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By Jim Hoobler
Borrowing from the title of one of Gabriel García Márquez’s most popular works (Love in the Time of Cholera) I think of art in the time of coronavirus as a great way to destress. With museums closed to visitors, the internet has become our platform to view great works from iconic institutions around the world. The Tennessee State Museum has, in my opinion, the finest collection of art from Tennessee, and perhaps one of the largest art collections in the state.
Emmeline with her Doll by William Gilbert Gaul, oil on canvas, 1909 (Tennessee State Museum collection 2002.84.1)
William Gilbert Gaul was, until recently, one of our best-known and most-beloved artists to have worked in Tennessee. Born in 1855, he was a native of New Jersey, but his mother was from Van Buren County, Tennessee. When the Civil War started, he was only six-years-old. Having a southern mother, he had a perspective on the war that would have been much different than that of those he was growing up around.
He studied under J. G. Brown when he entered the National Academy of Design in 1872. In 1875, he also joined the newly formed Art Students League. His career began to take off, and in 1882, at age 27, he was elected as a Full Academician, making him the youngest full member on record. In that year’s annual exhibition, he sold Charging the Battery for $1,500, a record amount at that time for a living American artist. That painting, now part of the New-York Historical Society Museum & Library collection, also won a medal at the Paris Exposition in 1889.
Inheriting his Uncle Hiram Gilbert’s farm in Van Buren County, he moved there, and periodically lived on that land, dividing his time with Nashville, New York, and travels until moving back to New Jersey in 1910.
Nashville Park by William Gibert Gaul, oil on canvas, 1905-10 (Tennessee State Museum collection, 84.63)
We long now for times when we can get outside, interact with friends and strangers, and enjoy physical activities in nature together. Gaul enjoyed those things too, like all of us, and he painted them. In Nashville Park, painted about 1905-1910, he depicts a woman out for a stroll with her dog. The landscape is hilly and wooded, so it is probably what would become Shelby Park in 1912. In 1890 that land had been set aside by the Edgefield Land Company for amusement and recreation. The Fatherland Street/Shelby Avenue street car line brought people to the edge of the heavily wooded retreat along the Cumberland River, and there the company operated an amusement park. We all long for days back together in our parks.
Children, Isle of Palms by William Gilbert Gaul, oil on canvas, 1909 (Tennessee State Museum collection, 2002.84.2)
Two Girls with Dolls by William Gilbert Gaul, oil on canvas, 1909 (Tennessee State Museum collection, 2002.84.6)
We also long for children to be able to play, for days at the beach, and times to return to normal. Gaul painted his step-daughter playing on the front steps, out in a bucolic landscape, and at the beach. Those days will return, but for now let’s enjoy these views of a time and place that are gone, but live on in these paintings at your Tennessee State Museum.
Jim Hoobler is the Tennessee State Museum senior curator of art and architecture.
Gilbert Gaul: American Realist, James A. Hoobler, Tennessee State Museum, 1999.
Shelby Past & Present: A Centennial Commemorative, William R Schumm, privately printed, 2012.