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Recalling IU's first artist in residence, T.C. Steele



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"Opulescent morning," by Theodore Clement Steele. The painting hangs in the Indiana Memorial Union. Steele was IU's first artist in residence and a leading painter of American Impressionism. Courtesy Photo Buy Photos

Located just 11 miles from Bloomington in Brown County is the T.C. Steele State Historic Site. Here resides the 211 acre home of IU’s first artist in residence, Theodore Clement Steele. 

"Steele was one of the most prominent artists to work in early 20th century Indiana," Jenny McComas, Class of 1949 Curator of European and American Art, said. "He’s someone students should know about and take pride in. He’s part of our local history."

The Indiana Daily Student phoned Cate Whetzel, the historic site’s program developer, to talk about Indiana’s most famous Impressionist-era artist and what he contributed to Indiana, as well as to IU.

Indiana Daily Student: Can you give me a brief background of who T.C. Steele was? 

Cate Whetzel: T.C. Steele is probably the leading American Impressionist painter from Indiana, during his lifetime from 1847 to 1926. Of course there are other members of the Hoosier group who are equally important, but T.C. Steele stands out as a leader. 

He is also, by the time he died in 1926, the leading portrait painter in the state of Indiana. He paints the Indiana Governors, he paints Benjamin Harrison — the only president from Indiana — and other luminaries at IU and really in the Midwest. He was nationally and internationally famous during his life. 

Was he always in Indiana? 

He really lived most of his life in Indiana. He did go to the Royal Academy of Munich for his education, and that was basically between 1881 and 1886. He’s in Germany because he can’t get an education in fine arts in the United States. There are no art schools in the country that can train an artist to the master level, so it’s kind of a big deal. 

When he dies, of course, there are institutions that can train American artists, so American artists no longer have to go abroad for their education which is really huge. 

Yes, he’s in Germany, but for the most part he traveled, to the West Coast in 1902 and 1903, then he was up in Vermont and Tennessee, but those places were not permanent homes for him. His permanent home, really, is always Indiana. 

Why did he choose the property in Brown County? Wasn’t it 211 acres of forests? 

Not exactly, it wasn’t forests. Brown Country was farm land, so this is a subsistence farming community. In fact, the ridges were deforested and we didn’t have any state parks and we didn’t have any national forests, you know state forests, none of that stuff in Indiana in 1907, which is when the Steele’s come here. 

T.C. Steele comes here, marries a second time in 1907. His first wife dies of tuberculosis in 1899 and he’s absolutely grief-stricken, he mourns her, and about seven years later, he remarries. He marries Selma Neubacher, who is much younger than he is, but she’s a professional woman and she’s an educator and artist, an administrator. She spends her life in pursuit of her own education and career and in the arts. 

She was the one who left us all of these 211 acres and the 350 paintings. The buildings and their contents, it was all Selma’s doing, she indeed left a gift to the people of Indiana. They chose Belmont, I think, this area specifically, because it is a blank slate for him. 

When he marries his first wife in 1870, and she dies at the end of 1899 and was the mother of the painter’s three children, she is like a soulmate. She’s his first and best critic, she is essentially the inspiration for a lot of the work he does. 

With her death of course, it’s very difficult for T.C. Steele to be in places where he was with her. When he marries again, he and Selma come to a place where there are no memories and they’re going to make a new life and that’s what this place is. 

How many years did they live on the property? 

This house was supposed to be a summer home only, but they loved living here despite a number of challenges, and it became a three-season home, so they were here spring, summer, fall. They moved in in 1907, and T.C. Steele lived here much of the year, from basically 1907 to 1926. He and Selma were here for 19 years together. She was here for 19 years after him. They called their home “The House of the Singing Wind.” 

T.C. Steele was mostly painting landscapes on the Brown County property correct? 

Landscapes were what he loved. He loved landscapes and he loved American landscapes. He was an advocate for the American landscape, and in the late 1880s to 1890s, nobody in this country was really interested in paintings of Indiana or of the Midwest. Nobody wants to see it, nobody wants to buy it, but T.C. Steele is painting them and he’s doing it because he thinks it is important. 

