Editor's note: The following essay was rekeyed and reprinted on January 15, 2003 in Resource Library Magazine with permission of North Carolina Museum of Art and Davidson College. The essay was previously included in an illustrated catalogue for the exhibition Reverend McKendree Robbins Long: Picture Painter of the Apocalypse, (ISBN #1-890573-02-7) held January 22 - March 1, 2002 at Van Every/Smith Galleries, Davidson College and April 7 - August 25, 2002 at North Carolina Museum of Art. Images accompanying the text in the exhibition catalogue were not reproduced with this reprinting. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay, or if you have interest in obtaining a copy of the exhibition catalogue, please contact North Carolina Museum of Art through either this phone number or web address:



 

The Life of Reverend McKendree Robbins Long

by Brad Thomas

 

The novelist with Christian concerns will find in modern life distortions which are repugnant to him, and his problem will be to make these appear as distortions to an audience which is used to seeing them as natural . . . to the hard of hearing you shout and to the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures.

Flannery O'Conner

 

Painter, poet, and preacher, evangelist and expositor, the Reverend McKendree Robbins Long (1888-1976) (fig. 23) was a unique and complex character whose life's work is only now receiving our full attention. He was a paradox of well-heeled intellectualism and fist-shaking, foot-stomping Southern fundamentalism. As a young man he pursued his artistic passions in the foremost art academy and one of the most fashionable studios of the day. He later abandoned both his artistic career and his Presbyterian upbringing to become an evangelist ordained by the Baptist church. He preached the fiery gospel to standing-room-only crowds at tent revivals and camp meetings, all the while filling notebooks with musings, hymns, and poems about humanity's certain destruction at the hand of a vengeful God. It was this spiritual zeal that fueled his return to painting in the late 1950s, when he began the mission of illustrating the biblical text of Revelation. His early training in the tradition of academic portraiture provided him the skill to realistically render anything he could imagine on canvas. Yet he would turn his back on many of the tenets of his academic training to forge a highly personal, even eccentric style that would express his fundamental beliefs about mankind's need for salvation and the pernicious influence of secular culture.

 


Painter with a Pedigree

McKendree Robbins Long was born in Statesville, North Carolina, on July 20, 1888. His parents were Judge Benjamin Franklin and Mary Alice Robbins Long. Both came from affluent families and both were extremely well educated. Benjamin Franklin Long (fig. 24) was born near Graham, North Carolina, on March 12, 1852, to Jacob and Jane Stuart Stockard Long. The prominent Long family had included a number of politicians, clergy, and educators, and Benjamin was to be no exception. He was an exceptionally dedicated student and in his teens rode on horseback to his classes at Trinity College. He earned a Bachelor of Arts degree from this institution in 1874 and was named valedictorian of his graduating class. After an appointment teaching Latin at Graham High School, Benjamin attended Judge Richmond Mumford Pearson's law school in Surry County, North Carolina, in 1876. The following year he entered the University of Virginia, where in 1878 he received a Bachelor of Law degree and was awarded an Orator's Medal.

After graduation, Benjamin was invited to come to Statesville, a small yet genteel Southern town located in the Piedmont area of North Carolina. The invitation was extended by Major William McKendree Robbins, who wished to establish a law partnership with the promising young graduate. Major Robbins was a congressman, Civil War veteran, and Commissioner for the South of the Gettysburg Battleground Memorials. Their law firm soon became one of the most respected and influential in the region. For the twenty-six-year-old Benjamin, however, matters of the heart were quickly to become as important as building a successful practice.

Major Robbins's daughter, Mary Alice (Mamie) Robbins (fig. 25), was a vision of cultured elegance. At the time she and young Benjamin met, she was a recent music graduate of the Charlotte Institute and gave vocal concerts. The two fell in love, and after a brief courtship, they were married on December 23, 1879.

The couple soon became mainstays of Statesville society. Two years after their marriage, Benjamin embarked on a distinguished judicial career as an elected solicitor of the Iredell County Inferior Court. From that point on, he would be referred to as "The Judge" by subsequent generations of his family. Mamie would go on to be the founder and first president of the Statcsville Women's Club. She was also instrumental in establishing the Statesville Public Library and organized the local chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, serving as its first president.

At the outset of their marriage, the young couple was confronted with misfortune when their firstborn son, William Robbins, died in infancy on July 8, 1881. This tragic episode was soon mitigated by the birth of four children: Benjamin Franklin, Jr. (b. March 14, 1882); Lois (b. July 27, 1884); Marie (b. October 6, 1885); and a second son, McKendree Robbins, named after his maternal grandfather (b. July 20, 1888).

The grand Victorian home on Oakhurst Road (fig. 26) in which McKendree and his siblings grew up was filled with music, art, and spirited conversation. He proved early on to be a very bright and studious child, just as his parents had been, and he also possessed a strong artistic penchant. He drew constantly, and on the back of his fourth-grade report card from the Statesville Female College (now Mitchell Community College) he made several sketches of the braids of the little girl who sat in front of him in class. At the age of eight, he entered a drawing of a magnolia tree in an art competition for college students, and it was chosen "Best in Show."

