Decorative Interior Murals and Interior Painting

There are many historic examples of decoratively painted interiors across the state of Tennessee. While some of the paintings have been lost, many works from the late eighteenth century to the New Deal era have survived, indicating the wide variety of techniques, styles, and motivations for adorning both private and public interiors with architectural paintings.

Using painters' manuals and their own imagination, both itinerant and local artists employed the common and inexpensive techniques of graining and marbling to imitate rare and costly woods and marbles. Others painted landscapes to serve as a focal point of the room, often in the form of an overmantel painting or firescreen. In the twentieth century, academically trained artists created mural paintings for numerous public buildings through President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal art programs of the 1930s and 1940s.

Some of the earliest examples of painted interiors indicate the transference of New England decorative traditions to Tennessee. The John and Landon Carter Mansion in Elizabethton is one of Tennessee's oldest residences, dating to around 1780. The mansion retains many of its original architectural features, including two rare overmantel paintings depicting pastoral scenes. The “Stencil House” located near Clifton in Wayne County is the earliest known completely painted interior to retain its original decoration. This log dogtrot house contains stenciling in both the parlor and entrance hall. The anonymous artist painted such common nineteenth-century motifs as flowers, leaves, vines, weeping, willow trees, pineapples, and swags and tassels.

Many Tennessee houses contain fine examples of Victorian-era decorative painting. Together they serve to illustrate the varied and changing interior fashions of the late nineteenth century. Notable examples from across the state include the Acquilla Lane House in Hamblen County, “The Beeches” in Robertson County, the Meady White House in Hardin County, and the Julius Freed House in Gibson County. In East Tennessee, the Acquilla Lane House in Whiteburg once contained at least two decoratively painted rooms: the parlor and a second floor bedroom. These rooms are the work of W. Bakar, who signed and dated the bedroom in 1861. The parlor design is composed of colored blocks in a stretcher bond pattern. The bedroom, dismantled and transferred to the Tennessee State Museum in Nashville in 1981, features tulips, birds, heart-shaped leaves, urns, vines, pomegranates, baskets, and a woman and man holding fish. Set on a bright blue background, these Pennsylvania Dutch-style motifs may indicate that Bakar was of German descent, although no written documentation exists to support this assertion. The Beeches at Springfield in Middle Tennessee contains elegant tromp l'oeil paintings said to be the work of an itinerant French artist on the ceilings of both the entrance hall and dining room. In West Tennessee, the Meady White House in Saltillo and the Julius Freed House in Trenton feature geometric designs and floral motifs similar to those recommended by painters' manuals and household critics of the late 1870s. The Meady White House contains graining, marbling, and stenciled ceiling paintings attributed to John Joseph Christie, an Irish artist. At the Julius Freed House, an anonymous artist painted landscape scenes, flowers, and geometric designs on a marbled background in the parlor and a second floor bedroom.

Four of the most ornate historically painted interiors are located in the adjoining southern Middle Tennessee counties of Coffee, Moore, and Bedford. The James G. Carroll House (not extant) in Tullahoma, the Green-Evans House and the Hinkle-Price House in Lynchburg, and the Maple Dean Farmhouse (not extant) in Flat Creek are all attributed to Fred Swanton, who, according to family tradition and a death notice in the Shelbyville Gazette, was a circus painter from Buffalo, New York, who painted in this area during the late 1880s. At the Carroll House and the Hinkle-Price House, Swanton created large overmantel paintings which included his signature motifs: a broken tree limb and an Indian maiden. All of the three remaining houses contain smaller landscapes featuring such pastoral subjects as a lake, waterfall, wheat field, bridge, and rural cottage amidst mountains and trees. At the Green-Evans House, Swanton painted six small landscapes on grained wainscoting. The Maple Dean Farmhouse contained his most complete interior scheme. Its bedroom ceiling and cornice, which have been installed at the Bedford County Arts Center in Shelbyville, contain seven small oval-shaped landscapes framed by painted scroll borders and set in a stenciled floral border. At the fireplace, Swanton painted two landscapes: one at the center of the mantel and one as a firescreen. The Carroll House, the Hinkle-Price House, and the Maple Dean Farmhouse all had artistically painted ceilings dominated by painted medallions.

From the mid-1930s to the early 1940s, a more professional and systematic contribution was made to Tennessee art through the New Deal cultural programs. The Public Works of Art Project (PWAP), the federal government's fine arts project of the Works Progress Administration, authorized the creation of murals for Tennessee post offices, courthouses, and other public buildings. Reflecting the current artistic style of Regionalism, these paintings illustrate city or regional history and identity, and some even promoted New Deal projects like the TVA. Picking Cotton by Carl B. Nyquist in Bolivar, Electrification by David Stone Martin in Lenoir City, and Wild Boar Hunt by Thelma Martin in Sweetwater are among the nearly thirty murals created for Tennessee post offices. Other public buildings received federally funded art as well; both the Davidson County Courthouse and the Sevier State Office Building, for instance, feature murals painted by Dean Cornwell. Memphis resident Burton Callicott created a mural depicting Hernando De Soto's arrival in West Tennessee for the lobby of the Memphis Pink Palace Museum, then the Memphis Museum of Natural History. In Memphis's Ellis Auditorium, Maysie Dimond painted a 7-foot-high, 152-foot-long mural to serve as a pictorial history of Memphis from Spanish exploration to the twentieth century. Using the ancient buon fresco technique of applying paint to wet plaster, she ensured that the colors would remain vibrant over time. During a 1950s renovation, the mural was covered by pink marble slabs, which have since been removed.

These federally funded art programs came to an end as the United States entered World War II. Occasionally administrators sacrificed murals during building expansion and renovation. Fortunately, some have been recovered, like Dimond's murals at the Ellis Auditorium and Wendell Jones's post office mural, Farmer Family, now in the Administration Building basement at East Tennessee State University. While little is known about the artists who created these New Deal paintings or those of earlier centuries, many Tennessee murals have been preserved as a testament to the rich and diverse artistic heritage of the state.

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  • Article Title Decorative Interior Murals and Interior Painting
  • Author
  • Website Name Tennessee Encyclopedia
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  • Access Date June 20, 2024
  • Publisher Tennessee Historical Society
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update March 1, 2018