secret_history (2007-05)

The Secret Exhibition

A tour of Knoxville's most overlooked art museum

by Jack Neely

A century ago, Knoxville had some aspiration toward a local artistic culture. There were about a dozen talented artists involved in a group known as the Nicholson Art League, but the top stars were Lloyd Branson, a middle-aged bachelor from Union County, and Catherine Wiley, a generation younger, daughter of a culturally prodigious old Knoxville family.

Branson spent most of his career paying bills as a journeyman artist, doing lots of portraits intended only to flatter the subject and postcard-style depictions of historic places and events, but he was capable of great work, when he set his mind to it.

Catherine Wiley was the purer artist. After studying with some well-known American artists in New England and New York, she devoted herself to impressionism, using oil and canvas to convey light's subtleties.

Some sources, like the Tennessee Encyclopedia of History and Culture , call Wiley "the state's most notable Impressionist." Her better work hangs in galleries in several cities, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York; some of her better-known pieces, like "Summer Day at Newport" and "A Sunlit Afternoon," are available in prints and posters.

She did much of her work in the Knoxville area; she and her almost-as-talented sisters shared a studio in Fort Sanders. She was so close to Branson it's not surprising that there were rumors about the two--or that, soon after Branson's death in 1925, she suffered a breakdown of sorts, and lost her moorings. She spent the rest of her life in a mental institution in Pennsylvania, doodling strange pictures of cats.

One of the world's best galleries of her work is not an art museum. It's the McClung Collection. An annex of the Knox County Library, the Calvin M. McClung Historical Collection is located on the third floor of the history center at Gay and Clinch. The books and maps and microfiche clipping files are the main things at McClung; the paintings are decoration, hanging between or above bookshelves. The patrons, many of whom are there mainly to prove they're related to some Revolutionary pensioner or Confederate officer, rarely pay much attention to them. But if you want to, you can. It comprises, for my money, which is more or less none, the best gallery of Knoxville artwork from the Nicholson League era.

The first piece that catches your attention when you get off the elevator is a recent acquisition, Branson's 1891 canvas, "Women at Work," which represents five women peeling apples under a brooding sky. They could be mountain women, or Medieval French peasants. You want to pull up a stool and join them.

On McClung's walls are more than a dozen Wileys. Most of her pictures are of women, and most of the ones on the walls here seem to be women who are related to each other, and maybe also to the artist herself. Two of those are of her mother, who grew up in the literary, and the politically prodigious McAdoo family (the subject's brother was William Gibbs McAdoo, Secretary of the Treasury in the Wilson administration and senator from California). One of them, in particular, looks like her answer to "Whistler's Mother."

They're all fairly gorgeous, especially the incandescent "In the Sunlight" and "Two Girls On the Shore." "Seated Mother and Child" is in bright, vivid oil, troweled on, like a Van Gogh. It appears to be dated 1926, which would make it one of her last coherent paintings. Several early UT-era sketches are in a special display case, which also has some of Branson's interesting miniature landscapes.

There are older paintings, especially in the grand Reading Room that was once, before Catherine Wiley was even born, a federal courtroom; now it's something like a portrait gallery. There are a couple of small pieces by Wiley, "Study In Soft Browns," a.k.a. "Girl in Brown Skirt," a young woman working in a dark office.

The big room is haunted by the portrait of Susan Penniman, the Massachusetts-born bride of business tycoon Perez Dickinson, for whom he allegedly built their "Island Home"--but she died soon after their marriage. In this dark idyll of antebellum Knoxville, their Main Street is visible over her shoulder. The painting, made after her death, is unsigned, but it's believed to be the work of Rogersville-based professional artist Samuel Shaver.

Several of Branson's portraits, including the one of McClung Collection founder Calvin McClung, are museum quality, but a couple in the room have misled at least one visiting art critic to conclude that Branson wasn't much of an artist. Check the dates, though, and you'll see he painted them when he was only 20, just before he studied art formally; he's said to have financed his New York education by selling these portraits.

There's a gilt-framed 1889 portrait of Col. Charles McClung McGhee, the Knoxville industrialist who endowed the public library, by the famous French portraitist Benjamin Constant, who was best known for painting European aristocracy. You may recognize it; it used to hang in the main library. McGhee was not a handsome man, but Constant makes him look like a man to be reckoned with. Constant is one of the best-known painters represented in public places in Knoxville, so it's not surprising it's always hung well out of the reach of gooey fingers.

Some of the pieces at McClung, I suspect, are the handiwork of well-connected hobbyists. A bizarre post-apocalyptic landscape shows a grim reaper with a hammer and sickle on his dark cape, prying open   a crevasse from which sprouts a dead arm. And other stuff. It looks like something developed from an bored adolescent kid's notebook doodle. I almost liked it at first, when I assumed it was tetched Daliesque lunacy. But the later addition of a typewritten explanation of the painting's trite symbolism spoils its charm. If you ever wonder why most artists prefer not to explain their work, read this exception.

In a hallway there's an odd watercolor, which is the best work I've ever seen by Hugh Tyler, James Agee's uncle, immortalized as the artist Andrew in A Death In the Family . Called "Tropical Scene, Panama," the 1914 painting depicts dark men hauling loads of bananas on their shoulders on a wharf, with a ship docked in the background.

There are some Smokies landscapes by Branson and one by Charles Christopher Krutch, the eccentric church organist once known as the "Corot of the South." Maybe not one of his moody best, but then, if the plaque's right, he was about 90 when he painted it.

And there are also some watercolors by contemporary artist Carl Sublett; "Places Around Knoxville," the one near the elevators, depicts one of Knoxville's trademark concrete viaducts soaring over a forgotten landscape of brown brush. One of McClung's most recent acquisitions, it was donated by the Friends of the Library in honor of educator/philanthropists Robert and Julie Webb.

If you haven't had a look at McClung, it's worth an hour or so of your time, even if you're not as proud of your ancestors as the people poring over census data at the library tables.