A few years later, tragedy would again strike the family, leaving McKendree the indulged focus of a grieving family. The eldest son, Ben Jr. (fig. 27), was a handsome young man and destined to continue the family tradition of becoming a prominent and productive citizen. He had been educated at the Webb School at Bell Buckle, Tennessee, and Homer Military Academy in Oxford, North Carolina. Upon graduation he enrolled in the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. On the morning of November 16, 1899, the college freshman was at the bustling University Station awaiting a train that would deliver him to Raleigh, where he would meet his father, who was presiding over a court case. He stepped outside the waiting room onto a sidetrack to watch the passenger trains pull into the station. A shifting boxcar suddenly struck Ben Jr. and dragged him several yards before it could be stopped. His body was entangled in the underside of the boxcar, and it took workmen the entire day to extract him. He remained conscious during this horrific ordeal, and a local physician was called to administer morphine. Once the boxcar was lifted with a wrecker, he was removed and rushed to Watts Hospital in Durham, where a team of surgeons worked nonstop to save him. The damage to his body was far too extensive, however, and he was pronounced dead that evening.

The family was devastated, and Mamie retreated from her many civic activities due to her incapacitating grief. For the next several years, she only wore black (fig. 28) and made daily visits to her son's graveside, where she would cry for hours. She insisted that McKendree always accompany her on these visits. He was only eleven at the time, and he must have felt that, in addition to losing his older brother, he had lost a part of his mother as well (fig. 29). In the years to follow, McKendree's parents became ever more protective of their only surviving son and made every effort to ensure that he was afforded every opportunity to pursue his personal interests.

It was no coincidence that after finishing his studies at the Mulberry Street School in 1903 (fig. 31), McKendree studied at the Webb School and Homer Military Academy, as his brother did. In 1906 he easily passed the rigorous entrance examinations at the highly selective Davidson College (fig. 32), located about twenty miles south of Statesville. Founded in 1837, this Presbyterian institution has produced numerous distinguished alumni, including President Woodrow Wilson, Secretary of State Dean Rusk, and North Carolina Governors James Holshouser and James Martin. In the 1907 Davidson College yearbook, Quips and Cranks, McKendree was listed under the heading of "Eclectics," a category reserved for students who had not yet declared a major course of study. He was able to channel his artistic creativity by serving as the arts editor for the yearbook (fig. 33), but it seems clear that Davidson's strict academic atmosphere did not suit him. In a letter to his mother dated October 29, 1906, he laments his professors' lack of sensitivity, in addition to the fact he was not given a serious opportunity to focus more intensively on his art. "I almost lose faith in my destiny and hurl question after question into the Sybillic cave receiving in answer only an echo. I revile this present existence. I long for what I sometimes believe to be my inevitable calling and need I name that belief?" He continues, "I must battle on to victory. Sometimes the smothered passion for my art nurtured in my tenderest years cries out for supremacy."

 

The Formative Years

In order to devote himself exclusively to his art, McKendree enrolled in a summer art course in 1907 at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. There he began master instruction under Duncan Smith, winner of the Rome Prize (a residency program for American artists in Rome). McKendree finally found himself in an environment that allowed him to concentrate solely on painting and drawing (fig. 34). After only one semester, he won a scholarship to attend classes at the famed Art Students League in New York City.

This institution had built an impressive reputation for producing influential artists. The principal instructor at the League during this time was the distinguished painter William Merritt Chase, who had just returned after resigning years earlier due to a philosophical conflict with the League's directors. The year McKendree arrived to begin his concentration in portraiture, a young Georgia O'Keeffe had just received an award from Chase for one of her still-life paintings. McKendree's primary instructor was the painter and illustrator F. Luis Mora, with whom he often vacationed in the North Carolina mountains during the summer months.

The early years of the twentieth century were a time of great experimentation and innovation in the art world, and Paris was the epicenter. Artists like Monet, Cézanne, Picasso, and Braque were busy debunking the type of academic realism (fig. 35) that formed the core of young McKendree's artistic ideology. But these contemporary artistic developments had little effect on his focus or outlook. He honed his painting and drawing skills at the League for three years before winning the Clements Award for two years of independent study in Europe. This honor was a tribute to his artistic merit, and with the blessing of his family, he was off to seek out the artists who would give him the training and inspiration he so desperately wanted.

McKendree's first stop was the Slade School at the University of London, where he enrolled in instructional classes. The following year he moved on to the Sandow's Curative institute, also in London. McKendree later entered a competition with a self-portrait and won a highly coveted appointment to study under the renowned Hungarian portraitist Philip de László, court painter to King George VI. At the time McKendree became his pupil, de László had already painted the reigning pope, the president of the United States, and almost every crowned head in Europe, as well as numerous aristocrats on both sides of the Atlantic. De László was also a follower of John Singer Sargent, the American expatriate painter who also lived and worked in London. Through his close contact with de László, it is likely that McKendree met Sargent, a claim he would make in later years.

De László's teaching methodology required his students to quickly render their compositions with paint directly on the canvas without the aid of prcpatory drawings. Years later Ben Long IV, an accomplished artist in his own right, remembered his grandfather hastily painting on blank canvases without reference sketches.

