In 1877 an aspiring young artist left Memphis, bound for
a prestigious German art academy. For the next 36 years, he
painted, sketched and exhibited in Germany, England, Austria,
Switzerland, Italy and France. After achieving a level of
artistic success in Europe, the former Memphian finally returned
to his homeland-only to die two weeks after docking in New
York's harbor. He was buried in the churchyard of a tiny village
near Pittsburgh, among members of his wife's family.
works of Samuel Hester Crone will eventually reside
at the University's Art Museum. Crone's work varied
from sketches to watercolors such as this painting
of the plaza at the Bay of Naples.
A century after Samuel Hester Crone's untimely death, the
artist had been almost forgotten, his work a brief footnote
in the history of art. Then William S. Huff, an architecture
professor with a penchant for detective work, began to peel
away the layers of mystery surrounding the artist.
Now, 123 years after leaving Tennessee, Samuel Hester Crone
is coming home. His work will eventually reside in The University
of Memphis Art Museum, where his paintings and sketches will
be exhibited and studied and shared with the rest of the art
Gift Yields Questions
The circuitous trip of Crone's artwork from Europe to Memphis
is a fascinating story involving academic curiosity, tenacity
and good fortune. When architect William Huff was a young
man, his mother presented him with about 200 sketches wrought
by his great uncle through marriage, Samuel Crone. "She said,
'Well, you're the artistic one in the family so you should
have these,'" recalls Huff, who at the time was being indoctrinated
into modern art in his pursuit of architectural studies. "I
sort of thanked her and put them in the back of my closet
and didn't do much with them. They just stayed there for a
decade or so."
Later, Huff worked for the legendary Philadelphia architect
Louis Kahn, who was a gifted artist. "Kahn was quite a master
at making wonderful sketches," says Huff. Kahn's influence
convinced Huff that the sketches languishing in the closet
were worthy of serious attention. With his curiosity piqued,
Huff eventually took the sketches to Carnegie Institute's
Museum of Art for a second opinion. Impressed by the sketches,
the curator proposed mounting a Crone exhibit. Then he posed
a simple question to Huff: "What do you know about Crone?"
Huff suddenly realized that his knowledge of his great uncle
was restricted to a few family anecdotes, an incomplete genealogical
entry, a handful of photographs and the portfolio of sketches.
"Thus began an itinerary whose course was hazy, but objective
clear-to bring to Samuel Hester Crone a measure of recognition
in the annals of American art," writes Huff in an article
about his family member. "Suddenly, the lack of a substantial
record of the artist's background-its revelatory context of
place and time-was threatening my hope for Uncle-Great Uncle,
to me-Sam's overdue recognition. I soon turned that distress,
however, into the adventure of an open-ended search."
That adventure would take Huff to a country cemetery in Pennsylvania,
across Europe and finally to Memphis, Tenn.
The search for information on a long-dead artist would have
proved daunting to most people. But Huff's intense curiosity,
combined with near-fanatical determination, drove him to follow
every obscure lead in a concerted effort to glean knowledge.
"The fate of Samuel Crone's posthumous career could not
have fallen into more caring and careful hands, for.Professor
Huff patiently unearthed clues and followed them until they
yielded tangible facts (thus more clues) or dwindled to nothing,"
writes University of Memphis Art Museum Director Leslie Luebbers
in a catalog for a 1997 Crone exhibition.
used his wife, Sarah, as a model for several drawings.
The drawing dates around 1890.
Huff's search began in earnest at a Presbyterian cemetery
north of Pittsburgh, where he located the simple graves of
Samuel and Sarah Crone and determined their birth and death
years. During a 1981 sabbatical from university teaching,
Huff traveled to Munich, where the Crones had lived. Even
though many records had been destroyed in World War II bombing
raids, Huff was able to find his great uncle's Munich address
and evidence of art exhibitions in which Crone had participated.
Munich's City Archives eventually yielded police registers
that detailed other addresses and records of international
travel, which helped Huff reconstruct his ancestor's whereabouts
and the sites of many of his artistic works.
Returning to Pittsburgh, Huff searched newspaper articles
to determine the exact date of the artist's 1913 death. At
the bottom of one article was a tiny note: "Memphis (Tenn.)
