Tennessee Visual Arts

From early petroglyphs to contemporary paintings, the visual arts of Tennessee provide great insight into the regional culture

Art Awareness

In comparison to the present popularity of visual arts in Tennessee, the history of interest in visual art mediums is relatively brief. But with the development of photography and the growing appreciation for other mediums, the visual arts have become a firmly established part of Tennessee's culture.

Accounts of Art History

The Native American tribes living in the region were the first artists of the state. However, their works mainly consisted of decoration for functional items, like petroglyphs or paintings on leather shirts and tipi covers.

Early European settlers expressed little interest in the visual arts culture. It was the second generation of European settlers that created a small demand for art, which mostly came in the form of family portraits painted by craftsmen with some talent for painting. Unfortunately, there wasn't a large enough demand for artists, which meant that it was almost impossible to make a living from the skill.

Ralph E. W. Earl would become the first professional painter in Tennessee. Earl arrived in Nashville in 1817 and quickly acquired a patron in Andrew Jackson when Jackson hired Earl to paint his portrait. Earl eventually married into Jackson's family and lived with him at his home. He continued to paint family portraits in Nashville until 1829, when he moved to Washington, D.C., to live in the White House with Jackson.

In 1830, Washington Bogart Cooper opened a studio in Nashville and replaced Earl as the state's only full-time artist. Cooper managed to meet his financial needs by painting portraits alone, painting around 35 per year. For 50 years he made a living this way, eventually earning himself the title "The Man of a Thousand Portraits."

While portraits were the only true way for an artist to make some kind of a living in Tennessee, there were painters experimenting in other areas. The War of 1812 fueled the patriotic pride of the country and combined with the Romantic movement to create landscape art. Many consider James Cameron to be the greatest Tennessee landscape painter. His most famous painting was Colonel Whiteside and Family, which can be seen today hanging in the Hunter Museum of Art in Chattanooga.

The onset of the Civil War nearly wiped out the demand for art in Tennessee. Most painters left the state to flee the devastation and hardships that most citizens were facing. However, with the end of the war came a demand for art again. Artists who had remained in the state, and those newly arrived, found a large demand for portraits once again. In addition, historical genre painting also became popular. Several artists produced renderings of battle scenes from the Civil War. The most famous among them was Gilbert Gaul, who won a bronze medal at the Paris Exposition in 1889 for his painting Charging the Battering. Gaul was actually one of the first well-known Tennessean artists who did not paint portraits to make a living.

Amplified Interest in Art

Tennessee's art scene expanded exponentially in the 20th century. In 1906, the Nicholson Art League was founded, and in 1913 the Brooks Museum in Memphis was founded, followed by the Memphis Art Association in 1914 and the Memphis Academy of Art in 1936. Today, visitors can also view visual works of art at the Hunter Museum of American Art in Chattanooga's Bluff View Arts District, which has one of the largest collections of American art in the nation. Not only is its permanent collection regarded as one of the country's largest, but it is also considered as one of the most important gatherings of American art in the Southeast region. The museum is a great place for families to get an eye full of American history through the medium of visual arts.

The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga's Cress Gallery of Art is another place to check out the state's visual art offerings. The gallery features revolving exhibitions of work from both national and regional artists, as well as from students and faculty of the University. Another sight to see is one of the most spectacular architectural structures in the state: the Parthenon in Nashville. It is a full scale replica of ancient Greece origins and houses the Athena statue, the largest indoor structure in the Western hemisphere. It also houses an art museum. In Paris, TN, vacationers will find an almost exact replica of the Eiffel Tower, a wonderful alternative for those who aren't able to see the European original.

Other museums in Tennessee where visual arts enthusiasts can go to find great art include:

  • The Carroll Reece Museum at East Tennessee State University (Johnson City)

  • Knoxville Museum of Art

  • McClung Museum at the University of Tennessee (Knoxville)

  • Art Museum of the University of Memphis

  • Dixon Gallery and Gardens (Memphis)

  • Memphis Brooks Museum of Art

  • University of Memphis Institute of Egyptian Art and Archeology

  • Cheekwood Museum of Art (Nashville)

  • Frist Center for the Visual Arts Tennessee State Museum (Nashville)

  • Vanderbilt University Fine Arts Gallery (Nashville)

Along with museums, there are many galleries located throughout the state where visitors can go to experience, as well as purchase, fine art. Here are some of the state's galleries listed below by location:

Memphis: Nashville: In Other Locations
Art Village Gallery The Arts Company The Art Market Gallery (Knoxville)
Artists on Central Bennett Galleries Nashville Artspace4 Gallery (Greeneville)
David Lusk Gallery Cumberland Gallery Bennett Galleries and Company (Knoxville)
DCI Gallery American Artisan Inc. Boone's Creek Potter's Gallery (Johnson City)
D'Edge Art Finer Things Gallery Desert Fire Gallery (Old Hickory)
Fountain Art Gallery Gallery One Gold Leaf Designs & Gallery (Chattanooga)
Jay Etkin Gallery Helios Artglassworks and Gallery Hanson Gallery (Knoxville)
Joysmith Gallery Lyzon Art Gallery Jonesborough Art Glass Gallery (Jonesborough)
Lisa Kurts Gallery Plowhaus Artists' Cooperative Lagniappe Gallery (Gatlinburg)
L Ross Gallery Prism Glass Studio & Gallery Leiper's Creek Gallery (Franklin)
Perry Nicole Fine Art Richland Fine Art Picture This Custom Framing & Gallery (Hermitage)
Rivertown Gallery Richter Gallery of Photography Over the Rainbow Glass Gallery (Franklin)
Robinson Editions and Gallery Stanford Fine Art River Gallery (Chattanooga)
Universal Art Gallery TAG Art Gallery Treasure Trove (Franklin)
Tennessee Art League
Williams American Art Galleries
Zeitgelist Gallery

The interest in Tennessee's visual arts thrives today. There are many art schools, as well as museums and galleries, located throughout the state. In addition, there are a number of art exhibitions that take place throughout the year, along with art competitions. Also, the number of artist living in Tennessee is larger than it has ever been. All these factors combined mean visitors should have no trouble exploring the state's fascinating visual arts culture.


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