Taking a Look at 'East Tennessee Art & Artists'

The spring show at the Museum of East Tennessee History

East Tennessee Art & Artists is not a big exhibit, but you can easily kill an hour or so, as I did, just puzzling over it.

You can see it as a temporary companion to the Knoxville Museum of Art’s permanent Higher Ground exhibit, which highlights most of these artists with different works. East Tennessee can boast of several forms of music and storytelling, if the conversation turns to the so-called “fine arts,” like oil on canvas, we might tend to clam up. But that’s what dominates this exhibit at the East Tennessee History Center.

The first case, with an antebellum man’s swanky vest and a few other knickknacks, seems designed to lower our expectations. A bit of sheet music “composed” by a 12-year-old in 1836 might seem an admirable expansion of the idea of art until, looking at the actual notes, you might conclude she wasn’t necessarily Tennessee’s Mozart. The composition appears to be nothing but an ascending scale, a beginner’s two-hand drill. I wouldn’t throw it away. But is it Art?

It picks up. Because Tennessee’s generally shy of good early portrait painters, we don’t know much about what even our most prominent early citizens looked like. Even William Blount, territorial governor, signer of the U.S. Constitution, is a guy we know by way of a caricature so simple Florentines three centuries earlier would have considered it primitive.

But here’s a large, White House-quality portrait of Jefferson County Judge Jacob Peck, ca. 1830, attributed to Ralph E.W. Earl, who studied with some of the great English masters of his day before painting a famous portrait of Andrew Jackson.

Our earliest artists didn’t gravitate to the regional metropolis. East Tennessee’s best-regarded antebellum artist, Samuel Shaver, has quite a few paintings here, including an intriguing one of a dark-complected young man named Joseph Kyle who died at age 23. Shaver spent a couple of years in Knoxville, during the Confederate occupation, but the Sullivan County native spent his productive years in Rogersville, even when he was painting Knoxville subjects.

If anyone ever writes a gothic novel about a Knoxville painting, it will be Shaver’s portrait of Susan Penniman Dickinson, ca. 1855. It usually hangs two floors above this museum, high on the wall in the gorgeous reading room of the McClung Collection, but for this exhibit it’s down where you can look at it close. Susan was the bride of one of Knoxville’s busiest young entrepreneurs, Perez Dickinson. A first cousin (once removed, I think) of Emily Dickinson, he was from Amherst, Mass. Though he’d lived in Knoxville for several years as a merchant and educator, when it came time to get married, he went back home and found Susan Penniman, from New Braintree. They married, and he brought her down to Knoxville by carriage. As the story goes, his first-anniversary surprise for her was a lavish new mansion, but she died just before ever knowing about it. (Whether it was Dickinson’s “Island Home” or his longtime residence on Main Avenue varies with the teller.)

Shaver’s portrait of Susan, dressed in black with a classical broach, is a portrait of melancholy. The Dickinson’s Main Avenue house, with its terraced gardens, is unreachably distant, over her shoulder.

We tore down that Dickinson house in the 1950s, for a parking lot. (Heck, you know we’ve got to have a place to park our cars. It’s what we do best.)

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The late-Victorian proliferation of Knoxville artists known as the Nicholson Art League is well represented here, as is its luminous star, Catherine Wiley (1879-1958). The longtime Fort Sanders resident was a lavish impressionist, and even peered into 20th-century expressionism. An ever-changing gallery of her work is on the walls upstairs at McClung.

If anybody has any clue about what happened to Catherine Wiley, let’s talk. She was beautiful, talented, hard-working, popular, and enjoyed a degree of success, sometimes even on a national scale, that none of her contemporaries reached. But then, in her 40s, she found herself in a Pennsylvania asylum, where she remained for the remaining three decades of her life. It was an extreme solution to an unknown problem.

Her personal palette is part of the exhibit.

Like all good exhibits, this one teaches. Louis E. Jones (1878-1958) was a sort of late impressionist from Woodstock, N.Y., who moved to Knoxville in the late 1920s, and later did most of his work in Gatlinburg. He was one of the Smokies’ finest painters, along with the older Charles Krutch, who’s also represented here. Thanks in part to a video narrated by Bill Landry, I learned a lot about Jones, who left several fine paintings and a paint-spattered smock for us to gawk at.

The show’s biggest surprise, to me, is a big chipped-wood carving of Gertrude Stein. It’s a 1960 piece by Cumberland County sculptor Helen Bullard.

The exhibit offers some folk art, bright, simple images of animals, etc., that looks like the sort of thing used in ancient Tennessee rituals. It’s interesting and surprising and sometimes funny. I like it, and if you got me some, I would put it on my coffee table and hope the dogs didn’t knock it off.

But here’s the cause of some of my pondering this afternoon: Almost all the folk art in this historical exhibit dates from after 1980.

The most sophisticated stuff, with subtle shades to create the illusion of light and depth and intricate shades of sadness or joy, the paintings that look like they took months, are almost all from a century or so ago. Did that all peak in 1913?

It’s an art puzzle, I guess, that is a good deal broader than this one exhibit, or this one region.

It sometimes seems obvious that we’ve lost our interest in complexity and subtlety. Maybe at some point in the 20th century, humans decided that beauty is just too beautiful. It breaks our heart, and hurts.

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