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Here in the Southern states, many of our most distinctive landmarks—rivers, mountains, towns—bear Indian names. Catawba, for instance, is a name given to a river and a place in homage to the tribe so long associated with both. My home in Yemassee, South Carolina, pays tribute to the Yemassee tribe who in the early eighteenth century was a fierce ally to South Carolina and later fought twice as fiercely against the colonists. Georgia, Alabama, and Florida are ripe with references: Etowah, Nacoochee, and Apalachicola. I am not sure where Hot Coffee, Mississippi, came from, but I do know that Native American nomenclature has everything to do with context—of history, place, people, penance, and pride.

West of Atlanta, along the rail line that connected the Georgia metropolis to the cooler climes of Asheville, North Carolina, sits a small community known as Tallapoosa. This was the land of the Creeks, a tribe prominent in both Georgia and Alabama in the nineteenth century. Toward the end of that era, a well-traveled American-born painter named Lyell Carr rode the train west from Black Mountain, North Carolina, through the gold mining region of north Georgia to Tallapoosa, painting at several stops along the way. I did not understand the significance of that geographic context when first I saw the powerful painting Possum Snout by Carr at Bob Coggins’ home in the late 1970s, but I have since come to associate Tallapoosa with that masterful artist and memorable body of work. Bob purchased the painting, formally titled Opossum Snout, Haralson County, Georgia 1891, from Berry-Hill Galleries and hung it as a favorite in his foyer. Surely nothing could have more clearly evoked the Reconstruction Era South. The scene depicts a white boy in an oxcart, sitting alongside an older, but youthful, black man, who has one hand on the lead for the ox and the other on an ancient rifle; both of their eyes are fixed on a rural landscape by the wonder of what is before them on their journey.  

In the early 1890s, Carr created a small series of works relating to rural Georgia, all originating in or near Tallapoosa. He must have liked the place when he got there, because most of his Southern paintings share that community as backdrop. These works were described in an 1894 article by Marguerite Tracy in the Quarterly Illustrator as being, at that time, the logical—and perhaps sole—successor to the Southern genre paintings of Eastman Johnson and Winslow Homer. Carr set out to portray, in the words of the article, “the picturesque side of Georgia life,” from the “open routine of the plantations” to the “irregular work of the moonshiners.”

I received a call in late 2003 from a Jim Carr who professed no knowledge of a relationship but owned seven paintings by the artist of the same surname. Jim’s pieces served to confirm the painter’s journey from western North Carolina across north Georgia to Tallapoosa. There was a painting inscribed “Black Mountain,” similar in subject to one by Carr that I had owned depicting the same locale, and another featuring a gold miner with hills in the distance behind him; hills I knew because I had ridden them to Dahlonega, Georgia, trying to peddle pictures. And then there was the best of the lot: a narrative work, not unlike Bob’s painting of Possum Snout, which centered on a cotton buyer, cigar clinched in his teeth as he judges the value of bales loaded on a cart pulled by the same Possum Snout ox and a yoke mate. On bended knee, the harvest’s sharecropper-owner displays a sample of the white staple before the market maker. Interestingly, this old world, Reconstruction Era scene is played out in front of the Tallapoosa train station, where a train under steam rumbles, ready to depart. Old world for new.

My wife, Jane, and I have a delightful Lyell Carr painting hanging at home. La Toilette bears an exhibition label from the Art Institute of Chicago with the title of the work, the date 1891, and the location: Tallapoosa, of course. There is another small group of works belonging to this series, with examples from several of the artist’s stops along the way, in a collection on Long Island.

As in nearly everything, it comes down to context. “Who are your people?” “Where is your place?” “What do you do?” With the passage of time and the opportunity to have handled so many pictures, I hope I understand that context—and understand the place of each of these works in the oeuvre of the artist and in their production within the larger universe of these paintings we call Southern.

​Lyell E. Carr (1857-1912)
La Toilette ()
Oil on canvas
18 x 20 inches
Condition: Great
Signature Details: Lower left
Region: South Carolina
Owner: Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Robert M. Hicklin, Jr., Charleston, South Carolina
1451 River Road · Yemassee, SC 29945 · 843.412.8738
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