McKendree's European sojourn included stays in Amsterdam, Volendam, and Madrid, where he dutifully copied works by the old masters. His two years in Europe were to have a considerable impact on his artistic development (figs. 36, 37, 38; cat. 4), but their impact on his spiritual development would prove to be even more decisive.

While McKendree lived in the Chelsea district of London, he rented a studio that was previously occupied by another American painter, James McNeill Whistler. There were a number of churches in the vicinity, and a combination of homesickness and spiritual thirst spurred him to attend regular services. One church in particular, the Metropolitan Tabernacle, founded in 1861 by the renowned evangelist-preacher Charles Spurgeon, presented a popular evangelical and fundamental Christian gospel message. Over time, McKendree's visits to the church became more frequent and his stays longer. Although he had been baptized and raised in the family's Presbyterian faith, he wanted to renew his commitment and was baptized at the Metropolitan Tabernacle by Llewellyn Edwards on July 25, 1912. During this time McKendree felt a strong calling to the ministry, but according to family members, his mother bearded a ship bound for London to personally persuade him to continue with his art training.

 

Early Career

Upon his return to the United States in the spring of 1913 (fig. 39), McKendree quickly set up a studio in his: father's house on Oakhurst Road. He worked on a number of portrait commissions for prominent North Carolinians, obtained mostly through his father's connections. His portraits won praise hem many influential individuals and newspapers in the region. A Statesville Landmark newspaper article dated March 8, 1914, stated that "If literature is the reproduction of life with pen and ink and art the same with brush and paint, Mr. Long's future as an artist is one that North Carolina will be duly proud of, as he continues to work at home and in the great art centers." Reviewing an exhibition of Long's paintings, the Charlotte Observer proclaimed him to be "a newly risen genius." During this period McKendree continued to experiment with different color schemes and techniques. Although technically competent, many of these works (e.g., fig. 40; cat. 3) reveal an unsettled quality, perhaps relating to his peregrinations during his formative years.

Soon after arriving back in Statesville, McKendree began courting Mary Belle Hill (fig. 41; cat. 2), "the prettiest young woman in town," and the two were married on June 24, 1914. Mary Belle was a graduate of Statesville Female College (now Mitchell Community College), where she was elected May Queen. The couple moved into their spacious home at 406 Davie Avenue (fig. 42), a property owned by her brothers, to begin a family. Their first child, Caroline, was born on June 25, 1915, but the responsibilities of fatherhood were not enough for McKendree to settle down. It was evident from the beginning that Mary Belle was to oversee all financial affairs and keep the family grounded.

McKendree put his artistic career on hold in the summer of 1918. His second child, Benjamin Franklin Long III, was born in that year, and World War I was raging in Europe. Although the thirty-year-old McKendree was not the prime age for a soldier, he enlisted in the United States Army as a noncombatant and served as a sergeant with the 65th Base Hospital in France (fig. 43). He was an ambulance driver and witnessed first-hand the carnage and horrors of war. He was deeply moved by this experience, and in later years he said, "You can't see young men suffering and dying without undergoing a deep change."

Following his discharge, McKendree moved his wife and two young children to Princeton, New Jersey, in the fall of 1919. Mary Belle found employment as a librarian at Princeton University, while McKendree commuted by train to a rented studio in New York City. For the next two years he pursued commissions but was unable to establish a solid reputation as a portraitist. He was surrounded by the international buzz of art movements such as Cubism and Dada that overshadowed his traditional style (fig. 44).

Disappointed by his failure to make a career as an artist in New York, McKendree moved his family back to Statesville in 1921. In October of that year, Mary Belle gave birth to their third child, McKendree (Mick) Robbins Long, Jr.

McKendree half-heartedly resumed exhibiting his work and campaigning for a regional art museum in the South. The desire to establish a cultural center was instilled in him during his years spent in New York, London, and Amsterdam. In 1921, Long was incited to exhibit his paintings at the Women's Club in Raleigh. The show was billed as an "Exhibition of Oil Paintings and Pastels by McKendree Long, Southern Painter." The thirty-three works on view included portraits of prominent officials and family members, still lifes, landscapes, battle sketches from the war, and a few religious themes. A review of the exhibition in the Raleigh Times dated February 20, 1921, stated, "This exhibit in Raleigh helps to break the ice of indifference to artistic expression which exists generally throughout the State."

McKendree used the occasion of his exhibition to persuade the citizens of the state to establish an art museum. On February 23, 1921, the Raleigh News and Observer published an account of McKendree's impassioned plea to members and guests of the Women's Club. He proclaimed, "We are the last State in the production and exhibition of the fine arts. But if we want anything bad enough we can get it, from art to whiskey, any day of the week. . .. If our children ask us for the bread of aesthetic satisfaction, are we going to give them the stone of aesthetic starvation?"

During another exhibition of his portrait and landscape paintings at the Women's Club of Charlotte, N.C., he argued again for an art museum in that city. He pointed out that with a stabilized economy in the Southern states, Charlotte should take the lead in establishing an institution that would attract the great art treasures of the world and ensure their safety. His efforts would be rewarded some years later in 1933 with the founding of the Mint Museum in Charlotte, the first art museum in the state of North Carolina.

