Impressionist painter Catherine Wiley was perhaps the most active, accomplished, and influential artist in East Tennessee during the early twentieth century. Her artistic path began with undergraduate classes taken at the University of Tennessee between 1895 and 1897, followed by training at the Art Students League in New York, 1903 through 1905, and independent summer sessions in New England with Martha Walter and Robert Reid in 1912. Upon completing her studies at the League, Wiley returned to Knoxville and soon began to energize the cultural community in a variety of capacities. In addition to her studio practice, she was active as an instructor at the University of Tennessee for thirteen years, 1905 through 1918, a leading member of local art associations (working alongside fellow painter Lloyd Branson and sister Eleanor Wiley), a participant in major art exhibitions for the 1910 and 1911 Appalachian Expositions, and head of the committee charged with organizing the art presentation for the 1913 National Conservation Exposition. Although mental illness cut short her career in 1926, Wiley left behind a remarkable and diverse body of work: early Art Nouveau-influenced ink drawings and illustrations (circa 1895–1910), sun-drenched Impressionist canvases (circa 1910–1921), and a small number of late works (circa 1921–1926) whose darker tones and coarse surfaces approach Expressionism and may evince her declining state of mind by the early 1920s.
Wiley specialized in outdoor scenes of women amid their daily lives rendered in jewel-like hues and lively impasto brushwork. Executed around 1915 at the height of Wiley’s career, Lady with Parasol features a striking contrast between a radiant seated figure in white and the saturated hues of Asian lilies that surround her. Except for navy cuffs, the sitter’s dress appears as an uninterrupted expanse of pure reflected light. Less pronounced, but equally important, are color harmonies linking the woman and her surroundings—lily blossoms echoing russet hair and crimson lips, and beds of violet-tinged foliage linked by the dark band of a closed parasol lying against her knees. The painting reveals the artist’s characteristically American adaptation of Monet’s Impressionism, one in which she adjusts the gauge of her brush and the application of color to describe atmospheric effects, but without sacrificing narrative details.
Beyond her interest in painting light, Wiley sought to capture the inner life of her sitters, a goal she discussed in an essay she composed for the Woman’s Athenaeum in 1912: “Only when paintings make us realize more acutely the poetry that lies within us all, the romance that we ourselves feel, the power of our own spirit, the ‘externalisation’ of our own soul, as it were—only then it has a meaning.” A decade later—in the twilight of her career and under personal circumstances that remain unclear—Wiley’s drive to portray the internal reality of her subjects led her to develop emotionally-charged compositions in which the artist’s own turmoil was manifested in the form of urgent brushwork and hollow-eyed figures. One can only wonder at what Wiley might have achieved in this new vein had she triumphed over her disease and continued her artistic journey.