Front Page

The 'Zine

Sunsphere City

Bonus Track

Market Square

Contact us!
About the site

Secret History

on this story

A Vision of the Madonna

A familiar photograph appears in malls across America

by Jack Neely

I first heard about it a few months ago when I ran into a visitor sitting beneath the trees on Market Square having a look around a city she once knew well. Harriet Simmons now lives in Albany, Georgia. We knew her as Harriet Luebke when she lived here, years ago. Anyway, she told me about a curious experience she'd had as she was looking over the new Christmas cards at the Hallmark store in the Albany Mall. Among all the usual Christmas-card clichés, one image leapt out at her: a photograph of a beautiful dark-haired woman and round-faced baby, overlaid with a famous bit of text from Isaiah, part of what made it into Handel's Messiah: "For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given...."

The photo behind the words is in black-and-white, which makes it seem old; something else about the woman's makeup makes it appear very old, maybe turn-of-the-century. It's a striking portrait, no question, the sort of photograph that makes you want to see who took it. Inside, that short 3,000-year-old passage from Isaiah is extensively credited, with all the required copyrights and permissions. But there's no photographer credit at all.

Anyway, the reason Harriet Simmons bought a box of these cards in Georgia was that when she lived in Knoxville she knew the madonna.

As did many others, some of whom have mentioned the new Hallmark card since Mrs. Simmons did. One is David Babelay, the McClung Collection's expert on Knoxville's European immigrants, who has taken an interest in the card and, just a few days ago, mounted a biographical display about the photograph, the artist, and his models, up in McClung's lobby on the third floor of the Custom house. The photograph—once well known to many across the country as the "Knaffl Madonna"—was taken in a second-floor studio at 522 1/2 Gay Street, right about 100 years ago.

The photographer was Joseph Knaffl. He was the son of Dr. Rudolph Knaffl, once a physician at the Court of Austria who'd migrated to Tennessee after the revolutions of 1848. Working for a photo studio in Knoxville, Joseph Knaffl grew fascinated with photography. In 1884 he opened his own studio on Gay Street. Knaffl wanted to prove the still-young science could be an art every bit as painting. Most of his work was in portraits, but the young man tried to few other art scenes, tableaux, some of them with religious themes.

He was known to go to great lengths for authenticity; the mustachioed, bespectacled photographer once ventured down to the downtown waterfront to find two bushy men to pose for a photograph called "The Prophets." It won an award at the St. Louis World's Fair.

His two most famous subjects were closer to home. One was Emma Fanz, the beautiful 19-year-old daughter of Knaffl's friend Ignaz Fanz, German immigrant, former alderman and president of the Fanz slaughterhouse. The other model was Knaffl's own baby girl, Josephine. Ignoring gender considerations, Knaffl wanted to pose them together as Mary and Jesus.

The Knaffls lived on quiet Hill Avenue, near Gay Street. Knaffl's studio was in a walkup between Union and Clinch. Four blocks on Gay Street wouldn't seem to make a lot of difference, but Dad's studio was much scarier than home. In particular, the scrape and clang of the trolleys outside the his windows upset little Josephine. It wouldn't do to have a crying baby in a madonna picture without some revisionist theology; they gave up on the shoot that day, and failed in another attempt, too. Frustrated, the Knaffls finally brought Josephine back on a Sunday, when the street outside was quieter.

Knaffl posed Emma Fanz and his own baby daughter draped in white, and took the shot. It was what he wanted. Exhibited at Chatauqua, N.Y., that year, it got written up in the August, 1899, issue of a national arts magazine called Pen & Brush; the critic called Knaffl's photograph "a signal success. The artist has had the extreme good fortune to find a model of pure and almost perfect features and expression.... I would not have believed it possible to do anything so poetic and ethereal directly from nature."

It was also a smashing commercial success. Knaffl sold thousands of prints in America and Europe. His title had been "Madonna and Child." The image became famous as the Knaffl Madonna.

The beautiful Emma Fanz might have made a career in modeling, but, as it happened, she became Knoxville's first car-wreck widow. Her first husband was a furniture factory heir and country-clubber named Will Price. The young couple lived in a large house on stylish Laurel Avenue, and were among the first Knoxvillians to own a car. Late one night in the summer of 1909, the 29-year-old Will Price had taken the car out for a spin with five friends, and was speeding down Maryville Pike, when a tire blew out on a curve and sent the car plummeting down a 25-foot ravine. This car-wreck death was so astonishing that the Journal & Tribune carried minute descriptions of Price's accident and injuries.

Emma later married Albert Hope, the jeweler, who was older and more careful. Not one to settle into the life of a conservative housewife, however, Emma became a suffragette, demonstrating for women's rights in Washington. She had a full life, but the woman once famous for posing as a mother never had children of her own.

In 1924, the Hopes built a house mainly to suit her, the striking medieval-style house they called Hopecote, on Melrose Avenue near the expanding university. After Mr. Hope's death in 1955, the 75-year-old widow ran her husband's jewelry store for a few years and invited her maiden Fanz sisters in to live with her. She died at 97, having told generations of reporters about how, back in '99, she came to be the Knaffl Madonna.

The baby, Josephine Knaffl, grew up and married businessman David Baker. She enjoyed her status as one of the BOGS—the exclusive society of people born on Gay Street. She died in 1970, with little memory of the day she sat in for the baby Jesus.

The photograph has outlived them both; in recent years, it has sometimes been Knaffl's only listing in catalogues of rare photographs. And now, suddenly, it's popping up on Christmas-card racks in malls across the nation.

I've had a hard time interesting the Hallmark folks in the Knaffls and Fanzes. It's Christmas time, after all, and they're busy selling cards. Anyway, after an email back in September went nowhere, last month I called Hallmark's PR department and asked where they'd found the photograph, and why they didn't offer credit to Joseph Knaffl, not to mention his models.

The PR lady I spoke with didn't get it right away. "And people in Knoxville are interested in this because....?" she asked. She said she'd get back to me.

Today, 522 Gay Street is a condemned building near the old S&W. It's on the stretch that's slated to be torn down for a parking lot or a justice center or whatever it is this week. For this moment, however, in the old Athletic House display window, there's a large red ribbon and the Hallmark card taped to an old storefront, with the legend, "100th Anniversary of Madonna & Child, photographed by Joseph 1Knaffl, 1899, on this site."