More than a century ago, he was Knoxville’s most famous artist. This weekend you can be one of the first to see his house, fixed up.
On Saturday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., Knox Heritage is hosting a rare opportunity for the public to view the North Knoxville home of Knoxville’s first professional artist.
It’s on Branson Avenue, naturally, which is just off Broadway, just northeast of Fulton High.
For most of his life, Branson didn’t have a permanent home. Born in rural Union County in 1853, when it was still part of Knox County, Branson was known for his natural skills at sketching from a very early age. The story goes that his sketch of General Grant, who was in Knoxville for a few weeks during the Civil War, impressed Knoxville physician Dr. John Mason Boyd, who encouraged the boy’s training.
No one had ever made a living just as an artist in practical-minded, industrial Knoxville, and Branson had to do anything he could to get by, painting hundreds of portraits of famous people, dead people, or any subject who walked into his studio on Gay Street, about where the Tennessee Theatre is now. He painted patriotic and historic scenes, as well as studies of working people and landscapes, some of his work fringing on impressionism or even later styles. Although his best work shows great sensitivity, as an artist in a time before grants and fellowships, he also dealt in sentimental and popular works to pay the bills.
He was an active member of the Nicholson Art League, a collaboration of men and women of all ages who were actively interested in the arts, responsible for mounting some impressive shows of contemporary American art at Knoxville’s expositions of 1910, 1911, and 1913. He was especially close to its best-known member, impressionist Catherine Wiley. Later, Branson encouraged and for a time, hired, a talented young African-American artist, Beauford Delaney, who with Branson’s encouragement went on to become one of America’s leading black impressionists.
Much of Branson’s life is a mystery. He never married, and remained in Knoxville, despite praise and opportunity in bigger cities up north. He won awards at the National Academy of Design in New York, where he studied; but although several contemporary sources claimed he had spent some years in Europe, historians have been unable to find any evidence that he ever crossed the Atlantic. In Knoxville, he seems not to have stayed in the same place for long, often living with friends or at his studio.
Only when he was in his mid-60s did he settle down in a house of his own. It was a small and rather odd place on a street that had previously been known as Rhode Island Avenue. The Chamber of Commerce recommended renaming it in honor of its most famous resident. One of his last jobs, probably completed in this house, was his portrait of World War I hero Sgt. Alvin York.
Branson was much beloved in Knoxville, and his funeral at this house in June, 1925, was well-attended by the mayor and several other civic leaders.
Knox Heritage’s open house at the Branson home at 1423 Branson Avenue on Saturday may be the biggest public event at the house since then. The preservationist organization purchased the house a few years ago, and has been fixing it up to sell to a new owner.