Today’s Adopt-An-Object highlights an important Knoxville artist and family.
Lloyd Branson (1853–1925) is one of Knoxville’s most celebrated artists. Branson was born in what was then Union County, Tennessee, but spent most of his life in the Knoxville area. In 1873 he moved to New York to study at the National Academy of Design where he won a first prize in 1875. That allowed him to travel in Europe, but in 1876 he returned to Knoxville.
Once back in Knoxville, Branson became an important local figure in the arts scene. By 1880, he had helped open the McCrary and Branson Studio, which created photographic and painted portraits. He also became a teacher to some of Knoxville’s most notable artists, including Beauford Delaney (1901–1979).
With thirty paintings by Lloyd Branson, the McClung Museum has one of the largest collections of the artist’s work in any institution. While he created landscapes and historical paintings, Branson was best known for portraits, often produced from photos and featuring somber-looking sitters posed against dark backgrounds, gaze directed as though looking into a camera. Indeed, many of these painted portraits were done directly from photographs, explaining their somewhat stiff nature.
This portrait of Tille McClung stands out for its sensitive portrayal of the young girl, who died in 1873 at the age of thirteen. Unlike many other Branson portraits, the brushwork is delicate and light-handed, and the life and light emanating from Tillie’s thoughtful gaze bely her (what we assume to be) tragic death. Unfortunately, we do not know how she died.
Matilda Mills McClung (1859–1873), known as Tillie, was born to Franklin Henry McClung, Sr., and Eliza Ann McClung. Tillie’s sister, Ellen McClung Green, and Ellen’s husband Judge John W. Green, bequeathed the money to found the McClung Museum. The museum was named in honor of Ellen and Tillie’s father, Frank H. McClung. The painting was likely based off of a now-faded c. 1873 cabinet photograph of Tillie, also in our collection.
Unfortunately, the extensive family records of Calvin McClung located in the Calvin M. McClung Historical Collection at the Knox Co. Public Library don’t turn up any more details on Tillie, and neither does her obituary, which appears in the August 1, 1873 Knoxville Chronicle newspaper. Thus, the cause of her death remains a mystery. Steve Cotham of the Historical Collection, who graciously helped with research on Tillie McClung, did note that there was a cholera outbreak in 1873 and often families did not want to note this cause of death.
Before the painting was unframed, losses and some craquelure (cracking) were found throughout the work, and the frame had significant damage. After unframing, there is also fading on the painting’s surface in the oval-shaped opening of the original frame.
This is a very popular painting for Academic Programs at the museum, used to deepen conversations about class, race, gender, and portraiture around the turn of the century in East Tennessee and America. By contributing to the conservation of this painting, you will enable our educational outreach and help preserve the legacy of one of Tennessee’s great artists––Lloyd Branson