The Higher Ground story begins in the second half of the 19th century, which is the first period in which East Tennessee boasted a community of active, professional artists. This development stemmed from a period of prosperity fueled by booming local industries such as marble quarrying, mineral mining, and lumbering. Railroads soon linked East Tennessee to other urban centers and sparked further growth. Knoxville became the hub of economic and artistic activity within the region.
In the early days of East Tennessee’s first community of professional artists, several painters loom large. Native son and child prodigy Lloyd Branson returned from studies in Europe and became a guiding force for art in Knoxville, both as teacher and as a painter of portraits and landscapes. After studying with Branson, Catherine Wiley mastered impressionism while studying art in New York and introduced the style to artists and patrons in her hometown. Often portraying the domestic world of women and children, Wiley’s luminous canvases became increasingly bold and expressive until her career was cut short by mental illness in 1926.
Charles Krutch, dubbed the “Corot of the South” for his soft, atmospheric style, was among the earliest local artists to focus his brush on the Smokies. He traveled deep into the mountains and captured their ever-changing character in scores of oil and watercolor paintings. Branson, Wiley, and Krutch banded together with other local artists and art patrons to form the Nicholson Art League (1906-1923), and organized large-scale art exhibitions for three major cultural expositions held at Knoxville’s Chilhowee Park: the Appalachian Exposition of 1910 and 1911, and the National Conservation Exposition of 1913. Each of these exhibitions included important regional artists’ works along with those by dozens of internationally-known American artists of the day, including Mary Cassatt, Robert Henri, John White. Alexander, and Ernest Lawson.
Born in Knox County (now part of Union County, TN), Lloyd Branson moved to Knoxville as a youth, where he is said to have been encouraged to pursue art by Dr. John M. Boyd, a prominent Knoxville physician. Branson’s prodigious talent led to his being nicknamed the “boy artist.” His first art teacher was portrait painter Flavius J. Fisher, in whose Knoxville studio Branson worked and studied from 1869 to 1871. After leaving the University of Tennessee due to its lack of an art program, he enrolled at the renowned National Academy of Design in New York and won a prize there in 1875 that enabled him to study in Europe. He returned to Knoxville in 1878 where his refined style set him apart from most of his fellow painters. At the turn of century, Branson’s activities were based in a studio building he shared with photographer Frank McCrary at 130 Gay Street. Download Branson's Full Bio
After spending most of his career as a missionary, Campbell came to Knoxville in 1893 to focus on landscape painting. This is a classic example of the small, intimate scenes of everyday pastoral life in East Tennessee for which the artist was known. In addition to his studio practice, Campbell was active as a teacher and founded the art department at Maryville College.
Krutch is regarded as one of East Tennessee’s first painters to specialize in scenes of the Smoky Mountains. Krutch earned the nickname “Corot of the South” for his soft, atmospheric watercolor and oil paintings of the mountain range that served as his sole focus. Totally untrained as an artist, he often applied thick layers of oil paint with brushes as well as his fingers. Krutch’s goal was to capture the changing “moods” of the mountains.
Anna Catherine Wiley was one of the most active, accomplished and influential artists in Knoxville during the early 20th century. She returned to Knoxville following her studies and brought with her a mastery of Impressionism. Wiley specialized in quiet domestic scenes of women amid their daily lives rendered in thick, brightly colored paint.