A Portrait of the Artist: Lloyd Branson

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Lloyd Branson was the first Knoxvillian who made an entire career of art. Though he lived in a practical, industrial city and had no ongoing affiliation with a university or other educational institution, for half a century he somehow made a living as an artist. But to pull it off, he couldn’t discriminate much. He answered the demand for art wherever he found it.

Few figures embraced both the high and the low to the extent Branson did. He was a transitional figure, beginning with the flat, conservative, almost primitive styles of painting he started with in the years just after the Civil War—some of his earliest paintings look, stylistically, like they belong to the pioneer days. But as he matured, the same Branson flirted with impressionism and even more-modern styles.

And he’s an enigma. Although he was a prominent figure in Knoxville a century ago, and no recluse, many basic details about his life are as blurry as some of his impressionist-influenced canvases.

Was he married? His family has mostly held that he was a lifelong bachelor. In 1957, both daily newspapers ran obituary articles about an elderly woman named Mollie Branson, dominated by descriptions of her husband, the famous artist. But scholars have determined that woman was married to another man named Lloyd Branson. The artist’s younger brother, also an artist, married three times. Lloyd was a handsome young man who enjoyed the association of women. But the best evidence at the moment is that in his 72 years, Lloyd Branson never married at all.

Others have claimed, without any clear evidence, that he was quietly gay. It would have to have been very quiet, obviously, during the Victorian era. Even John Singer Sargent, an artist a little younger than Branson who lived in cosmopolitan cities of Europe and who’s much better studied, leaves biographers guessing.

Others, citing the very vague evidence of a 1911 nude portrait of a woman shielding her eyes, that he had a longtime love affair with Catherine Wiley, the impressionist remembered today as the most accomplished painter of her time and place. She never married, either, and her career ended abruptly, months after Branson’s death, when she was committed to a mental institution in Pennsylvania. Is there meaning in that coincidence? We don’t know, because she’s quite a mystery, too.

Did he travel extensively in Europe? There are claims published in his own time that he sojourned among the art centers of Paris and elsewhere at least twice, once when he was studying at the famous Barbizon school, and once when he was exhibiting. But details and evidence of these trips are scant to nonexistent. Although some of his paintings were on exhibit at the 1900 World’s Fair in Paris, a stray comment in a letter suggests he may never have crossed the ocean in his life.

Even the simplest questions—was he rich or poor?—are elusive. Until he was an old man, he never lived in his own house, often boarding with other families or residing in his walk-up studio. He lived like a pauper. In his later years, he sometimes seemed a philanthropist, helping younger artists financially. At the time of his death, his savings were enough to live on very comfortably for years.

About his paintings, it’s hard to make blanket statements or draw conclusions about the art, or the artist. Most of his paintings are conservative or even old-fashioned in style, often commercial, sometimes pandering to racial stereotypes and lowbrow sensibilities. But a few Bransons, especially his outdoor scenes, could be called brilliant, and might not be out of place in the major museums of the world. His 1890s work began to show suggestions of the then-current style known as impressionism. And the reason Branson has been mentioned in some nationally published books and articles is that as an old man he nurtured the career of Beauford Delaney, one of the 20th century’s most accomplished black abstract expressionists.

He liked people, and liked to tell stories, but sometimes declined to talk about himself.

***

Here’s what we do know about Lloyd Branson:

He was born on a farm in what was then part of northeast Knox County, but a part that split off to become Union County when he was a small boy. Some authoritative sources give him a birth date in 1854, but research proves it was 1853, the year of the birth of Vincent Van Gogh.

