"Rafting on the Cumberland," by William Gilbert Gaul, undated.


Tennessee, which until recently was rural, egalitarian, and lacking in concentrated wealth, never has been a center of art patronage or production. The first generation of pioneers lacked both time and money for art, and there is hardly any documentation of art created in Tennessee before 1800. Once the land was cleared and the Indians vanquished, though, there emerged a demand in this family-centered society for portraits. The needs of the second generation of settlers were largely met by itinerant painters who were essentially craftsmen peddling a trade. There simply was not enough work in any one place to enable an artist to settle, and economic survival often required versatility. For example, in 1825 Robert Titus advertised in a Knoxville newspaper as both a portrait painter and watchmaker.

The first resident professional artist was probably Ralph E. W. Earl, who took up residence in Nashville when he acquired a patron. Earl came to Nashville in 1817 to paint a portrait of Andrew Jackson, married into Old Hickory’s family, and lived with him at the Hermitage. He painted portraits in Nashville until 1829, when he moved to Washington to live with Jackson in the White House. The following year Washington Bogart Cooper opened a studio in Nashville. He produced thirty to thirty-five portraits annually for half a century and more than earned his sobriquet, “the man of a thousand portraits.”

With the proceeds of his early work, Cooper funded European study for his brother William, who returned to Tennessee and settled in Memphis. Like other artists of the era, William Cooper worked in Tennessee and the surrounding states. John Wood Dodge, Tennessee’s premier portrait miniaturist, followed a similar pattern. From 1840 to 1861 he maintained a studio in Nashville but frequently traveled to Kentucky towns, resorts, and such Mississippi River cities as Memphis, St. Louis, Natchez, and New Orleans.

On June 1, 1840, the Nashville Whig informed readers that “if a portrait is wanted, Mr. Cooper is the artist . . . but if a miniature is preferred for mother, wife, or ‘ladylove’ call upon Mr. Dodge.” So prolific was the work of these two that a century later, when collectors brought pictures to Nashville’s Hooberry Bookstore for identification, the proprietor almost always told them that the oils were by Cooper and the miniatures by Dodge. Actually, though, by the 1840s, the size and prosperity of Nashville and Memphis had attracted many portraitists and miniature painters, but most of them stayed only briefly. An exception was George Dury, a German painter, who arrived in Nashville in 1850. He became Washington Cooper’s chief rival by flaunting his prior work for European royals.

By the 1850s even Clarksville was prosperous enough to support two resident portraitists, Robert Loftin Newman and William Shackelford. Newman sought out commissions for full-length portraits because of the greater compositional challenge. No doubt, an additional incentive was the fact that the price of portraits was proportional to the size. Following an emerging trend of including landscapes in portraits, Samuel Shaver executed portraits of various sizes with estate views in the background.

William Harrison Scarborough worked in Kingston, Rogersville, and Knoxville in 1833 before moving to South Carolina two years later. Shaver may have painted earlier, but from 1845 until after the Civil War, Scarborough was the leading artist in East Tennessee.

The first Tennessee paintings with a large element of landscape were the overmantel caprices at the Carter Mansion in Elizabethton, circa 1790. The next earliest Tennessee landscapes were topographical views, essentially portraits of places, such as A Full View of Deadrick’s Hill, Jonesboro, now at the Tennessee State Museum. This painting was commissioned in 1810 by a storeowner whose shop is pictured at the center of the work. In 1832 John H. B. Latrobe completed the earliest painting of Memphis. The painting was done in watercolors, the favored medium of travelers like Latrobe. Another traveler, Charles-Alexandre Lesueur, drew pencil sketches of the Mississippi and Cumberland Rivers in 1828 and 1832. Among the earliest Tennessee views, these drawings were completed for scientific–not artistic–purposes, and the originals, in Le Havre, France, have never been shown in Tennessee.

The War of 1812 fueled a sense of national patriotism that combined with the first impulses of the Romantic Movement and transformed this topographical transcription into landscape art. The chosen subject was the American landscape. The favored format was the panorama. The greatest Tennessee practitioner of panoramic landscapes was James Cameron. A Scot who settled at Chattanooga, Cameron possessed that inestimable thing that previously only Earl had commanded–a single, wealthy patron. Although Cameron did pure landscapes, he is best known for works that combine group portraiture with a panoramic view. The most famous is that of his patron, Colonel Whiteside and Family (Hunter Museum of Art, Chattanooga), a charming picture, but one whose parts do not quite come together into a coherent whole. The diminutive size he gave the African Americans in the picture has provided a fertile field for analysis.

