One of the many pleasures of moving to an entirely new part of the country is learning about the history and culture of the region. This past weekend we visited the Knoxville Museum of Art. Among the highlights in the Museum’s ongoing exhibit, “Higher Ground: A Century of the Visual Arts in East Tennessee,” are several Impressionist paintings by the greatly undersung artist, Anna Catherine Wiley.
Wiley (1879—1958), was born into a wealthy and intellectual family at Coal Creek (now Lake City), Tennessee, where her father owned and operated two coal mines. She grew up in Knoxville, studied at the University of Tennessee from 1895—1897, attended the Art Students League in New York from 1903—1905, and spent six months studying with William Merritt Chase before returning to Knoxville in 1905, where she taught art at the University of Tennessee from 1905—1918. She continued her art instruction under the Knoxville painter, Lloyd Branson, became an influential member of the local art community, and organized a successful exhibition for the Appalachian Exposition of 1910. She spent several summers painting in Massachusetts and Newport, Rhode Island.
Wiley is best known for her masterful brushwork and exuberant play of natural light in her Impressionist paintings. Typical subject matter included women and children of the upper class in quiet scenes, often painted out of doors where Wiley took maximum advantage of natural, dappled light. She won numerous regional awards, and her work was shown at the National Academy of Design and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, but she did not achieve the level of national acclaim she desired during her lifetime. Her work, The Lily Pond, is in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, but most of her work remains in regional museums and private collections.
Wiley never married and was close to both her parents. It has been suggested that she suffered from bipolar disorder. The deaths of her father in 1919, her mentor (and possible lover) Lloyd Branson in 1925, and her mother in 1926, were also factors that probably contributed to a serious emotional decline that culminated in a mental breakdown in 1926. Sadly, her siblings committed her to an institution in Philadelphia, where she spent the remaining 32 years of her life. She had no access to art supplies and never painted again. When she died in 1958, her body was returned to Knoxville. Anna Catherine Wiley is buried in Knoxville’s Old Gray Cemetery, not far from her childhood home and the art museum that now features several examples of her lustrous and appealing work.