By Rachel Berenson Perry
The name T. C. (Theodore Clement) Steele (1847-1926) is a household word among Hoosiers who enjoy our state’s art heritage. A legend in his own time, he continues to be the best-known artist who lived and worked in Indiana in the late 1800s and early 1900s. After studying for five years at the Royal Academy of Art in Munich, Germany, his determination to paint what he knew best, the Indiana landscape, was as innovative as it was sincere. Known as one of the Hoosier Group artists, Steele took his role seriously as a leader in American Midwest painting. In addition to creating artwork, he wrote and gave lectures, served on numerous art juries to select paintings and prizes for national and international exhibitions, and helped organize pioneering art associations and societies.
Steele’s devotion to landscape painting, along with Hoosier Group artists William Forsyth (1854-1935) and J. Ottis Adams (1851-1927), set a precedent for plein air painters of today, many of whom paint in a similar impressionistic style the subjects and seasons that interested their predecessors. The continuing annual juried exhibitions, the Hoosier Salon (established in 1926) and Indiana Heritage Arts (started in the late 1970s) typically display a majority of landscapes, painted on location or in studios, of Indiana’s surprisingly diverse scenery.
But in T. C. Steele’s day, a market had yet to be developed for landscape painting in Indiana, and he earned his bread and butter painting commissioned portraits. He was an accomplished and sought-after portrait artist and, by the time of his death, he’d painted many of Indiana’s most prominent citizens.
Indiana artists were at a disadvantage for national recognition in the late 1800s. Choosing to live and work far away from the eastern seaboard, their names were virtually unknown, even when their paintings were juried into the annual exhibits at the National Academy of Design and Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Despite Steele’s credentials, including a student silver medal at Munich’s Royal Academy of Art; Honorable Mention in the 1900 Paris Exposition; winner of coveted Fine Arts Building Prize at the 14th Society of Western Artists’ annual exhibition in 1909; and election to associate membership in New York’s National Academy of Design, sales of his paintings, as well as name recognition, remained regional.
Steele first became excited about painting on location while living in Schleissheim and attending the Royal Academy from 1880-1885. Considered a relief from the rigors of winter figure study classes, groups of American students flocked to the moorlands to paint in the company of dynamic ex-patriot, J. Frank Currier (1857-1928). Currier wasted no time with under-painting, and never prettied up his large canvases after returning to his studio. Though Steele struggled to loosen up his logical compositions, the challenges of plein air painting had him hooked.
After he returned to Indianapolis in 1885, Steele pursued his landscape painting seasonally, stealing time from his grueling portrait-painting schedule. He created genre scenes of Indianapolis and traveled to rural places of inspiration, such as his old stomping ground in Montgomery County, and later to Old Vernon along the Muscatatuck River. During the summer of 1887, the Steele family traveled to Vermont, where the artist painted commissioned family portraits and sketched the New England countryside between the villages of Ludlow and Cavendish.
According to great-great grandson Thomas Creveling, “The 1890s proved to be Steele’s most prolific period as a portrait artist, and he is reported to have received approximately five hundred dollars for each commissioned work.” In addition to creating accurate depictions, Steele’s portraits revealed the character and attitudes of his subjects. He wrote that “a portrait artist needs to secure a complete idea of the man . . . a conception of [his] mind, the proper weight of his intellect, the measure of his feeling and strength of passions. Indeed all that there is within him.”
The 1890s were important for the advancement of T. C. Steele’s landscapes as well. He continued to paint near Vernon in mild weather, sometimes accompanied by Forsyth or Adams. In 1894 an exhibition took place in Indianapolis’s Denison Hotel. Originally called the “Exhibit of Summer Work” by T. C. Steele, William Forsyth, Richard B. Gruelle (1851-1914), and Otto Stark (1859-1926), it was sponsored by the Art Association of Indianapolis. Art critic and novelist Hamlin Garland was so impressed with the quality of the paintings that he arranged to take the entire exhibit to the Chicago studio of the city’s acclaimed sculptor, Lorado Taft (1860-1936). The sculptor was Garland’s brother-in-law and one of the leaders in the Central Art Association, an organization promoting Western art. With the addition of paintings by J. Ottis Adams, the Association sponsored the Indiana exhibit, called “Five Hoosier Painters.” National attention and critical praise for this show launched the careers of “The Hoosier Group.”
To facilitate his outdoor painting excursions, Steele designed a horse-drawn studio-on-wheels in 1896. One of his first trips in the contraption was with his wife, Libbie (Mary Elizabeth Lakin Steele), and daughter, Daisy (Margaret), to Metamora in the Whitewater Valley. Steele’s passion for painting scenes in this region was evident in his work. He created some of his best paintings, and gradually changed his technique for plein air painting. Instead of carefully making sketches on paper to work out compositions before applying paint to canvas, he began by drawing a loose sketch directly on the canvas, using thinned paint. This saved valuable time to accommodate constantly changing light.
Both Steele and Adams were convinced that they would never run out of painting subjects in the Whitewater Valley, and in 1898 they purchased the “old Butler House” on the banks of the Whitewater River’s east fork in the village of Brookville. Renamed The Hermitage by Libbie Steele, the building was quickly renovated with a central space for library, dining area and living room, and north and south wings added for studios.