Most of Cameron’s landscapes show nature succumbing to settlement. Another landscape artist of the 1850s, possibly James Wagner (of whom nothing is known), painted two exquisite views of Nashville emphasizing the newly completed capitol building (Tennessee State Museum, Nashville; First Tennessee Bank, Memphis). Generally, Tennessee artists shunned scenes of wild nature such as that depicted in New York artist Alexander Wyant’s Tennessee (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York). Their clients preferred to show off the state’s man-made improvements and their dominion over nature, possibly to tout Tennessee as an investment opportunity to eastern capitalists.

Before the Civil War, art was taught only in schools for girls as a fashionable accomplishment, not as training for professional artists. Men who sought to become professional artists apprenticed with a master. Newspapers were uniformly complimentary to artists and welcomed every new artist to town, but no critical art literature developed in Tennessee. Nor were there galleries for exhibitions; artists generally exhibited their work at their studios or in shops.

A unique artistic event in antebellum Tennessee was the staging of the 1858 benefit exhibition of 350 paintings at the State Capitol to enable the Tennessee Historical Society to purchase Washington Cooper’s series of portraits of Tennessee governors. A remarkable feature of the series is that it was painted on speculation with no assurance of purchase.

Although the Methodist Episcopal Church commissioned portraits of its bishops, and the Grand Masonic Lodge in Nashville paid Cooper to paint portraits of its Grand Masters, antebellum public commissions were exceedingly rare. One exception was the 1859 commission granted by the Tennessee General Assembly to Dury to execute a posthumous likeness of former U.S. Senator and Attorney General Felix Grundy.

The Civil War virtually ended the Tennessee art market, and artists struggled throughout the war. Dodge was driven out of the state because of his wife’s abolitionist views. Cameron left at the end of the war to escape the devastation. Union soldiers, or “special artists” sent to report on the war for Harper’s Weekly or Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, produced most of the surviving datable art from the Civil War era.

The East Tennessee Art Association, a pro-Confederate organization formed in October 1862, commissioned Shaver to depict various Confederate generals, but apparently the project miscarried. Shaver was a staunch Confederate supporter, but other artists proved more flexible in their allegiances. Early in the war, Dury exhibited a portrait of Jefferson Davis, but later accepted commissions from the Reconstruction legislature for paintings of Governor William G. “Parson” Brownlow and Union General George C. Thomas.

The Civil War marked an end to the nation’s innocence. Artists no longer sought inspiration in America’s uniqueness. Rather, artists were once again drawn to Europe, and Tennesseans were no exception. After the war, the itinerant faded away except in remote areas, the expected standard of art rose, and European training became a distinct advantage.

The postwar era produced an increased demand for portraits by institutions such as colleges, banks, and foundations, as well as individual capitalists and professionals. Refined homes were expected to have pictures on the walls, although in Tennessee, more often than not, these were prints rather than paintings. For the first time, Tennessee developed a market for still lifes, “negro studies,” allegories like those completed by Carl Gutherz upon his return to Memphis from Paris in 1873, and landscape and genre painting in the Barbizon style.

The popularity of genre painting in France beckoned some Tennessee artists such as Willie Betty Newman of Rutherford County, who specialized in peasant scenes from Brittany and won honorable mention at the Paris Exposition of 1900 for En Penitence. Tennessee genre painting, however, was largely done by outsiders such as Elizabeth Nourse and John Stokes. whose Smoky Mountain Wedding (Tennessee State Museum, Nashville) of 1872 combined the two picaresque elements northerners expected in a southern painting–blacks (with watermelons) and hillbillies.

Another style that blossomed was historical genre painting. Gilbert Gaul came to Tennessee in 1881 and eight years later won a bronze medal at the 1889 Paris Exposition for Charging the Battery (Birmingham Museum of Art), a Civil War picture. He was the first important Tennessee artist who did not paint portraits. After Lloyd Branson returned from Europe to Knoxville in 1878, portraits constituted his mainstay until his death in 1925, but the expanding market also enabled him to paint scenes from early Tennessee history including Rendezvous of the Overmountain Men at Sycamore Shoals, 1780 (Tennessee State Museum, Nashville). Influenced by the Barbizon school, Branson’s Hauling Marble (Frank H. McClung Museum, Knoxville), which won a gold medal at the Appalachian Exposition in Knoxville in 1910, was a classic Continental exhibition piece, albeit with a local theme.

