First published: Fall 2009
Painter, poet and preacher, evangelist and expositor, the Reverend McKendree Robbins Long was a unique and complex character whose life's work is only now receiving full attention. 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 for 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 fuelled Long's return to painting when he began the mission of illustrating the biblical text of 'Revelation'. His early training in the tradition of academic portraiture provided him with the skill to realistically render anything he could imagine onto canvas. Yet he turned his back on many of the tenets of his academic training to forge a highly personal style that would express his fundamental beliefs about mankind's need for salvation, and the pernicious influence of secular culture.
Long was born in Statesville, North Carolina in 1888. His parents were Judge Benjamin Franklin and Mary Alice Robbins Long, both of whom came from affluent families and were highly educated.
The grand Victorian home in which Long and his siblings grew up was filled with music, art and spirited conversation. Long proved early on to be a very bright and studious child, and he also possessed a strong artistic talent.
In the summer of 1907, he enrolled in a summer art course at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville in order to devote himself more exclusively to his art. After only one semester, he won a scholarship to attend classes at the famed Art Students League in New York City. 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. His first stops were at the Slade School at the University of London and Sandow's Institute.
He 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. When he returned to the United States in 1913, he set up a studio in his father's house, where he began working on portrait commissions for prominent North Carolinians. The following year he married Mary Belle Hill.