Now thirty-three years old, McKendree felt himself being pulled in another direction. The need to exhibit his art and promote his services as a portraitist had been his primary motivation until this time. However, his confidence to make a career as an artist had waned, and he was now burdened with the responsibilities of a growing family. More significantly, he felt himself being increasingly drawn to the ministry, and in 1921 he embraced this calling and gave up his pursuit of secular endeavors.

 

From the Easel to the Pulpit

McKendree approached his call to the ministry with all the passion and intellectual enthusiasm of his early art training. He read numerous books on biblical interpretation and began to fill volume after volume with sermon outlines, poetry, and drawings (figs. 45, 46).

McKendree was ordained a presbyterian minister at the Statesville First Presbyterian Church in 1922 without ever attending seminary. That same year he was appointed minister of the Front Street Presbyterian Church in Statesville. McKendree later moved on to the Vineville Presbyterian Church in Macon, Georgia (fig. 47), where he ministered for two years. He tried in vain to adjust to the sedentary life of a minister, but his passion to spread the word of God was not to be bridled. In 1925 he moved his family back to Statesville and set out as an itinerant evangelist for the Presbyterian Church.

McKendree began to accept engagements that would take him up and down the East Coast and as far west as Oklahoma (figs. 48, 49). His skills as an orator were unmatched, and his ability to turn a phrase soon garnered him a dedicated following. Sermons recorded on 78-rpm albums by Troutman's Radio Service in Statesville reveal his rapid-fire delivery and the singsong quality of his booming voice. Dozens of witticisms and anecdotes were sprinkled throughout his sermons, such as, "You can't whitewash a low opinion of Christ by the cheap plaster of an occasional fidelity" and "God flies on the wings of quietness, and rides in the car of peace, and one tuppence of His silence is worth ten thousand talents of the world's thunder." McKendree also referred to great works of religious art by European masters such as Rubens and Caravaggio to illustrate his points. It was the use of such examples that earned him the nickname "Picture Painter of the Gospel."

In the spring of 1930, McKendree led a seven-week long revival in Lumberton, North Carolina. On April 28, 1930, the Robesonian newspaper proclaimed it the largest and most successful evangelistic campaign the city had ever known, by the "faithful and fearless minister of the gospel and of high educational and cultural attainments." The article goes on to report that McKendree delivered "a final fitting sermon on the subject of heaven which held out promises of eternal happiness to the saved and warnings of damnation to those not yet in the fold." The throngs who came to hear his message quickly outgrew the Chestnut Street Methodist Church, so they had to move to a high school gymnasium. When that became too crowded, the services were moved to a local tobacco warehouse. At the end of the seven weeks, it was announced that 675 souls had been converted to Christ (fig. 50).

McKendree traveled constantly and preached to captivated congregations. Even though he helped raise thousands of dollars at revivals and church meetings, he never accepted payment in return. He was barely able to cover expenses, but the grateful communities insisted on tributes of linens when he ministered in the mill towns or gifts of hams in the mountains. In his words he wanted to "glorify God by a free ministry." This attitude, although altruistic, put financial strains on the family, and with the birth of his fourth child, Thomas Hill Long, in 1933, things were not going to get easier. The financial burdens were squarely shouldered by Mary Belle, who earned money by writing book reviews and a column called "Fitful Flashes" for the Statesville Daily newspaper She also rented out rooms on the second floor of their home, and for a time she published the Iredell Morning News. The family also received some financial assistance from McKendree's sisters, Marie and Lois, who ran the Dixie Dame Pickle Factory about a mile from the Long family home on Davie Avenue. Their pickles and preserves were distributed nationally to high-end retailers, and their motto, "Pickles with a Pedigree," proved that McKendree was not the only one in the family who could turn a phrase.

McKendree's views on religion were growing increasingly conservative. His beliefs now centered on a literal interpretation of scripture, and he needed to change his affiliation to embrace this new ideology. Citing irreconcilable differences with Presbyterian doctrines on "infant baptism" and "Presbyterial control" over church government, McKendree converted to the Baptist faith. On November 6, 1935, McKendree was ordained a Baptist minister at the Augusta Road Baptist Church in Greenville, South Carolina. Changing denominations allowed him to openly express himself and "walk the pulpit" in a way that the more reserved Presbyterian Church would have disapproved of. The new direction in his life no doubt came as a shock to his family, but McKendree was undaunted by the judgements of others. He was now only concerned with the judgment of Christ and spreading the Gospel message.

His fiery brand of preaching perfectly suited his vigorous and charismatic personality. One summer night while preaching to the African American congregation of his good friend Brother Will Stinson (fig. 51), McKendree shattered a rickety wooden podium with a single slam of his fist. The assembly jumped to its feet and cheered to let him know that his point had been heard loudly and clearly.

For a time McKendree partnered with an ex-prize fighter by the name of Walter W. Rowland (fig. 52). Their motto was "All for the Gospel and the Gospel for All." Rowland was the musical director, and he was in charge of organizing and facilitating the services. He recruited volunteer townspeople to help set up the tent. In an effort to draw the biggest crowd for the nightly service, he would casually ask who the toughest man was in the town. Once there was a consensus, he would challenge that man to a bare-knuckles fight that evening in the field near the tent. This drew a huge number of curious onlookers, and the preaching was cleverly planned to begin just after the fight ended. Of course, any respectable, God-fearing Christian could not just leave.