Another postwar development was the emergence of the professional woman artist in Tennessee. The prevailing cult of domesticity discouraged careers for women, but art was grudgingly accepted as a suitable pursuit for women because of their presumed greater sensitivity. In 1887 Adelia Lutz returned to Knoxville from European study and commenced a career painting portraits, landscapes, and flower studies (especially hollyhocks) until her death in 1931. After Willie Betty Newman returned from her studies in France, she won a number of commissions for official portraits, including those of Governors James Frazier and Ben Hooper. An important addition to the artistic community was Ella Sophonisba Hergesheimer, a great-great-granddaughter of the Philadelphia painter Charles Willson Peale. She came to Nashville in 1907 to paint a portrait of Methodist Bishop Holland McTyeire, but she stayed until her death in 1937, painting portraits and landscapes, although still lifes were perhaps her best work. The state’s most notable Impressionist was a woman–Knoxville’s Catherine Wiley. Impressionism did not become fashionable in Tennessee until the turn of the century, an example of the retardataire, or cultural lag of the state. She painted a few landscapes and fewer portraits of family and friends. Most of her subjects were individual women in quiet interiors or a few women outdoors. Among her best works are Woman in Blue at a Desk, perhaps also known as The Letter (Tennessee State Museum, Nashville), Sunlit Afternoon (Greenville County Museum of Art, South Carolina), and Willow Pond (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York).

The end of the century also witnessed the tentative beginnings of an art establishment. Clarksville’s Robert Loftin Newman and Nashville’s George Dury failed in 1872 to find support for an Academy of Art in Nashville. However, in 1885 the Watkins Institute opened with a successful program of coeducational art instruction. The Nashville Art Association was founded in 1878, the Knoxville Art Circle a few years later. Both sponsored annual exhibitions.

The increasing popularity and availability of photography produced a devaluation of transcription in art. After the Civil War the artist was expected to reveal himself in his work, interpretation gained importance, and artists stressed subject matter less than form. The cult of the artist as a genius migrated from Europe and replaced the earlier idea of the painter as craftsman. However, Tennessee artists worked in a somewhat different climate, offering little room for Bohemianism or eccentricity. Wiley’s nervous breakdown, far from being compared to Van Gogh’s, was hushed up for decades. Nor was art a vital part of everyday life. One artist ruefully conceded that in Nashville, “Art was a rather nice thing done by someone’s maiden aunt or a courtly and slightly hungry old gentleman, and it was appreciated in a rather detached way by the gentle ladies of the women’s clubs.” (1)

Impressionism had not come to Tennessee until it was thoroughly respectable, even passé, in Europe, but once here it lingered into the 1930s. By then, most artists wanted to move on. Nashville’s Ella Hergesheimer was quoted in the Nashville Banner on February 26, 1938, praising the Post-impressionists for having “done something wonderful for us. They have given us design which in a great measure was lost by the impressionists, but which the great masters of the past always had.”

However, the successors of the Post-impressionists were not well received in Tennessee art circles. Mrs. Louis C. Audigier of Knoxville’s Nicholson Art League reported from Rome, “I have seen the Cubists and the Futurists, and I think it reprehensible for any government to permit the exhibition of such works–as to allow a madman the freedom of the streets.” (2) Nonetheless, that these influences reached Tennessee a generation later is evidenced in the work of such artists as Nashville’s Charles Cagle, Clarence Stagg, Avery Handly, and Philip Perkins, Memphis’s Burton Callicott, and Chattanooga’s George Cress. But until the 1960s not much Tennessee art went beyond semi-abstraction because of the state’s cultural conservatism.

Indeed, during the 1930s the New Deal encouraged a resurgence of realism in the form of Regionalism. The federal government commissioned local artists to paint murals in some thirty Tennessee post offices, including Farm and Factory by Horace Day in Clinton; Manpower and the Resources of Nature by William Zorach in Greeneville; and Farmer Family by Wendell Jones in Johnson City. Other public buildings also received murals such as those by Dean Cornwell in the Davidson County Court House and the John Sevier State Office Building in Nashville and Burton Callicott’s murals for the Memphis Museum of Natural History. These works exhibit a didactic content largely absent from earlier Tennessee art.

