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Tennessee Williams at last gets an Old Capitol portrait

 

Artist Will Smith Jr.'s portrait of Tennessee Williams.

Artist Will Smith Jr.'s portrait of Tennessee Williams. Photo by: Courtesy photo

 

William Browning

 

 

Tennessee Williams, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright from Columbus, has been a member of the Mississippi Hall of Fame since 2001. 

 

But for years and years, in Jackson, no portrait of him hung in the Old Capitol beside other Hall of Fame members. 

 

This is not uncommon. 

 

Lauren Miller, director of the Old Capitol Museum, says the state's Hall of Fame has 131 members. Of those, about 15 do not have portraits for one reason or another. 

 

Portrait-less members include Muddy Waters, John Sidney McCain, William Hodding Carter II and Tennessee Williams. 

 

Until now. 

 

A person who wishes to remain anonymous recently donated a portrait of Williams to the Mississippi Department of Archives & History. At the Old Capitol on Wednesday, it was unveiled. Gov. William Winter was there. He declared to the crowd that the painting will be the "best-known portrait in the Hall of Fame." 

 

Why? 

 

Because like the person it depicts, the painting -- oil-on-canvas, about 29-by-25 inches -- tells a story. 

 

Williams looks at the viewer through a streetcar window. It is the penetrating gaze of a writer who sees people for what they are. A cigarette holder's tip rests between his lips. Beneath him are items that trailed his life: two Pulitzers, a Tony Award, a bottle of gin, an ashtray from the Carousel Bar. And, of course, an Underwood typewriter. 

 

Will Smith Jr., a New Orleans-based artist, painted the portrait. On Thursday, he explained its origins to The Dispatch. 

 

Smith had an exhibit at Gallery 600 Julia in New Orleans in Dec. 2012. You will recall that according to the Mayan calender, that month was to be our world's last. So Smith decided to fill the exhibit -- dubbed "IcoNOLAgy" -- with 14 portraits of famous New Orleans residents and tell their stories. 

 

The Williams portrait was likely painted during the summer of 2012, according to Smith. 

 

Are any of the playwright's Mississippi roots represented? 

 

"Yes," Smith said, explaining that in the portrait's background can be seen a fading skyline, as well as treetops from a dark forest. 

 

That's a hint of Delta. 

 

Smith, a Natchez-native, is thrilled that his painting of Williams will represent the world-renowned playwright at the state Hall of Fame. 

 

The portrait will be on display in the Old Capitol's rotunda for several weeks. Then it will most likely join other Hall of Fame member portraits on the museum's third floor, according to Miller.

 

William Browning was managing editor for The Dispatch until June 2016.

 

 

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