Chester Martin Remembers The Hauntingly Beautiful Painting Of Aunt Winchester

Sunday, October 9, 2016 - by Chester Martin
Aunt Winchester at age 100
Aunt Winchester at age 100

When I first saw this painting roughly 50 years ago it made a lasting impression. It brought so many meaningful things together that it never receded from my memory. First, it is truly a masterful work of "realistic" art, and is not "nostalgic" in the usual sense, where the artist is trying to revive a bit of "lost" Americana on canvas for the pure sake of reviving the past. No.  Aunt (Mary Ridley) Winchester is shown still truly alive in this painting - in her own natural surroundings. She is alert, well, and dressed like every other elderly lady of her time and region.

Her surroundings were in or near the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, a place we should all be grateful to have at our back door.

And we can confirm the location's authenticity by the inclusion of a certain calendar hanging on the wall over Aunt Winchester's shoulder. THAT would be a "Cardui Calendar", ladies and gentleman, denoting one of the two original products of Chattanooga Medicine Company, now known as Chattem, Inc. Those calendars were once available in every drugstore in the South, and were accompanied by a little Almanac, which gave optimum data on when to plant crops, etc. Both were extremely popular items, and my own mother never felt like a new year had really started if she did not have one of each. Perhaps Aunt Winchester felt the same way. (Be assured that the Almanac is somewhere there - just out of view!)

The Centenarian lady of the painting is dressed very authentically in rather drab clothing: dark gray or near black sun-bonnet, dull red (or maroon) sweater, nondescript blouse, and white apron. (The crafts-people of our day always get their vintage clothing far too gaudy when you see them at craft shows). It was the "uniform of the day" for ladies, who were expected to be up at dawn to prepare breakfast for the household and plan all the other meals; then, on Mondays, to do all the family's washing - and there would follow a definite routine for each day of the week. Rest assured that Aunt Winchester would no longer be permitted to do many of those things at age 100, as younger women would have long since taken over. Yet her willingness to do them would continue,  expressed by the work clothing she chooses to wear. --- And, most likely, she had never been over five miles from home!

We are fortunate to have paintings such as this one! It is by a Chicago artist, Rudolph F. Ingerle, who made a lot of paintings in the Smokies, Hawaii, and other places that interested him. He was born in Austria in 1879 and came to America early in life. His work shows an Academic style - especially his landscapes, as the foliage is frequently handled in "blocks" of color which conform to Academic norms of the day. This interior view does not show the same influences as the landscapes and maintains a highly realistic quality throughout. Aunt Winchester could easily fit into Chattanoogan Walter Cline's collection of black and white photography of Appalachia as the single image in color. Unfortunately, I have not been able to find an actual date for this "Aunt Winchester" painting.

This painting used to hang in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park Visitors' Center at Cherokee, N.C., but it lost its old spot of prominence in a shuffle several years back. I admired it immediately for its connection (through the calendar) to Chattanooga, the lacy fabric of the table-cloth, kerosene lamp, exposed log walls - and that little upper shelf on the left side which is draped with what appears to be a chenille covering as used to be made at Dalton, Ga., in the 1930's and '40's. The atmosphere in this painting is "right" - authentic in every way. We can rest assured that Aunt Winchester has most likely never tasted any alcoholic drink - although somewhere hidden in her garments there is almost certainly a small box for either snuff or a minuscule plug of tobacco for chewing. This would require a tiny paring knife to cut the "chaw" - just as my own great-grandmother, Elizabeth Sarah Willett Smith (born 1828), had! (And I still have both today!)

(Chester Martin is a native Chattanoogan who is a talented painter as well as local historian. He and his wife, Pat, live in Brainerd. Mr. Martin can be reached at )

Chester Martin
Chester Martin

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