During these years McKendree did not paint or draw very much. If requested, he would occasionally paint a portrait of a friend or family member. His creative energy was channeled into his poetry and hymns. He wrote up to twelve hymns a day, and at the time of his death in 1976, he had written thousands of these works (fig. 53). Though he did not compose music for his hymns, they do offer a unique insight into his thoughts and concerns. One example from August 12, 1956, foreshadows the type of imagery he would employ in the apocalyptic paintings soon to follow:

 

A preacher once dreamed that he dropped into hell,
Mid woes so distressing no mortal could tell;
He cried in his anguish, "ls't Hell? O, no -- never!"
"And am I, a preacher -- to stay here forever?"
 
"Ah, no," said one there with a frightening frown,
"There is a place for such preachers that much further down!
You preachers, unfaithful, who brought none salvation,
Inherit, the Lord said -- the Greater Damnation!"
 
Then this preacher awoke, I am happy 'twas so --
Woke and came from that place of unspeakable woe;
And did he repent and deal faithfully, well,
With his poor, bedupcd charges, and warn them of Hell?
 
I know not -- but this I know well and retain,
I resolved when I heard this that never again,
Would an angel from heaven or fiend from the Pit:
Accuse me, A PREACHER -- of not heeding it!

 

After World War II and the onset of the Cold War in the 1950s, McKendree was more convinced than ever that the prophecies spelled out in the Revelation to John would soon come to pass. He was now in his sixties, and all his children had left home to begin families of their own. He was unable to travel as he once did, and the outlet his preaching had offered was no longer available.

 

From the Pulpit to the Easel

In the late 1940s, McKendree began to paint narrative works based on scripture (fig. 54; cats. 8, 9, 10) in a makeshift studio behind his home. He worked in virtual isolation, although he would readily lay down his brushes to entertain visitors with stories and anecdotes. The grandchildren fondly remember their gregarious "Grandmac" in a linen suit and Panama hat weaving stories of Indians and imaginary creatures in animated voices and flourishing gestures. He was a skilled archer, and for fun he would create targets for the children to practice their skills. He would proclaim, "Today, the children will hunt African lions!" He quickly produced a blank canvas, onto which he would paint the growling beast and prop it up by a tree for the children to take aim. In addition to wild animals, Grandmac was known to create targets with paintings of Satan and the occasional communist, like Khrushchev or Castro (fig. 55). On one occasion McKendree's daughter, Caroline, thought the children were destroying his artwork and ran out of the house screaming for them to stop shooting. Of course McKendree had a good laugh at the misunderstanding. Even though the family did not understand his new direction in painting, they were still very protective of his art.

One of the most important aspects of McKendree's new paintings, aside from their subject matter, was the dramatic change in the way he handled paint. The facile brushwork and restrained modeling of his early academic style, influenced by de László and Sargent, was abandoned for a bolder application of paint that juxtaposed strokes of pure color (fig. 56). The boldness and passion he felt for the message he wished to convey was translated directly into the manner in which he painted. Over the next few years McKendree's colors became more vivid and his subject matter more intense.

McKendree was drawn to the Revelation (Apocalypse) to John, the final book of the New Testament. It is a graphic account of John's vision of the end of time as revealed to him by Christ (fig. 57). For many believers this is an eagerly awaited time, when Christ will return to the earth, rid the world of all evil, and gather the faithful to join Him in heaven. McKendree was convinced these events would happen in his lifetime. He saw close parallels between the moral degradation and excesses of modern society, the persecution of true believers, and the events described in John's text. Much in the same way a preacher applies scriptural passages to modern life so that his audience can better understand them, McKendree frequently combined very literal renderings of John's highly descriptive visions with more contemporary personages and events.

News of these unusual paintings by the colorful, charismatic Reverend soon spread around the region, attracting the attention of a journalist named Conrad Paysour. The first of several versions of the article appeared in the Charlotte News on July 25, 1961, a few days after McKendree's seventy-third birthday. The headline read "Minister Artist: He Begins a Mighty Big Task" (fig. 58). The '"big task" was to illustrate Revelation. McKendree stated the reason for this choice was that "It was the most picturesque book in the Bible. McKendree considered himself a "romantic realist" and added, "I'm primarily a preacher. Art is incidental." He went on to describe the apocalyptic painting that many consider his magnum opus, the Apocalyptic Scene with Philosophers and Historical Figures (cat. 27). It depicts a cavernous inferno in which Stalin, Mussolini, Hitler, and others are writhing in agony in the lake of fire and brimstone. Historical figures such as Darwin, Marx, Descartes, Voltaire, and Nietzsche look on from the shore, presumably awaiting a similar fate. Observing this scene from above is McKendree, and standing next to him is the fourteenth-century poet Dante, author of The Divine Comedy, wherein he describes his own visit to hell. Both men seem to be delighted with the grisly events transpiring below. McKendree proclaimed to the reporter with a boisterous laugh, "I'm the only person who ever made Dante smile" (fig. 59).

