August 2018

Salon Painting by Important Tennessee Artist Comes to Light

Words by Margaret F.M. Walker

An important painting, exhibited at the Paris Salon in 1898, has come home to Tennessee, thanks to the vigilant eye of Stan Mabry at Stanford Fine Art. The painting was found in a private New York collection. Connoisseurs of Tennessee art know the name Willie Betty Newman. A native of Murfreesboro, she studied painting in Cincinnati before moving to Paris for a decade—the 1890s—to study, travel, paint, and exhibit. Often working in the academic and figural tradition, when she returned to Middle Tennessee in the early twentieth century, she earned most of her income from portraiture. These portraits and earlier work from her time in France can be spied in places like the Tennessee State Museum, Cheekwood, Vanderbilt’s Peabody College Library, the Centennial Club, and a few private homes.

Willie Betty Newman, The Foolish Virgin, Oil on canvas, 55” x 33”

Stanford Fine Art has carried Newman’s work whenever it could be found. She was a talented career artist, with a keen eye for subject, composition, and lighting. Often, owners of her paintings have sentimental ties, too, meaning her work rarely comes onto the market. Mabry says, “In my thirty years in business, I have probably only come across four by her.” Yet, since the early days of his business, he has had two black-and-white photographs of her studio in Paris. When in New York recently, he saw a familiar sight—the actual painting, which he had seen so many times in progress on the easel in that photograph. In acquiring this biblical scene, The Foolish Virgin, and bringing it to Nashville, he learned it had changed hands only once before in its history. Truly, it is an exciting day for Stanford Fine Art and for us all. Uniting a nineteenth-century painting with photographic evidence of its creation, for an artist like Willie Betty Newman, is a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence. 

The Foolish Virgin is on view at Stanford Fine Art, www.stanfordfineart.net.

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