Born in Coal Creek (now Lake City), Tennessee, in 1879, Anna Catherine Wiley played an instrumental role within Knoxville’s art community at the beginning of the twentieth century. Educated in the public school system of Knoxville, Wiley in 1895 enrolled in one of the first classes of women students at the University of Tennessee, where she later taught for fourteen years. While most southern artists of the period were men, Wiley’s success as an impressionist painter and art advocate brought much recognition to southern women artists.
While Wiley was a student at the University of Tennessee from 1895 to 1897, her artistic talent emerged in her illustrations for the college yearbook. Wishing to expand her art training beyond the traditional woman’s role of illustrating books, she enrolled in the Art Students League in New York in 1903 and spent a brief period in 1905 at the New York School of Art (formerly the Chase School of Art). Wiley’s training in New York exposed her to the works of illustrator Howard Pyle and impressionist William Merritt Chase as well as the realism of the Barbizon School in France and the Ash Can School in America.
In 1905, Wiley returned to the University of Tennessee in Knoxville to teach art, a discipline which at that time was housed within the School of Home Economics. Wiley helped to shape that program into one of the best in the South while also becoming a major figure in Knoxville’s Nicholson Art League, the leading group of Knoxville artists during the first quarter of the twentieth century. As a member and 1913 president of the league, Wiley participated in a number of exhibitions and won the award for “Most Meritorious Collection” at the 1910 Appalachian Exposition in Knoxville. She continued to receive art instruction from Lloyd Branson, one of the most influential leaders in Knoxville’s art circle, and spent summers studying art in the Northeast with major American impressionists such as Robert Reid, Jonas Lie, and Martha Walter.
Wiley achieved much success during her career for her influence and recognition across the South. Wiley was named best painter at several Tennessee exhibitions and received the award for best southern artist at the Southwestern Fair in Atlanta in 1917. Striving to break regional boundaries, she also chaired the Fine Arts Department for the National Conservation Exposition in Knoxville in 1913 and exhibited in the 1910s and 1920s at major venues across the nation including the National Academy of Design, the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, and the Cincinnati Art Museum. Her presence in these national exhibitions helped draw attention and notoriety to southern women artists.
Wiley’s paintings often depicted women and interiors, as seen in some of her most recognized works, including Girl in Blue (1907), Willow Pond (1914), A Sunlit Afternoon (c. 1915), and Artist’s Mother Before a Window (n.d.). Building on her early illustrative work, Wiley’s style evolved into that of genteel impressionism characterized by vivid color and brushstroke to create the misty images common in southern impressionist pieces. Her paintings often reflected the mainstream impressionist style with intricate compositions and detail. Later in her career, Wiley shifted to abstract impressionist pieces focusing more on brushstroke and color than on defined forms. In 1926, after the death of her father and that of Lloyd Branson, Wiley was hospitalized with a “mental breakdown.” This marked the end of her career, and she remained hospitalized until her death in 1958.
Celia Walker, “Painting in Twentieth-Century Tennessee,”; in A History of Tennessee Arts, ed. Carroll V. West and Margaret D. Binnicker (2004), 99-125; and “Century of Progress: Twentieth Century Painting in Tennessee,”; Tennessee Historical Quarterly 61 (2002): 4-73; Estill Curtis Pennington, “Catherine Wiley: Genteel Southern Impressionist,” in Southern Impressionist: The Art of Catherine Wiley (1990), 1-22