The earliest public viewing of these works came in a retrospective exhibition at the Arts and Science Museum in Statesville in March 1962. The exhibition focused primarily on McKendree's early works, but a number of the recent apocalyptic paintings were included. In a review of the exhibition published in the Statesville Record and Landmark on March 3, 1962, the reporter wrote that McKendree has "little interest for painting that lacks poetic implication. A skilled craftsman with keen insight in subjects under his brush, he suggests that an artist interested only in sweetening the countenances of the great should give up painting and sell candy." Art, more specifically
his art, must not be made simply for visual pleasure. It must have a higher purpose. It must convey a strong message that warns of the impending doom that awaits all sinners (fig. 60).

McKendree's new attitude on the role of art in society explains his critical opinion of his own early academic work. Family members recall having to hide their highly prized early portraits because he would take them off the wall and paint over them in his studio. The early works reminded him of his early unsuccessful career as a portraitist, but more important, the time in his life before he was born again.

McKendree's family contends that he "lost his eye" for composition, proportion, and color when they speak of his later work. Mike Long recalls his grandfather standing at the side of the easel and painting with his right arm extended, suggesting that his peripheral vision was clearer than if he were looking straight at the canvas. Late in life McKendree did wear glasses to correct his vision. Physical debilities notwithstanding, McKendree's mind and artistic abilities remained keen, as did his passion for his new artistic ministry. He was painting his vision of the Apocalypse exactly as he wanted.

 

The "Woman in Red"

The complex iconography of McKendree's visionary paintings may be deciphered through the careful study of passages from Revelation and the political, religious, and cultural climate of the mid-twentieth century. But one aspect of his oeuvre remains an enigma. Beginning in the late 1940s, a mysterious, voluptuous figure commonly referred to as the "Woman in Red" or the "Scarlet Lady" appears in many of McKendree's paintings. She is, in essence, a crossover figure in his oeuvre, appearing in a series of more than fifty solitary portraits (fig. 61). She also appears in paintings based on Scripture (fig. 62), on Revelation (fig. 63), and in fantasy scenarios where she and McKendree are amorously coupled (figs. 64, 65; cat. 7). Her identity remains a mystery, and it is unclear if she is a real person or a romanticized composite of youthful feminine beauty. There are a few tantalizing clues, however, that may shed light on these questions.

The most straightforward explanation is that the woman in the paintings is simply an idealized figure of his wife, Mary Belle (fig. 41). In her youth, Mary Belle was considered one of the most beautiful and charming young women in Statesville. She was full-figured with dark hair, blue eyes, and thick eyebrows. McKendree's memory of her as his young bride could easily be the basis for the "Woman in Red." This would be a very convenient solution, indeed, and quite plausible were it not for a series of sonnets McKendree composed over a thirty-year period.

These "Sonnets to S" were written between the mid-1930s and the late 1950s. Dozens of them, both handwritten and typed, are found among the collection of McKendree's writings left behind after his death. Prolix, bombastic, and permeated with self-consciously erudite references to history, poetry, literature and mythology, several of these writings make reference to a brief romantic relationship with a woman when he was a young man.

The most common theme of the sonnets is unrequited love. In "Sonnets to S" dated September 15, 1952, he proclaims, "No woman knows, nor can she feel, / the primal rage in man's dark soul, / The serpent's bite she cannot heal, / since stranger to its bitter dole! / Repaying slighted love with scorn, / which shuddering devils shrink to see, / Yet in her utmost vengeance shorn, / of the inferno his shall be!"

It appears McKendree was possibly jilted by a young woman who chose to wed another suitor wealthier than he. In "Sonnet to S" dated September 19, 1958, (appendix 1, p. 103) McKendree begins by stating, "I do not taunt you that you married wealth, / For what is Wealth -- if Virtue be but poor?" He continues, "You say you loved me, all that orgy through, / And I in Love's full frenzy -- all believe; / I died of Grief -- my angel says you knew, / and all but died -- to know that so I grieve ..." This sonnet is also accompanied by a nude drawing of a woman (fig. 66), presumably "S." She is an exact match to the "Woman in Red" featured in so many of McKendree's paintings. Some of the sonnets allude to the fact that this woman may have carried McKendree's child. In an undated sonnet "to S," he muses, "All little angels there on heaven's crest, Save ONE -- beneath the heaven of your breast!" In another, dated September 15, 1952, McKendree writes, "The gift your motherhood should make, its utter allness there unveiling, / Which heaven decreed that I should take, unsealed them with a pure prevailing .... / The joy of mating one from two -- the flask, afoam, as both now shake it, / I, only I, should shake with you, with such a thirst no flask may slake it!"

There are several examples of paintings depicting the "Woman in Red" with infant children (cats. 5, 6), but the most bizarre of these is a work from 1952 entitled Christ Blesses the Child (fig. 67). A young McKendree is pictured weeping with hands clutched in prayer before Christ, who is seated with a small child on his lap. The child is a hermaphroditic hybrid of McKendree and the "Woman in Red," who is kneeling across from McKendree. Her hand gently touches the child's foot in a classic gesture of maternal connection. The fact that
Christ is holding the child might indicate that it might have been miscarried or died in infancy. McKendree's wife, Mary Belle, miscarried a child, Daniel Albright, in 1923, lending credence to the theory that the "Woman in Red" was based on his wife. However, a letter (appendix 2, p. 103) found among his papers assigns a name to "S" and reveals a plethora of information about a possible affair. The typed letter is dated April 10, 1951, and it is unclear if a copy was ever sent to its intended receiver. The letter begins:

 

Ah -- Dearest -- Dearest -- you will read this in my own city -- in this
year of our Lord Perhaps at a time, in my saddest month -- when,
knowing you had married Charles Bryant -- I literally died, as you,
already know, and was brought back to the land of the living by a
holy man's prayer!