His family moved to Knoxville in 1868, and the teenaged Branson found work in a local brickyard. There are several slightly different versions of the story of exactly how and when some local philanthropists led by railroad magnate Charles McClung McGhee (who later endowed the Lawson McGhee Library) and leading Knoxville physician John Mason Boyd (a pioneer in gynecological surgery, and the same guy memorialized on the Knox County Courthouse lawn as “Our Beloved Physician”) noticed Branson’s talent and offered to help. Boyd had observed the boy creating, on a cigar box, a painting with homemade paints of Gen. Grant. By some accounts it was a charcoal sketch, by others a woodcut. Some have claimed it was from life—Grant was here for a short time in the winter of 1863-64, but by another story Branson saw Grant here just after the war. In any case, Branson’s rich new friends helped subsidized his education at East Tennessee University, just before it was known as UT.

Branson made some of his earliest paintings without any training. Two of his earliest known pieces, conventional portraits of a man and a woman, hang with some honor at the McClung Collection’s Reading Room. They were completed when Branson was barely 20. About that time, with the encouragement and support of his early patrons, he took the train north to New York to study at the National Academy of Design. He won awards, including a first-place medal in 1875 for a drawing of a gladiator. However, his original money ran out, and though his patrons kept offering him portrait work, his formal training ended before he wanted it to.

Back in Knoxville, first working with Prussian-born photographer Theodore Schleier, who had a studio at Gay and Jackson, near the train station, Branson got into the portrait-painting business.

The demand for portraits would dog his life. In the early 1880s he formed a partnership with photographer Frank McCrary to found a portrait studio and framing shop in the second floor of a gabled storybook building on the 600 block of Gay Street. For 20 years, the McCrary & Branson studio was where middle-class and wealthy Knoxvillians went to get their portraits made, or to get a favorite print framed. It was also where a few of Knoxville’s affluent learned the craft of painting, with lessons from Branson himself. Among his early students was Adelia Armstrong Lutz, who later studied art in Paris, and Mortimer Thompson (father of the famous photographer Jim Thompson), who made something of a career as an artist himself.

The firm sometimes included Branson’s photographer/painter brother Oliver Branson, as well as Oliver’s first wife, Laura, who later led her own firm using the Branson name. So a painting or photograph associated with the Branson name is not always immediately attributable to Lloyd Branson.

By 1891, he was privately complaining about the portrait-production industry he’d created. He had produced “hundreds of the stiff things… ‘ground out’ hundreds of portraits at $25 to $50 the head,” he wrote in a letter discovered just last month by Museum of East Tennessee History curator Adam Alfrey. “My chief drawback is having to do such drudgery.”

To make a living, portrait artists are required not only to flatter the subject but to match a patron’s aesthetic sense. They’re not always a reliable gauge of an artist’s talent. Some of his portraits glow with life. Others seem like quick illustrations. Others just seem unfinished, or just odd. Together, they wouldn’t seem to suggest the same artist painted them.

He worked harder on the entries he sent to exhibitions, and two Bransons were accepted for a prestigious exhibition at the National Academy of Design in New York in 1891. At the time, Branson was especially proud of his painting, “Women at Work.”

Another piece depicted a team of horses straining to pull a heavy load of marble over a hill. A Knoxville Daily Tribune article described it in 1890: “The piece is so real you feel when looking at it that it cannot be a picture but the real scene so often viewed upon our streets.” For the next 25 years, through various reworkings and various titles—“Hauling Marble,” “Rock Haulers,” “The Toilers”—it would be Branson’s most talked-about group of artwork. Today, the big oil still seems to generate light and motion.

Through a collection in Boston, Alfrey discovered a cache of letters to Massachusetts politician George Crocker, who bought Branson’s portrait of a “poor, gray girl” in the mountains. The letters give us a rare glimpse into Branson’s life in the summer of 1891.

Branson deflected Crocker’s request for biographical information. “There is a great sameness in most biographical sketches and my own is not different from many thousands of others and it has been just such that it is not pleasant for me to think of. I would rather think of painting.

“This is my native place,” he said of Knoxville. “Born near this town within a few miles of [the] birth place of Admiral Farragut.”

Reversing the migration pattern favored by geese, and Knoxville’s wealthier families, Branson spent winters in New York, and summers in Knoxville, with occasional vacations to Hot Springs, N.C.

