Born in Sandwich, Illinois, Lyell Carr was a descendent of several distinguished New England families, including that of John Hancock, a signer of the Declaration of Independence. Verifiable details of Carr’s personal life and early training remain vague, but he is known to have established his first studio in Chicago, where he worked as a painter and illustrator specializing in domestic interiors. By 1881, he had moved to New York and began to create landscape and genre works in the French Barbizon taste, bucolic scenes then much in demand by the new—and vastly wealthy—financial class. He soon came to the attention of a circle of influential art collectors whose patronage would change the course of Carr’s career.
A year spent in Paris studying under master practitioners Jules-Joseph Lefebvre and Gustave Boulanger at the Académie Julian strengthened Carr’s handling of form and space. Upon his return in 1885, several of his paintings entered the collection of Thomas B. Clarke. Clarke was a successful textile manufacturer whose passionate acquisitiveness led to a second career as an art advisor. When the Clarke collection was exhibited at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in 1891, Carr’s work was included and the artist was given an effusive citation in the accompanying catalog. The author praised him for his understanding of the “underlying truth of the impressionistic theory” as his paintings were “simple in subject, largely composed of rural scenes, good in character and truly rendered.” Carr was also lauded for his practice of working en plein air, for “seeking his subjects in nature, out of doors, and in all weathers.”
At some point in the late 1880s, Carr became a frequent visitor to Haralson County in northwest Georgia; his first trip to the area seems to have occurred prior to 1891, the earliest date of a painting based on his residence there. By that time, the opening of the Lithia Springs Hotel in 1882 and other investments by Northern industrialists had created the same sharp dichotomy between local culture and urbanization which so inspired the Barbizon School. Over the next several years, Carr would mine the Southern setting for subject matter to produce richly colored genre scenes and landscapes, paintings that found favor with urban audiences. His work was regularly included in National Academy exhibitions beginning in 1890 and at the annual juried shows at the Art Institute of Chicago and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Carr was also represented at the 1883 Southern Exposition in Louisville, Kentucky; the 1890 Royal Academy exhibition in London; the 1896 Carnegie International Exhibition in Pittsburgh; the 1901 Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York; and the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis. In 1894, a critic writing for the New York Times commended Carr for creating an “oasis for those who are not interested in experiments and studio clevernesses, but ask that a picture shall tell them a nice little story.”