Born in rural east Tennessee, Enoch Lloyd Branson was a child prodigy whose early promise led to study at the University of Tennessee beginning in 1870 and later instruction at the National Academy of Design, where he was awarded the school’s highest honors in the antique school of drawing. With funds from that prize, Branson made a study tour of Europe in 1875-1876. A subsequent European sojourn led to the exhibition of the artist’s historical genre paintings at the Paris Exposition of 1878. Branson’s advanced training and European experiences exposed him to national and international trends in the art world far surpassing that of many of his Southern contemporaries.
Upon his return from Europe, Branson formed a partnership with the Knoxville photographer Frank McCrary, with whom he won a first prize for their entry in the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893. After the turn of the century, he began painting portraits of prominent figures on a commission basis, works that were deeply influenced by photography—the subjects set against dark backgrounds and posed as though gazing at a lens. It was also around this time that Branson executed a series of monumental paintings depicting specific events in the history of rural free mail delivery. At least four of these works, some as large as six by eight feet and characterized by the grainy texture and tonalist color values of American art in the Barbizon mood, survive in the collection of the Smithsonian National Postal Museum. Another large work, The Battle of King’s Mountain, was destroyed by fire in 1916. Widely admired locally, the painting was one of a series of historical genre works which also included United States Barracks at Knoxville and Gathering of the Overmountain Men at Sycamore Shoals.
Active in Knoxville art groups, Branson offered art lessons and nurtured the careers of several local artists, including Beauford Delaney, Ida Jolly Crawley, and Catherine Wiley whose works are also represented in the Johnson Collection. As Tennessee’s most famous artist, he was commissioned in 1924 to paint the state’s legendary hero, Sergeant Alvin Cullum York, one of the most decorated soldiers in World War I. Still Life with Peaches is unique in the artist’s oeuvre and especially demonstrative of his painterly skills. In it, Branson focuses upon the spontaneous spilling of fresh fruit from a rough hewn basket, a display enhanced by closely applied color a strong sense of texture.