“I am not well known at N.Y.,” he wrote. “Not known widely in the art world and misunderstood at home is my—This is my blue tide of it.” It’s not known what he meant by that truncation of a sentence, and that colorful phrase, but at this most creative period of his life, he was obviously frustrated, perhaps depressed.

Branson did very little sculpting in his life, but carved, out of soap, a model carved by others to become the Confederate statue at Bethel Cemetery in East Knoxville. He attended the 1892 unveiling. He does not seem to have been a partisan. Branson also painted Union heroes, and one of his best friends and supporters was John Bell Brownlow, son of “Parson” W.G. Brownlow, the fierce Unionist.

Branson exhibited at the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893 and at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo in 1901. He won a medal at Atlanta’s Cotton States Exhibition in 1895.

Historians have long assumed, and occasionally claimed, that Lloyd Branson studied in Europe. His close friend and sometime student Adelia Armstrong Lutz did live in Paris for several months, studying art. Branson was not as wealthy as she was.

Through letters, Alfrey has concluded that though Branson hoped to get to Europe a couple of times in his life, and exhibited at the Paris Exposition in 1900, he never crossed the ocean in person.

Sometimes, though, the world came to him.

By happenstance, one of the Wild West’s most notorious outlaws, Harvey Logan, aka “Kid Curry,” landed in a jail in Knoxville. Branson found his way into the jail to sketch the desperado, a few months before his final escape and disappearance in 1903. It may be the last image ever made of Logan.

By 1900, Branson was central to a fairly cosmopolitan organization called the Nicholson Art League, which included architect George Barber, Austrian-American photographer Joseph Knaffl, and impressionist Charles Krutch. Branson was central to the NAL during its most dynamic years, and through that organization he was personally prominent at the three big expositions at Chilhowee Park of 1910 to 1913, whose Fine Arts pavilion drew works by some of America’s groundbreaking artists, including Mary Cassatt, Childe Hassam, Robert Henri, and many others.

At the 1910 fair, Branson’s “The Toilers,” perhaps his masterpiece, took a top prize.

In middle age, Branson seems to have tilted toward historical and patriotic subjects. The state centennial of 1896-97 increased interest and demand for heroic scenes of the Revolutionary War and early pioneers, and the First World War brought a second wave of patriotic fervor in art. Much talked about was Branson’s painting of the key Battle of King’s Mountain, which multiple sources from the era say was prominent in the lobby of the Imperial Hotel at Gay and Clinch. But even that’s another Bransonian puzzle. Other sources state that painting was the work of James Wallace. Maybe that battle was a theme in the lobby, and both artists had interpretations there. In any case, the hotel, and all the artwork in it, was destroyed by fire in 1916.

In 1919, for the new Farragut Hotel that replaced the Imperial, Branson painted a large oil of Admiral David Farragut, from a photograph. It hung there for 50 years, and now adorns the McClung Collection’s Reading Room.

Around that time, he was nurturing the career of a young black kid from East Vine Street. Beauford Delaney showed an early talent for art, and got a job as a “porter” at Branson’s Gay Street studio. Branson helped train Delaney in the basics of light and color. Branson’s tutelage and support is outlined in David Leeming’s 1998 biography, Amazing Grace: A Life of Beauford Delaney, which got national attention.

In old age, Branson finally settled in a house of his own, on a rise above Broadway in North Knoxville, on Rhode Island Street, which the city soon renamed Branson Street.

One of Branson’s last works was a portrait of Tennessee hero Sgt. Alvin York, likely from life; York then lived about 100 miles away in Fentress County.

His tombstone at Old Gray Cemetery references only one painting, as if it were the main accomplishment of Branson’s career: “The Tennessee artist whose genius created the picture ‘Sycamore Shoals,’ and by it immortalized the turning point that meant lasting victory in the American Revolution 1780.” Although Branson reportedly worked on the painting for many years, it was not one of the paintings most celebrated during his career. The stone has no mention of his prizes at the Academy, the paintings that got him attention at expositions from Knoxville to Paris.