 

The letter reveals more information about their relationship and the child. He writes:

 

... and when I asked you what you desired with marriage -- above all
that Vanity could pray for, or Power could lust for, and You, answered
"The angel of our dreams, all children in one fair child -- all conceptions
in that on grand Conception -- which on Old Grandfather, on his very
brow, WHERE THE TEAR HE SHED FOR OUR MISERY STILL
RUNS BENEATH HIS EYE -- BUT --shall cease on that early
morning when he sees us there, and knows that the son you kept, with
and in you for thirty-six years, is now in my keeping, and so to be forever!

 

"Old Grandfather" is Grandfather Mountain, which is located in western North Carolina. This mountain may also be alluded to in his 1948 painting Veiled Immensities (fig. 68). McKendree refers to this painting in his letter as the "mould into which God poured your renewed beauty." The painting shows young McKendree sitting in the grass on the mountainside. His hands are clutched in prayer as he looks at a young woman in Victorian dress. Her hand is lifted to her unseen face as though she is crying. The large boulder upon which she sits resembles a phallus, while the distant mountains (particularly those in the upper right corner), are strikingly breast like. The scene is charged, both emotionally and sexually.

Another passage from the same letter provides a name for the "woman in Red" while simultaneously raising the possibility that she was not a real person at all but an artistic creation of McKendree's:

 

You will read this, perhaps, reclining, in your new, sweet, maid's
opulence of physical and spiritual perfection, my own Galatea, whom
my dying arms brought to life, as, clasping at Her feet in worship
still -- Christ made you into my own Susan Meriwether again!!"

 

The reference to Galatea is derived from Greek mythology. The sculptor Pygmalion created a woman from marble that was so perfect he fell in love with her. He called her Galatea and doted on her as though she were a real person. Aphrodite, the goddess of Love, was so moved by Pygmalion's love for his creation that she brought Galatea to life. The reference raises the tantalizing possibility that "Susan Meriwether" was McKendree's own Galatea, brought to life in his poetry and paintings and that he, like Pygmalion, had fallen in love with his own artistic creation.

While it is possible that "S" (Susan) was a product of his imagination, his decades-long obsession, both in prose and paint, reveals a sustained inner conflict that cannot readily be explained as merely a work of fiction. Without further evidence, however, the identity of the "Woman in Red," or even her very existence, will remain a mystery.

 

The Final Years

McKendree continued to paint his apocalyptic visions into his early eighties (fig. 69). He never promoted or sold any of the Revelation paintings, although if a visitor to his studio expressed interest in a picture, McKendree usually insisted on presenting it as a gift.

The paintings from this period evoke an emotional and intellectual catharsis. McKendree's mind so raced with images and ideas that at times it seemed he could not paint fast enough. When a painting was completed, it was simply stacked up against the wall of his studio, oftentimes while the paint was still wet. There would be so many stacked against the walls of his tiny studio that there was only room for a narrow path cut through to his easel. When McKendree was away, the grandchildren would sneak into his studio, against his wishes, and flip through the paintings. They were startled and amazed by what they saw. No comic book or Saturday matinée could top the startling narratives their "Grandmac" was conjuring.

In 1972 McKendree produced a portrait of Christ entitled He Still Loves, and Saves (fig. 70) that was voted the most popular painting at the annual Springs Mills Art Show in Fort Mill, South Carolina. Two years later he was honored with a retrospective at the Arts and Science Museum in Statesville. His many friends and admirers joined to honor his lifelong contributions to the arts and ministry.

Persistent health problems and advancing senility plagued McKendree for the final years of his life. On the evening of April 30, 1976, he fell at his home and was taken to Iredell Memorial Hospital. He was held for tests and observation and was diagnosed with terminal pneumonia. On May 8 his energetic and prolific life came to an end at the age of eighty-seven (fig. 71).

 

The Aftermath

Following McKendree's death, Mary Belle Long was unable to maintain the large house at 404 Davie Avenue. She was moved into a small apartment near her daughter, Caroline, and the family soon began the task of closing down the family home. McKendree's extensive library was dispersed, and his collected writings were deposited at the Presbyterian Historical Society in Montreat, North Carolina. Many of his traditional portraits and landscapes were divided among the children and grandchildren.

But no one was interested in the apocalyptic paintings. His son Tommie even suggested they be burned. His daughter, Caroline, did not approve of these disturbing works or the fifty-plus canvases depicting the "Woman in Red." She did, however, store more than one hundred canvases and panels in her basement, while she sought in vain to find buyers for them in order to help pay for her mother's health care.

