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This story originally appeared in the Spring 2022 print edition of the Tennessee State Museum Quarterly Newsletter.
By Candice Roland Candeto
Born from a desire to look closely at the vast collection of the Tennessee State Museum, especially art and artifacts not permanently on display, and consider anew the stories objects tell about the past, Painting the Smokies: Art, Community, and the Making of a National Park highlights the Tennessee State Museum’s collection of Smoky Mountain landscape paintings and artifacts.
Five artists active in the region in the early 1900s – Charles Krutch, Thomas Campbell, Rudolph Ingerle, Will Henry Stevens, and Louis E. Jones – each created images that capture the enduring power of the Smokies to inspire tourism, activism, and art. However, these five white men, four of them from outside Tennessee, brought specific and limited perspectives to the Smokies. Allowing other objects from the Museum’s collection to respond to these works of art presents the opportunity to hear different voices. These include some of the oldest residents of the land, the Cherokee; the White, Black, and Indigenous craftspeople who adapted traditions in response to tourism; women artists and activists who led their communities in a time of great change; and the rural residents of the Smokies who were personally affected by the creation of the park. Placing the landscape artists’s work in conversation with artifacts, the exhibition tells an expansive and inclusive story of the creation of Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Charles C. Krutch, Untitled: Mountain Landscape with Stream, 1930–1933, Watercolor on paper, 83.99.3
The American artistic tradition of looking to the natural world for spiritual significance and cultural identity had been solidified a generation earlier by a group of painters known as the Hudson River School. Paint and ink were spilled in abundance to celebrate the northern Appalachians and Western Rockies in art and literature in the mid-1800s. In southern Appalachia, the Smokies— the ancestral home of the Cherokee in modern-day Tennessee and North Carolina—remained relatively unknown.
By 1900, however, the region had become the subject of national fascination. Art, photography, and literature presented an image of a mysterious land shrouded in mist, marked by strange customs and frozen in time. Writers like Horace Kephart spread appreciation for the mountains, as well as harmful stereotypes about local residents, to eager readers across the country.
Charles C. Krutch, Untitled Tennessee Mountain Landscape, 1910-1934, oil on canvas, 2018.87.2
Born in 1849, Knoxville artist Charles Krutch painted grand vistas, his scenes often dominated by the iconic mist that gave the Smokies their name. His paintings reflect a Tennessean’s familiarity with the landscape, and, despite being self-taught, an awareness of the tradition of infusing the landscape with meaning and awe.
The Smokies’s cultural landscape and natural beauty inspired fascination with the mountains in the early 1900s. Kephart called rural residents “contemporary ancestors” for their perceived isolation from modern society, despite the region’s diversity and interconnectedness. Based in Chicago, Rudolph Ingerle arrived in the Smokies in the late 1920s and fell in love with the “most paintable” mountains. Ingerle’s landscapes display his masterful treatment of light, presenting breathtaking mountainsides that glow in all seasons.
"Salt of the Earth," Rudolph F. Ingerle, 1930, oil on canvas, Courtesy Rockford Art Museum, Rockford, Illinois
Ingerle’s portraits, however, demonstrate his dual inspirations. A painting of a couple on their porch in western North Carolina captures his interest in the people of rural America, the same spirit represented in Grant Wood’s familiar American Gothic. On loan from the Rockford Art Museum, the work is revealingly titled Salt of the Earth, or alternatively, Southern Highlanders—the name of Horace Kephart’s popular book.
As the nation “discovered” Appalachia, Knoxville carefully crafted its image as a leader for the New South. Countering stereotypes of backwardness and isolation, Knoxvillians organized the Appalachian Expositions of 1910 and 1911 to celebrate the region’s progress and potential on a national stage. Painting supported their goals. The Nicholson Art League fostered art in the community through exhibitions and lectures, including at the Exposition. League member Thomas Campbell helped elevate art in the region as the founding director of the Maryville College art department.
Untitled: Pastoral Landscape, Thomas C. Campbell, 1900–1914, oil on board, 2019.106.2.1
While the League’s paintings reached relatively few people, the power of painting came from its association with the elite: fashionable, European-influenced art was situated to bolster East Tennessee’s branding as sophisticated, worldly, and open for business.
However, this messaging obscured challenges East Tennesseans faced, especially persons of color. Black soldiers who had served during World War I returned to the Jim Crow South with renewed demands for justice. Seeking opportunities in the North, many African Americans left Tennessee as part of the Great Migration. Black women and men who stayed, perhaps like the unknown woman Campbell painted in a rare deviation from his pastoral landscapes, helped grow the region through their often exploited, unacknowledged contributions.