papers please copy." Huff checked The Commercial Appeal
death notices and discovered the names of Crone's surviving
brothers. Perusing a current Memphis phone directory, he found
a column of Crones. Hoping to locate descendants of the artist's
brothers, Huff wrote a letter requesting information and mailed
it to five names chosen at random. Positive responses by members
of the Memphis Crone family greatly increased Huff's knowledge
base. From Sister Annette Crone, the former administrator
of St. Joseph Hospital, he obtained letters written by the
artist and his wife; these epistles provided Huff with invaluable
information about the couple's activities, personalities and
The search has continued for almost two decades. Through
meticulous research, Huff has made astounding progress. He
has even traveled to Europe to locate vantage points from
which Crone painted and sketched. Not only has Huff discovered
a plethora of information about the Crones' lives and the
artist's inspirations, but he has identified dozens of paintings
still owned by Crone descendants. Some of the works were hanging
in living rooms; others were stored in attics; two were discovered
between the floor boards of a barn. Huff was delighted to
learn that a family member in the Pittsburgh area owned a
silver medal Crone had won from the Royal Academy of Art in
Some family members gave or sold their sketches and paintings
to Huff, who is attempting to collect and catalog all of the
artist's works. His personal collection now includes about
250 sketches and about 30 paintings. "The paintings keep turning
up," says Huff. "In fact, when I was down in Memphis a few
weeks ago, a Crone was auctioned near Cleveland. We missed
it, but later snagged it when the buyer put the painting on
the market. Some Crones have turned up on the market in Europe,
Life of an Artist
When he began his research, Huff knew scant details about
the life of Samuel Hester Crone. But now many details are
available. Born in Columbia, Tenn., in 1858, Crone was baptized
in Bolivar, Tenn., when his family passed through that town
en route to Memphis. Until the age of 19, Crone lived in Memphis,
working two years for Bingham, a local photographer. In 1877
he traveled to Germany, where he enrolled in the Royal Academy
of Fine Arts, one of Europe's pre-eminent art schools.
drawing is an early study of the blacksmith in "Das
Gericht" and dates around 1883.
During the next decade, Crone lived primarily in Munich,
though he made extensive trips to England and Paris. His masterpiece
Das Gericht ("The Judgment") and an engraving of the same
subject were exhibited at Munich's Internationale Kunstausstellung
in 1883. The painting was reproduced in the exhibition catalog,
quite a coup for a young artist.
Crone married Huff's great aunt, Sarah Voegtly, in London,
and frequently used her as a model in his sketches and paintings.
They had no children. According to a letter written by Sarah
after Samuel's death, the couple were separated only four
days in their entire marriage. Crone's paintings and sketches
provide a record of the couple's travels on the continent.
His paintings were included in at least 14 major exhibitions
throughout Europe and the United States. Finally, after 36
years of working as an artist in Europe, the Crones decided
to move back to America.
On May 26, 1913, they celebrated their 27th wedding anniversary
by entering New York. From there the Crones traveled to Pennsylvania,
where Samuel developed pneumonia and died June 11.
"The reason Samuel Hester Crone is not known is due to a
couple of things, neither of which has to do with the quality
of his work," says Luebbers. "One, his career was played out
in Europe. He had a couple of shows at prestigious places
in the United States, but most of his work was made and sold
in Europe. When he came back to the U.S., intending to relocate
here, he died two weeks later. So he wasn't here to work and
Although Crone was not famous, his works fill a specific
niche, says Dr. Henry Adams, a noted art historian and writer.
"While Crone never achieved fame, or produced work of a highly
innovative sort, the overall technical level of his work is
high," writes Adams in an essay accompanying The U of M's
1997 Crone exhibit. "In particular, many of his drawings are
outstandingly beautiful-as fresh and alive today as when they
were produced approximately a century ago." Adams says Crone's
career provides a standard by which art historians may gauge
the works of other 19th century artists. "We are familiar
with the lives of artistic geniuses, but less so with the
careers of those who pursued their profession quietly and
industriously, without ever achieving notable financial gain
or critical success," writes Adams.
Huff has decided to bequeath his large collection to The
University of Memphis, along with an endowment that will be
used for preservation and study. Luebbers says the works will
complement the Art Museum's permanent collection. "The drawings
are absolutely wonderful," says Luebbers. "Even the quickest
little line sketches are really pretty glorious.
made a number of watercolors in Venice and Naples,
Italy, such as this 1906 work of the Bay of Naples
"The paintings range from finished paintings to oil sketches,"
she continues. "And they range in style from his earliest
kind of academic paintings, which are in the style of late
Baroque painting, up to abstract expressionist landscapes.
In particular, a series of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius
in 1906 are spectacularly expressionistic."
Huff will also be providing the University with a generous
endowment. Luebbers says the funds will be used to conduct
research, produce publications and buy Crone paintings that
appear on the market. The institution will also exhibit the
works of Crone and other American artists who operated in
the realm of European contemporary art in the late 19th and
early 20th centuries.
Immediate plans call for creation of a Web site that will
serve as a Crone clearinghouse. "What we don't know and what
we really need to know is what happened to the paintings Samuel
Crone sold in Europe," explains Luebbers. "We want to know
where they are. This Web site will not only provide publicity
for Crone, but will help bring information to us."
Art lovers can steal a glimpse into the world of Samuel Hester
Crone when the Art Museum hosts an exhibit March 3 through
April 14. "Samuel Crone needs to get due recognition, especially
in Memphis, where he is a native son and where some of his
family still lives," says Luebbers. He was one of a very few
people who grew up in Memphis at that time and who became
"He's part of our heritage."