouette of a city. Is it Knoxville? It's hard to tell, at first, this jumble of low, gray rectangles. The design could be based on the skyline of a lot of small cities, or the jagged teeth of a careless man's jawbone. The only images that rise above are two sharp spikes, church steeples. On the horizon are some blue clouds.

The two steeples, which may or may not be those of, say, the original First Baptist Church on Gay—torn down in the 1920s, it had a dangerously tall steeple—and the current Immaculate Conception Church on Vine. Otherwise, no distinct downtown building stands out. Until the Arnstein rose as the city's first "skyscraper" in 1906, maybe no unsteepled buildings did stand out on the Knoxville skyline. Before then, the city's tallest proper building was probably the 1890 Vendome on Clinch, later demolished. It was five stories tall with some elaboration above that. But it wasn't on a high point, and probably wasn't even visible from every direction.

You'd think the painting might be a generic American city in the streetcar era, except for one striking oddity. On a hill off to the left, away from the city but taller than anything in it, is an odd upended gray rectangle. It looks like the silhouette of a tower.

It resembles a lone object in a circa 1945 photograph of a Knoxville skyline that's hanging on my wall. It's a water tower, or "standpipe," as they understated the structure, which from a distance looked like a medieval edifice, maybe a Norman tower. It was built in 1894, to help give pressure to the city's water supply, on a hill just east of downtown. The 85-foot tower was a notable landmark for decades, not torn down until sometime after World War II. And there it is in the skyline. I think.

The appearance of that tower in Branson's painting raises the likelihood that the subject is indeed Knoxville. And, if so, it would indicate that this painting was conceived at a location perhaps a mile or two north of downtown.

The dark, spare style of the painting, with its urban theme, looks as if it might belong to the "Ashcan School" of 20th-century realists, or even like a precursor to Edward Hopper. Branson, who was older than that grim crowd, is not known to have experimented with any sort of stark realism.

It's obviously a Branson. It's signed. But that distinctive signature is one of the painting's several oddities. Branson was proud enough of it to sign it—but he signed it in pencil. That was right peculiar, for him or for any artist.

Knoxville Museum of Art director David Butler came up with a theory that sounds plausible, even if it makes the painting seem a little less mysterious. He thinks maybe it was an unfinished commercial project, the working background for a high-toned advertisement, perhaps for the streetcar line itself. Its spareness doesn't necessarily indicate existential doubt, but to leave room for the client's cheerful words.

Regardless, it's valuable as art. It's the oldest painting of Knoxville's skyline I've seen.

And it's interesting that the perspective is maybe not far from the Branson Street bungalow only recently appreciated as the artist's final home, just off Broadway.

The painting will come up for auction at Case's headquarters in the interesting old Cherokee Mills building on October 6.