Lloyd Branson's home, purchased for preservation by Knox Heritage.

Lloyd Branson’s home, purchased for preservation by Knox Heritage.

It was not at all unusual for markers to be installed years or even decades after the subject’s death. It could be that an individual donor or organization was especially fond of that painting, and deemed it Branson’s most notable work.

In 2012, Branson’s cousins produced a book, The Art of Lloyd Branson: A Family Connection. Meanwhile, Knox Heritage has purchased his final home, the simple house on Branson Street, with plans to renovate it for future use as a residence.

The East Tennessee Historical Society’s Branson exhibition offers a unprecedented perspective on an important local artist. 

WHO
Lloyd Branson, 1853-1925

WHAT
Celebrating a Life in Tennessee Art

WHERE
Museum of East Tennessee History

WHEN
Nov. 7-March 20

INFO
easttnhistory.org/lloydbranson

The stories behind some of the paintings featured above:

Courtesy of Thomas L. Howard and Heiskell M. Howard

Courtesy of Thomas L. Howard and Heiskell M. Howard

Robert James McKinney, the scion of a wealthy family who lived in a mansion on Main Street, died in 1888 of meningitis. Branson’s portrait of the 6-year-old boy with his riding crop was so beloved it was interpreted in marble as McKinney’s grave statue. Sometimes called the “Little Lord Fauntleroy” statue, after the then-recent novel by former Knoxvillian Frances Hodgson Burnett, it originally stood at Old Gray, but was later moved to Greenwood Cemetery.

COVER_1105_BerryThe large portrait of Ellen McClung Berry (1894-1992) was a product of Branson’s later career, completed in 1920, when he was about 66. Just 26 at the time she posed for this portrait, Berry was wealthy and went on to live a very long life, much of it in the family’s mansion, Belcaro, above Fountain City. But she suffered multiple tragedies, including the 1951 murder of her mother by her son. Her exploitation by a con man became the subject of an episode of Unsolved Mysteries. A member of one of Knoxville’s oldest families, she was the donor of UT’s McClung Tower.

Courtesy of the McClung Museum of Natural History and Culture, bequest of Judge John Webb Green and Ellen McClung Green

Courtesy of the McClung Museum of Natural History and Culture, bequest of Judge John Webb Green and Ellen McClung Green

Perhaps Branson’s masterpiece, “The Toilers,” sometimes called “The Hauling of Marble,” was the star of the Fine Arts Pavilion at the Appalachian Exposition of 1910. The artist began working with the theme around 1890, and several versions exist. The finished painting suggests some influences of French impressionism.

Courtesy of Tennessee State Museum, Nashville

Courtesy of Tennessee State Museum, Nashville

Branson became more and more interested in early regional history as he got older, and reportedly worked for 14 years on this image of “The Gathering of Overmountain Men at Sycamore Shoals” before the Revolutionary War Battle of King’s Mountain. Completed in 1915, when Branson was in his 60s, it’s the one painting referenced on his gravestone. Branson’s “Knoxville City Flag,” designed in response to a Chamber of Commerce contest for a cash prize, was unveiled at a Knoxville Fall Trade Carnival of 1896. It was used for some years, but is now almost forgotten.

Courtesy of Calvin M. McClung Historical Collection

Courtesy of Calvin M. McClung Historical Collection

“Women at Work” is one of the artworks of which Branson was proudest. Exhibited at the National Academy of Design in New York in 1891, it is now owned by the Calvin M. McClung Historical Collection in Knoxville.

Contributing Editor & Writer |

Jack Neely is the director of the Knoxville History Project, a nonprofit devoted to exploring, disseminating, and celebrating Knoxville's cultural heritage. He’s also one of the most popular and influential writers in the area, known for his books and columns. The Scruffy Citizen surveys the city of Knoxville's life and culture in the context of its history, with emphasis on what makes it unique and how its past continues to affect and inform its future. You can reach Jack at jack@jackneely.com

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