Another regionalist, who worked in a semi-pointillist style very different from that of the muralists, was Carroll Cloar, one of the best-known Tennessee artists of the twentieth century. His paintings include The Appleknocker (private collection) and Historic Encounter Between E. H. Crump and W. C. Handy on Beale Street (First Tennessee Bank, Memphis). Cloar observed that his family album was a source for his work, although as many of his paintings relate to his Arkansas boyhood as to his Memphis adulthood.

African American artists did not come into their own until the mid-twentieth century. Before then black artists had almost no opportunities for study, exhibition, and patronage. After emancipation, African Americans themselves relied on photographs and painted photographs for their portraits and prints for other artistic needs. Blacks were the subjects of what were called Negro studies, but these were artworks by whites for a white clientele. Perhaps the first important African American artist in Tennessee and the first to concentrate on black subject matter was Aaron Douglass. He had made his reputation as a painter of the Harlem Renaissance with geometric and stylized forms drawn from African art. He was on the faculty of Fisk University from 1936 until his death in 1969. At Fisk Douglass painted murals in the university library (now administration building), those at the north end depicting the black man in Africa, those at the south end the black man in America. Another major work of his Tennessee period is Building More Stately Mansions (Fisk University, Nashville). Under his influence the Fisk University Galleries became the first in Tennessee to emphasize African and African American art.

Out of Knoxville came two African American brothers, Beauford and Joseph Delaney, who made their marks as modern painters. Beauford Delaney worked with Lloyd Branson in Knoxville and studied in Boston before settling in Greenwich Village, where he associated with the Harlem Artists Guild. He was among the painters shown at The Negro in Contemporary Art exhibit at the Baltimore Museum in 1944. He left the states in 1953, spending the remaining twenty-six years of his life in Paris. His brother Joseph also studied in New York City, attending the Art Student League, where he worked with the famous Regionalist painter Thomas Hart Benton. He returned to Tennessee at the age of eighty-two when he became the artist-in-residence at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, in 1986.

The art infrastructure of Tennessee expanded phenomenally in the twentieth century. The Nicholson Art League of Knoxville was founded in 1906. The Brooks Museum in Memphis was founded in 1913. The Memphis Art Association began in 1914, and the Memphis Academy of Arts commenced in 1936. The Arrowmont School for Arts and Crafts in Gatlinburg was formed in 1945. Chattanooga’s Hunter Museum of Art dates to 1951, and the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga’s art gallery was founded a year later. Nashville’s Fine Arts Center at Cheekwood opened in 1957 as an outgrowth of the earlier (1924) Nashville Museum. The Dulin Gallery (now Knoxville Museum of Art) was founded in 1962, the Carroll Reece Museum in Johnson City in 1965, and the University of Memphis Art Museum in 1969. Since 1971, when the Tennessee State Museum (founded in 1937) came under the administration of the Tennessee Arts Commission (founded in 1967), it has sponsored periodic purchase competitions of Tennessee art, held retrospectives of such artists as Carroll Cloar, Arthur Orr, Paul Harmon, and Carl Sublett, and undertaken survey exhibitions of landscape painting and portraiture in the state. The other institutions also touted local talent and gave art a visibility it previously lacked. Art was taught in the public schools, and college art departments turned out artists in increasing numbers.

The contemporary art scene in Tennessee is incredibly varied. There are several art schools, many museums and commercial galleries, numerous exhibitions, frequent competitions, and far more artists than ever before. They work in almost every style and medium found elsewhere in the world. Nevertheless, no artist of the first rank has come from Tennessee, and perhaps the most renowned living Tennessee artist, Red Grooms, is best known for his installations based on life in Chicago and New York. A telling statistic is that Tennessee seems mired near the bottom in per capita state spending on the arts.

Suggested Reading

William H. Gerdts, “Virginia,” in The South and the Midwest: Art Across America: Regional Painting in America, 1710-1920 (1990); James C. Kelly, “Landscape and Genre Painting in Tennessee, 1810-1985,” Tennessee Historical Quarterly 44 (1985): 7-152 and “Portrait Painting in Tennessee,” Tennessee Historical Quarterly 46 (1987): 193-276; Frederick C. Moffatt, “Painting, Sculpture, and Photography,” in Heart of the Valley: A History of Knoxville, Tennessee, ed. Lucile Deaderick (1976): 424-38; Jessie Poesch, The Art of the Old South, Painting, Sculpture, Architecture, and the Products of Craftsmen, 1560-1860 (1983)

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title Art
  • Author
  • Website Name Tennessee Encyclopedia
  • URL
  • Access Date July 24, 2024
  • Publisher Tennessee Historical Society
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update March 1, 2018