Knoxville’s progressive persona was shaken during a period of nationwide racial violence known as the Red Summer. In August 1919, Maurice Mays, a Black Knoxvillian, was arrested for the murder of Bertie Lindsey, a white woman. After attacking the jail looking for Mays, a white mob terrorized Black neighborhoods and businesses over two nights of violence that led to multiple deaths. Mays maintained his innocence until his execution in 1922.
Untitled: Portrait of a Black Woman, Thomas C. Campbell, 1900-1914, oil on canvas, 81.175.1
The quiet experiences represented by Campbell’s unidentified portrait and the deafening blast of the 1919 riot both countered the vision Knoxville promoted of a peaceful, progressive city. Considering Campbell’s calming landscapes in conversation with Red Summer headlines, the artist’s portrait of an unidentified Black woman then highlights a fuller picture of the region.
Against this backdrop, a grassroots movement to establish a national park in the Smokies arose. Logging companies in just twenty years had clear-cut roughly 300,000 acres. Desiring to preserve the landscape and profit from new tourism, boosters pushed for the national park in the East. Photography, not painting, created their most powerful images toward this goal. Stunning photographs like those by George Masa and brothers Jim and Robin Thompson were inexpensively reproduced and widely shared, capturing the region’s unparalleled beauty and the devastation of logging. The medium uniquely captured the lure of the Smokies: the same spirit that compelled artists to paint fueled interest in preserving, and profiting from, the mountains in the early 1900s.
After Congress established provisions for the new park in 1926, a flurry of lobbying and fundraising brought the park to fruition in 1934. During that time, the remaining two artists featured in the exhibition, Will Henry Stevens and Louis E. Jones, each arrived in the Smokies in search of inspiration. Will Henry Stevens was so moved by the connection to nature and the past he felt in the Smokies that he established an art school in Gatlinburg. Stevens’ work demonstrates the period’s tension between modern and traditional ways of painting: he experimented with abstraction and non-objective compositions, but never fully abandoned traditional subjects. Pastels featured in the exhibition demonstrate Stevens’ range and the ways in which the irresistible allure of the Smokies served as a laboratory for artistic experimentation in a transitional era of American art.
Will Henry Stevens, Untitled: Abstract Mountain Landscape, 1930, pastel on paper, 1999.50.13
The exhibition uses artifacts to complement and inform landscape paintings of the Smokies, repopulating the mountain scenes with the people who shaped the region. A coverlet sample woven by the famous Walker Sisters of Little Greenbrier is a tangible connection to the women who demanded to stay when their family property was included within the park boundary. Even for the Walkers, who ultimately negotiated a lifetime lease, the park brought significant change. Considering the stories of people displaced by the park sheds light on the variety of meanings the Smokies held. For Stevens, the Smokies meant inspiration. For the Walkers, the Smokies were home.
Coverlet sample, Walker Family, about 1930, 87.41
Unsatisfied with the mountains near his home in Woodstock, New York, Louis E. Jones found in the Smokies the “spiritual significance” and “charm of mystery” he sought for his art. Like Stevens, Jones’s vibrant paintings show the artist’s exploration of style and technique, ranging from impressionistic falling leaves to abstracted rocky mountainsides. Where other artists made only seasonal trips to the mountains, Jones stayed in Gatlinburg for the rest of his life and is today best remembered not for his paintings but for his founding of the Cliff Dwellers, a studio and gift shop that became the cornerstone of an arts and crafts community still thriving in Gatlinburg. Placing Jones’s paintings in dialogue with regional souvenirs examines how the allure of the Smokies was manifested in take-home connections to the mountains.
"Pumpkin Patch," Louis E. Jones, 1929-1955, oil on canvas, 85.103.1
Great Smoky Mountains National Park was dedicated on September 2, 1940, forever changing East Tennessee. The product of a grassroots campaign, the park quickly became a national playground, reaching a million visitors a year by 1941. Jones’s strategy to profit from park tourists demonstrates the ways in which local residents, craftspeople, and artists responded to change in the region after Cherokee basket weaver Rowena Bradley, for example, preserved her cultural artistry while supporting her community through profitable new forms that appealed to tourists, like the purse basket.
Purse-style basket, Eddie Bradley, 2022.5.1.1
Painting the Smokies explores these stories and more, encouraging visitors to find new ways of enjoying and learning from art and artifacts. The show runs through January 15, 2023 and is complemented by a robust calendar of events that will only add more to your appreciation and understanding of the Great Smoky Mountains.
Candice Roland Candeto is a Tennessee State Museum curator