Even though they don’t make any money for him, he payed the bills with portraits and we know that T.C. Steele is basically a middle-class person. He depends on the sale of his paintings to pay the bills, which then is a job. Even as one of the most famous and celebrated painters in Indiana, he still has to sell a number of paintings a year in order to pay his mortgage. At the end of his life in the 1920s, is when American landscapes are selling.  

So he formed the Art Colony of the Midwest? 

Sort of, kind of indirectly. When T.C. Steele moves here in 1907, he’s so famous that the eyes of the art world turn to Brown County. Because when these paintings start appearing in Indianapolis and Chicago, other artists are like, “That’s Brown County? That’s beautiful, we had no idea.” 

Other artists begin arriving, they start coming down to visit. And then many of them decide to stay. They rent space in Nashville, Indiana, there’s even a joke that Chicago annexed Nashville, because there’s so many Chicago artists living and working in Nashville. 

He’s not considered a founder of the the Art Colony of the Midwest because he never lived in Nashville. That was not his goal, but he was considered the “Dean” of the Art Colony of the Midwest. He was kind of this benevolent figure, this established famous artist who really drew other artists here, kind of like a magnet. 

Was T.C. Steele an artist in residence at IU? 

Yes he was, absolutely. He was the first artist in residence at IU. The position was created for him. William Lowe Bryan did that. And William Lowe Bryan, the president of the University, said to the board of trustees the arts were as important to the University as scholarship. I mean you think about someone saying that to the Board of Trustees at IU in the 1920s and it’s huge. 

They give him a very healthy stipend, a good amount of money, they give him a studio in Franklin Hall which was then the library, and invite him to paint the campus, and they give him like a doctor of laws. He is given all of these accolades because T.C. Steele is a rock star in the 1920s. He’s not going to come and grade your sketch, he’s too big for that. 

What he’s going to do, though, is he’s going to be available to IU students. Students can go into the studio and watch him work, they can talk to him. And they’ve got a distinguished professional mentor available if they want to take advantage of that connection and if they don’t, T.C. Steele’s there, he’s painting the campus. Many of those paintings show IU, the IU of the 1920s. For people who are interested in the history of the campus, that’s pretty important. 

Are any of his paintings on campus for people to see? 

Oh yes, tons of them. They’re all the way through the Union, many of them in fact. The Indiana Memorial Union has one of the great art collections. People don’t know that. I don’t think people appreciate that, but it’s a pretty good collection. There are lots of Steele landscapes, especially in the Union, they’re in people’s offices. 

If you go into some of the administrative offices, say if you’re going to the banquet, to hire somebody to make a million Swedish meatballs for your wedding, you’ll walk in there and you’ll find T.C. Steele paintings, landscapes and still lives. 

If you go into the Presidents Hall, his portrait of William L. Bryan is hanging in there. There’s a giant Steele landscape in the University Club, in the Union. I’ve seen some at the Kelley School, some just scattered through the campus. 

One of the most famous of his works is in the Eskenazi Museum of Art and it's “The Boatman,” and it’s a really important work for T.C. Steele. It was like his best work when he was in Germany. It was given back to the museum from a private donor. 

For visitors who would like to see T.C. Steele’s property, what can they find? 

Well, on an average day, Tuesday through Sunday, between 10 A.M. and 5 P.M., we’re open and we offer tours everyday. Every hour, there’s tours of the studio and the house, so you can see paintings here, you can see how they lived. 

We have about 95 percent original artifacts, Because Selma Steele left everything that she had to the state and the people. She didn’t have any kids herself, so everything that was theirs, is here. It’s good to have people around to look at these things. We also have a number of hiking trails on the property, we have a formal garden, we have water gardens, rock gardens, we have, you know, 211 acres — outdoors. It’s all public land people can explore and walk around in, you know, it all belongs to you. 

What are 5 words you would use to describe T.C. Steele’s artwork?

Beautiful. Serene. Impressionist. Plein air, which means “outdoor” in French, and, let’s see, significant.  

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