In the early 1980s, the situation changed. A genre of American art began to emerge from the shadows cast by the high-profile vanity and greed that had marked the contemporary art world. "Visionary" or "outsider" art was the tagline applied to those works produced by artists outside mainstream art circles. This group of predominantly Southern practitioners had no formal artistic training and, in most cases, was not influenced by -- and not even aware of -- the larger art establishment. The unspoiled innocence and integrity of their work was like a fresh country breeze blowing through the galleries and museums where the art world had somehow drained the simple pleasures from the visual art experience.

Inspired by the Bible, and particularly by the biblical text known as the Revelation to John, visionary artists such as Howard Finster (fig. 20), Sister Gertrude Morgan (fig. 19), and Myrtice West painted visions depicting the eternal blessings or eternal damnation that await human beings, based on their decision to heed or ignore the Word of God. These painters were entirely self-taught, and so they fit comfortably into the "visionary" or "outsider" category. With the rise in interest in works by visionary artists, dealers began to take an interest in McKendree's paintings. Even so, Caroline was forced to sell large lots of paintings for extremely modest prices, often just a few dollars apiece, with the result that a few individuals virtually cornered the market on McKendree's works (fig. 72).

There is a certain irony here. McKendree was a visionary artist, to be sure, but he does not fit comfortably into the traditional confines of the visionary / outsider designation, because he is, at least to a certain extent, the product of his academic training and education. His artistic imagination and aspirations are more ambitious and sophisticated than those of most other self-taught visionary artists. He was clearly no "outsider." At the same time, his paintings show that he turned his back on many of the tenets of his academic training to create a highly personal style that expressed his conservative beliefs about essential spiritual matters and about secular culture, which he regarded with deep suspicion. The seemingly contradictory qualities that inform his art make it nearly impossible to categorize him as an artist; he is neither fish nor fowl, outsider nor insider. Very few people at that time grasped the profound uniqueness of McKendree's later work. But those who did worked with curators to exhibit his works in thematic group exhibitions. Signs and Wonders: Outsider Art Inside North Carolina (North Carolina Museum of Art, 1988) and The End Is Near (Visionary Art Museum, Baltimore, 1998) are by far the most noteworthy of the few exhibitions to feature McKendree's apocalyptic paintings. Today several of McKendree's works are displayed in prominent museum collections.

McKendree's grand mission as both a preacher and a painter was to spread the gospel message that, although no one is without sin, each person has the opportunity for redemption through Christ, and that he or she must make that decision now, because the time of judgment is fast approaching. For almost sixty years McKendree devoted his talents as a writer, orator, and painter to this single mission. His concern for the salvation of humanity is epitomized in a passage from a hymn he wrote on March 5, 1950:

 

Ah, "fools and blind," when fools are blind, their light is truly dark!
When Christ is at the gate those ears, are deaf which will not hark!
Out of His secret place, our God, in flaming wrath they'll see,
Who stays man's wrath, to USE HIS OWN -- on man's iniquity!
 
Let hydrogenic bombs be piled as high as Everest's wrack,
They'll be the jest of Jesus Christ, when Jesus Christ comes back!


Notes

Interviews for the biography of Reverend McKendree Robbins Long were conducted between December 2000 and October 2001 with family members Mildred Page-Long, Ben Long IV, Margaret DuB, Avery, McKendree (Mike) Robbins Long III, Marybell Avery, Marie Land Avery Mickey, Susan Long McMillan, Robert Hill Long, Isaac (Ike) Thomas Avery III, and Tony Griffin; collectors Max Jackson, Milton Bloch, Allen and Barry Huffman, Bob Gibson, and Richard Gasperi of Gasperi Gallery, New Orleans, La.; also David Steel, Herb Jackson, Richard Maschal, Don Moore, and Frank Thompson. Repositories of Reverend Long's journals, hymns (hand written and typed), sermon outlines, photographs, sketches, personal documents, notes, newspaper articles, 78-rpm audio recordings of sermons and handwritten biographical notes on the life of Reverend Long by his daughter Caroline Avery may be found in the archives of The Presbyterian Historical Society, Montreat, N.C., and the collection of Margaret DuB. Avery. Additional materials may be found in the Archive Departments of Davidson College, Iredell County Public Library, and UNC Chapel Hill. Publications featuring the work of Reverend McKendree Robbins Long include Roger Manley, Signs and Wonders: Outsider Art Inside North Carolina (North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh, 1989); Richard Maschal, Wet-Wall Tattoos. Ben Long and the Art of Fresco (Winston-Salem, N.C.: John F. Blair, 1993); Roger Manley, The End is Near!: Visions of Apocalypse, Millennium and Utopia (Los Angeles: Dilettante Press, 1998); Stacy Lee Sharpes, Visions of the Apocalypse. The Work of Myrtice West and the Rev. McKendree Long (Sweet Briar College, 1998). For information on the history of the Art Students League of New York, see "A Brief History of The League's Early Years" (from The Art Students League Selections from the Permanent Collection, 1987), at www.theartstudentsleague.org. Introductory quote by Flannery O'Connor; see John Shelton Reed and Dale Volberg Reed, 1001 Things Everyone Should Know about the South (New York: Doubleday, 1996); For information on Philip de László see Derek Clifford, The Paintings of P. A. de László, London, Literary Services and Production Ltd., 1969.




About the Author

Brad Thomas is Director of the Van Every/Smith Galleries, Davidson College

 

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