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magazine home > archives > winter 2001 > features
Pittsburgh architect William Huff is planning to bring the works of Samuel Hester Crone home to Memphis, 123 years after the artist left to seek his fortune in Europe.

Home to Memphis
by Elizabeth Jane Walker

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.

Crone watercolor

The 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 world.

A 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.

Following the Clues

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.

Drawing of Sarah H. Crone

Crone 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 feelings.

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 1881.

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, as well."

The 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 of blacksmith

This 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 become known."

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.

Coming Home

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.

Crone watercolor

Crone 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 successful artists.

"He's part of our heritage."

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