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The Franklin Inspired Story of Artist Matilda Lotz

The Franklin Inspired Story of Artist Matilda Lotz

Franklin, Tennessee has a Civil War-era history worthy of a Masterpiece Theatre series, and if that were to happen, one of the production’s main characters would undoubtedly be Matilda Lotz. After witnessing the Battle of Franklin at the age of six, she went on to become one of the most celebrated painters of her day, with studios in Paris, London, San Francisco, and Budapest. She was fearless, innovative, and certainly ahead of her time, enjoying a bohemian lifestyle many of her contemporaries would have viewed as scandalous. While we don’t know all the details of her life, we do know enough to say that without a doubt, Matilda Lotz enjoyed many adventures and accomplishments during her lifetime, even by today’s standards.

Matilda was born in Franklin’s Lotz House in 1858 to master woodworker Johann Lotz and his wife, Margareta. The day after her sixth birthday, Matilda and her family woke to see thousands of troops gathering around their home for what was to become the bloody Battle of Franklin. The Lotzes immediately headed for the Carter House across the street to seek shelter. Built of sturdy brick, they knew they would be safer inside that home than in their own wood-plank house, which ended up being heavily damaged during the battle. 

Both families spent the next 19 hours in the cellar of the Carter House as the battle raged above them. When things finally quieted, they emerged to find bodies of dead and dying soldiers everywhere around them — In all, there were more than 10,000 casualties. According to historians, there were so many dead and wounded soldiers that some of them died standing, unable to fall because of the number of bodies piled around them. When the Lotzes returned to their home across the street, they were unable to avoid stepping on the bodies of soldiers to get there.

A German immigrant, Johann Lotz never owned slaves and remained adamantly neutral during the Civil War. After the war, the family struggled then in 1869 Lotz sold his home and the family rode in a covered wagon 2,300 miles to San Jose, California. Matilda would have been 12 years old during this harrowing journey.

Once the family was established in California, young Matilda enrolled in the California School of Design and after that, the French Academy in Paris, considered to be the best art school in the world. While there, she became the first woman to win two gold medals for her paintings submitted to the Paris Salon. After graduating, she briefly returned home to California and informed her parents she would be returning to Europe and traveling the continent without a chaperone — a shocking proposition at the time. Except for a couple of trips back to the United States, she remained overseas for the rest of her life, traveling all over Europe and to Egypt, Morocco, and other parts of Africa to paint.

Matilda financed her travels with commissioned portraits for European royalty and wealthy citizens, but her favorite subjects were domesticated animals like horses, sheep, and cows, probably because of memories of her early life in pastoral Franklin. Her art was was in high demand and she was considered to be one of the greatest painters of animals in the world.

At the age of 55, Matilda met and fell in love with an Austrian Count who was a famous artist in his own right. They married and lived together until Matilda’s death ten years later. After an adventure-filled life, Matilda’s final years were tragic ones — She lost all of her paintings and possessions after fleeing from Algeria to Hungary during World War I and spent the last few years of her life sick and despairing over her inability to recover her life’s work. 

Although Matilda Lotz lived and traveled all over the world, there is no doubt that she was heavily influenced by her childhood in Franklin, where she learned to draw, developed a lifelong love for animals, and bore witness to one of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War. You can learn more about Matilda and see several of her paintings during the fascinating Lotz House tour. The home is located at 1111 Columbia Avenue in Franklin. 

Thanks to J.T. Thompson and Robert Z. Carlisle II for their research into Matilda Lotz’s life, and special thanks to Rick Warwick and the Williamson County Historical Society for the photos. For more information on the entire Lotz Family, be sure to read their book, The Lotz Family: Survivors of the Battle of Franklin, which is available for purchase at The Lotz House.