Five Day Road Trip in the Tennessee Valley – Huntsville to Chattanooga
Third Stop – Maria Howard Weeden Exhibit
Burritt on the Mountain is a scenic park on Round Top Mountain and Huntsville, Alabama’s first museum. During a recent trip, I visited the Burritt Mansion and was intrigued by the captivating views, the historical authenticity of the mansion décor, and the story of Dr. Burritt’s mountain-top home. Then I turned a corner into the world of Ms. Maria Howard Weeden. Author, poet, painter, and illustrator, she reached through over 150 years of southern history and captured my heart.
“A man finds room in the few square inches of his face for the traits of all his ancestors; for the expression of all his history, and his wants” ~Ralph Waldo Emerson, Conduct of Life
Ms. Weeden’s watercolor portraits capture those “traits of all ancestors” on paper, in her highly perceptive paintings of home servants and field workers in post-war Alabama. Trials and hardships written on faces are preserved as if each brush stroke were a thousand words. Her portraits, landscapes, and prose, displayed on the walls, in protected cases, and on glass-enclosed shelves, likewise paint the story of her life.
The Early Years
Maria Howard Weeden was born in Huntsville in 1846, only a few months after her mother became a widow. She expressed an interest in and talent for painting at a young age. Educated at Huntsville Female Seminary, she received private art lessons with William Frye, a well-known local portrait painter.
When the Civil War came to Huntsville in 1862, the Weeden home was confiscated and occupied by Union officers. The family (consisting of Ms. Weeden, a sister, and their mother) along with their servants were displaced. They moved together to Tuskegee and lived in the plantation home of Maria’s older sister. After the war, she returned to Huntsville, only to find the house plundered. Their financial situation was likewise in ruin.
Making Ends Meet
Maria’s pragmatic spirit took over. Through necessity, Ms. Weeden taught painting classes. She also sold small wildflower paintings, created greeting cards, and embellished notecards to generate income.
Later, she published short stories and essays under the pen name, “Flake White.” In painting, flake white is a pigment used to add light to a subject. In the context of her 30 years of published stories and poems, the pseudonym is knowingly appropriate.
Ms. Weeden’s insights – whether through words or paint – light a path towards understanding natural surroundings and the complexities of humanity. She was known to paint with brushes having only three hairs, which contributed to the intricate detailing and picturesque quality in her wildflower paintings, landscapes, and portraits.
Something Wrong, Made Right
In 1893, Ms. Weeden traveled to the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, Illinois, which became a turning point in her artistry. This world’s fair was a showcase for technology innovation and artistic displays. While viewing the exhibition, Ms. Weeden was disturbed by the caricatured portrayals of the freed men of the south. In response to the cartoon-like drawings in Chicago, she was inspired to paint the people she had known all her life, reflecting their authenticity, just as she had painted the wildflowers of nearby Monte Sano Mountain.
These portrait paintings of southerners in the post-war South are a documentary of a time, place, and culture – captured in the midst of rapid change as the United States moved into the new century. The poems, sometimes written in regional dialect, bring authenticity to the portraits in the same manner as the paintings bring multiple dimensions to the poetry.
The Maria Howard Weeden Exhibit
In the Burritt Mansion, the expressive watercolor portraits are displayed with insightful poems and essays in glass enclosures and on the walls. I see a portrait, then read a poem, then pause. There must be a pause, for each portrait becomes a person – a revelation of the depth and breadth in a life well lived.
Each few inches, revealing traits of ancestry, and occasional reflections of my face in the glass, reveal the same of me. Landscapes, seascapes, and wildflowers balance the intensity of the portraits. Short poems are the strands that tie the exhibit into a heart-warming package for the viewer.
Burritt on the Mountain is offering a visual showcase of Ms. Weeden’s work at the Burritt Mansion, through September 5, 2017. You can also find a permanent display of her work at Weeden House in Huntsville on the Huntsville History Tour.
Burritt on the Mountain
3101 Burritt Drive SE
Huntsville, AL 35801
Phone: (256) 536-2882
Admission is $10.00. Discounts are available for seniors (60+), military, children (under 18) and Burritt Museum Members. Admission to Burritt on the Mountain includes the mansion tour, the Maria Howard Weeden Exhibit, access to the nature trails and living history cabins, and scenic views from Round Top Mountain.
Find more about Gwyn’s journey through the Tennessee Valley at Small Towns, Big Stories on MilesGeek.