The Unusual Historical Paintings of Russell Briscoe

Have a look at the Russell Briscoe exhibit at the Museum of East Tennessee History. Before Christmas, if possible, especially if you have kids. Bring them. There aren't many opportunities parents have to enjoy art exhibits with your children, but this is one.

I've never quite figured what to make of Briscoe's oeuvre. I've known lots of artists in Knoxville, many of them talented, some of them professionally trained, some of them brilliant. None of them are as famous among Knoxvillians as Briscoe, the insurance man who started painting when his wife gave him a paint set on his 57th birthday. His paintings appear in prominent places, and are reproduced in books. In the '60s, the completion of a single Briscoe painting could elicit another newspaper feature story about this wonderful man.

I never knew Briscoe, who died in 1979, about 20 years after he started painting. But I've looked at his work and wondered: Is this art—or obsession? Using primary colors, he painted lots of happy busy little people in motion around historic buildings. It's like Grandma Moses interpreting Knoxville history. His simple style prompted some to call him a "primitivist" or "folk artist," which is an odd thing to call the executive vice-president of a big insurance company. He was also a member of the utility board and the country club, and sat on the board of a bank and the Chamber of Commerce and the Tourist Bureau.

He had no pretensions of Bohemianism or, necessarily, of Art. He gave most of his paintings away. If asked, he'd say he painted because he found it relaxing and because he wanted to record his hometown's history. An earnest historian, he wrote the essay "Commerce and Industry" for Heart of the Valley, the comprehensive one-volume history of this city; that book also includes several of his paintings as illustrations, especially depicting scenes for which good photography is unavailable.

That's why Briscoe's paintings may be important. Contemporary paintings depicting daily life in Knoxville more than a century ago are just this side of nonexistent. Photographic depictions of the city's street life in the 19th century are rare. Even into the 20th century, historic photographs can look pretty grim. The city was dirty, for one thing, covered with soot, as many visitors noticed. That was a fact. But photographs could make it look even worse. In old photographs the skies seem always gray, the people always shadowy and grim. Details are indistinct, and buildings often look plainer than they were. The long exposures required by early photographs were strongly prejudiced in favor of subjects that weren't moving. Crowds of pedestrians and teams of horses may show as spectral blurs. Most old photographs present objects, not activity.

Some of Briscoe's colorful scenes show long-gone buildings that aren't better conveyed by photos. Some were from personal memory, some from apparently careful research, like the Second Presbyterian Church on Market Street, which was torn down in 1860; I've seen only one fuzzy photograph of it, but Briscoe shows it in detail. As far as I can tell, his scenes involving the city are technically accurate, if you'll forgive the lack of soot and garbage that seem evident in so many old photographs.

We might see Briscoe's paintings as an antidote, a bright tonic to Knoxville's gray and dim graphic history. One of Briscoe's most-beloved images is one of a family living room on Christmas morning, maybe 100 years ago. With significant assistance from Briscoe's descendents, curators have recreated that room in the museum, using some of the items Briscoe remembered. Any kid will enjoy that juxtaposition.

Adding a rare darker note near a Briscoe painting of the Gay Street fire of 1897 is a cracked and smoke-blackened teacup found in the ruins of that fire. The fatal blaze consumed Briscoe's grandfather's wholesale house. It happened about two years before Briscoe was born, but to him it must have been a personal legend. With tiny details drawn to scale, his paintings are far too carefully plotted and researched to be called childlike, but he presents the worst fire in Knoxville's history more as spectacle than disaster, as an excited boy might see it. Likewise, his action-packed images of the 1863 Battle of Knoxville vary from mine, but I'll leave critiques of their plausibility to the regiments of war buffs.

Over the years I've observed a sort of paradox about men who are accomplished in business, who learn the intricacies of making a living better than most of us do. After lives spent hiring and firing and tending to clients' emergencies, you'd think they'd be as tortured as Heathcliff. But many who succeed best are able to maintain an innocent, almost childlike view of the world impossible for some teenagers. Somehow they keep their souls on the sunny side. Among Knoxville businessmen today, that optimism expresses itself often in football, and faith that not only will the Vols take the championship this season, but that it will be very important if they do. (There's not a lot of orange and white in Briscoe's paintings, by the way; they can serve to point out that Knoxville wasn't always all about the Vols.)

An insurance man, in particular, has to learn to deal with angry phone calls, tearful clients, daunting paperwork, and combative attorneys. Briscoe also had to deal with the grief of a son killed in battle, in the Korean War. Somehow his buoyant spirit survived, to make these happy scenes of his favorite city.

Though I never knew him, by a coincidence I work in what's roughly his old office, on the second floor of the Burwell Building. He often painted Gay Street as he could see it, at the corner of Clinch Avenue. Several of his paintings show scenes I can see from my window. He showed the intersection as he remembered it, as a child, with electric streetcars and horse-drawn wagons, not trucks and SUVs. But some days, this time of year especially, the little people down there still look just as happy.