Monday, June 23, 2014

William Washington Girard and My Search for His "Hopelessly Inept" Mountains

Posted By on Mon, Jun 23, 2014 at 8:01 AM

A couple of Girards birches on display at the Tennessee State Museum.
  • A couple of Girard's birches on display at the Tennessee State Museum.
A couple of months ago I went to the Tennessee State Library and Archives to talk to the Demonbreun Society about what I'd been able to find out about Nashville's early Frenchmen — Timothy Demonbreun, Joseph Deraque (or possible DeRoche, anglicized into Durard), and the woman who had their children, Elizabeth Bennett. Since it's hard to parse out which of Elizabeth's children are for sure Demonbreuns and which for sure are Durards — it seems at least some of her Demonbreun children may have initially thought they were Durards and the birth dates commonly ascribed to the last of her Demonbreun children and the first of her Durard children do suggest that there was a period of time when it would not have been unusual for one of these Frenchmen to crawl in her bed and find the blankets still warm from the other — the Demonbreun Society contains descendants of Demonbreun and Durard.

Anyway, while I was there, one of the Durards told me two interesting things — that Asa Binkley's family (Asa Binkley having married Joseph Durard's granddaughter) had given the land for the Sycamore Creek Church of Christ just off the old Clarksville Pike up in Cheatham County and that some of the Durards changed their names to Girard. I went up to the Sycamore Creek Church of Christ and who should be there in the graveyard but William Washington Girard (1873-1931)?

I looked him up on Find-a-Grave to see if they had any information about his ancestry and I discovered not an answer to my question (though he is indeed one of the Durards who became a Girard), but a whole thing about how he was an artist. And there happened to be an article about him in the Spring 1986 Tennessee Historical Quarterly. The article, written by Richard Weesner, describes William, known as Wash, and his relation to Joseph Durard. But it also extensively deals with his art.

Wash was not the greatest artist Tennessee ever produced. But he made something of a career out of painting very nice pictures of birch trees. His work has a certain formulaic look to it—the pictures of birch trees are almost always a scene containing a few birch trees on the left, a stream or a road in the middle, and a few birch trees on the right. But you do get a sense looking at his birch trees that he was painting a landscape that, even if not exactly real, meant something deeply important to him.

His art was not always this successful. Deep in Weesner's article he says, "There are at least two very large pictures of the Rocky Mountains, and the Tennessee Historical Society has a smaller one. These seem among the worst pictures Girard ever did, and are hopelessly inept. They look like no mountains ever seen by man, and Girard's travels never took him to the far west."

"Hopelessly inept." I don't think there's any way to read those words and not wonder what in the hell those mountains look like. I mean, it's not like he wasn't a painter. I could paint you some hopelessly inept mountains, but I'm not making a living selling my art. How bad can Wash's mountains be?

Some hopelessly inept mountains by Girard.
  • Some hopelessly inept mountains by Girard.
Thanks to the Senior Curator of Art & Architecture at the Tennessee State Museum, Jim Hoobler, I was able to see. The smaller mountain painting is now in the Museum's collection. It's not on display, but Hoobler was gracious enough to take me to where the hopelessly inept mountains were. He guided me through the bowels of the museum, past parts of past exhibits, ancient computers, a suite of armor, rolls of fabric, stacks of antique furniture, through a maze of portraits of stern old Tennesseans, back to a short row of paintings. Hanging down low was the Girard.

It is... um... yeah... not good. I think "hopelessly inept" may be a little harsh, but when compared to his beech trees, which seem so vital, the mountains do kind of seem like a solid wall of blah.

But you know, I'm not an art critic, so I wasn't disappointed. The painting was exactly what was promised—a not very good picture of some mountains painted by a guy with interesting great-grandparents. And it really pleases me that the State Museum has it.

It seems to me that the State Museum's job is not just to be collecting Tennessee's "best" artifacts, by whatever measure we might call something the "best," but it should, when possible, provide a space, even if that space is in some corner of storage, for Tennessee's most interesting items. And so these hopelessly inept mountains are in their rightful place and I was glad to get to see them.

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