Brighter blues and gold indicate Adams’s possible influence on Steele’s palette, although the two rarely painted side by side. Steele’s landscape painting did not stop when he took down his easel and cleaned his brushes at the end of each day. He set up his most recent paintings in his studio and discussed them with Libbie, as he always had. “She was a very good critic of his work [and] very helpful to him,” according to his grandson.
T. C. Steele received much public notice when he became the president of the Society of Western Artists for the 1899-1900 circuit and also sold one of his major landscapes, Afternoon at the Ford, at the Society’s annual traveling exhibition. But his personal life was clouded with Libbie’s chronic ill health. She contracted tuberculosis in the early summer of 1899, and he took her to the fresh mountain air of the Appalachian Mountains in Tennessee for the remainder of the summer.
When they returned to Indianapolis in the fall, a letter arrived informing Steele that he had been named to the jury of selection for American paintings to be included in the 1900 Paris Universal Exposition. Selected paintings in this Parisian World’s Fair would be seen by millions of visitors from all over the world. Libbie insisted that he accept the honor and go to New York to take part in the judging. Steele reluctantly agreed and boarded a train the second week of November. Two days after his return from New York, Libbie died. She was forty-nine years old.
The grieving Steele family stayed in Indianapolis for the winter, but Libbie’s absence made their Indianapolis home, the Tinker Place, a cold and cheerless dwelling. Daisy accompanied her father to The Hermitage in the summer of 1900, where he spent much time alone in his studio wagon, peering through the large window to paint Brookville’s lingering daylight.
When, in 1901, the Indianapolis Art Association took over the Tinker Place as the new location for their museum and art school, Steele and two of his grown children moved to a small house on East St. Clair Street. Despite major changes in his home life, T. C. Steele created some of his best artwork. His painting, Bloom of the Grape,won honorable mention at Paris Universal Exposition, and the Art Club of Kansas City’s Chapter of the American Institute of Architects purchased a painting titled Indiana Village. In June he received an honorary Master of Arts from Wabash College in Crawfordsville.
Steele and Daisy boarded a train to the West Coast in June 1902. Though impressed by the Cascade Mountains, the Oregon Coast, where he painted every day near the twin resorts of Newport and Nye Creek Beach, stirred the artist’s inspiration. He wrote, “I had gone to the coast unwillingly, but fell under the spell of its charm at once, and every day felt more and more the eternal challenge the ocean, like the atmosphere, makes to the painter and poet for a voice and interpretation.”
Encouraged by positive responses to his paintings, Steele again made the cross-country trip to the west coast with Daisy in the summer of 1903. Although he was less productive artistically this time, Steele presented a paper describing his impressions of his travels to The Portfolio club titled “In the Far West” when he returned.
Daisy married Gustave Neubacher, an Indianapolis businessman, in June 1905. Finally setting up housekeeping away from her father, she moved with her husband to the northeast side of the city near Gustave’s gravel excavating business. That summer, Steele painted near Zionsville before returning to Brookville, where both he and Adams enjoyed their adjacent studios in The Hermitage. It was to be the final summer that Steele would paint in the Whitewater Valley. J. Ottis Adams, then married to Winifred Brady Adams for six years, moved permanently to Brookville with their three children in 1906. Steele, ready to move on and mindful of the Adams family’s need for more space, sold his part of The Hermitage.
T. C. Steele, alone for the first time in his life, enjoyed his respected position as an established artist, and socialized with numerous friends and other artists in Indianapolis. He attended family gatherings with Daisy and Gustave Neubacher as well as meetings of various art organizations, where he took notice of a long-time family friend, Selma Neubacher, who was the sister of Daisy’s husband. Born October 21, 1870, she was the daughter of Ludwig J. Neubacher, an Austrian by birth, and Margaret Berg Neubacher, a Cincinnati native. A contemporary of Daisy and Brandt’s, Selma socialized with Steele’s circle of Indianapolis friends who were interested in arts and crafts, and was a member of the local sketching club. At the time she was the assistant supervisor of art for the Indianapolis Public Schools.
On an exploring trip during the summer of 1906, Steele discovered a rural area about 50 miles south of Indianapolis. Enchanted with the wooded hills and hollows of Brown County, he bought more than sixty acres on a hilltop near Belmont, between Nashville and Bloomington. The following spring he hired a local builder, William Quick, to construct his new studio-home, later named The House of the Singing Winds.
Although they’d kept it a secret from family and friends, Theodore and Selma announced their intentions to marry when his hilltop house was almost finished. Ignoring the twenty-three-year difference in their ages, the two were wed on August 9. But the future dedication and hardship of her life with “the painter,” as Selma always referred to her husband, proved to be a surprise to the 37-year-old bride.
On her wedding day, the couple took the noon train out of Indianapolis and stopped in Gosport to wait for the Monon train connection to Bloomington. While waiting for their connection, Steele wandered off and began sketching, completely ignoring his new bride. “It was here that I faced and was made to realize that the supreme interest in the painter’s life would always be his work,” Selma later wrote.
T. C. Steele lived, breathed and contemplated art throughout each day. “I marveled at his capacity for work,” Selma wrote after their first year in Brown County. “[Steele] believed that during a work season no landscape painter should be in bed after four o’clock in the morning.”
Steele’s enthusiasm for Brown County scenery did not immediately translate into stunning landscapes as he had hoped. According to Selma at the end of their stay in 1907, “the painter did not feel wholly satisfied with the landscape work he had done. He felt that he had not completely expressed himself. He had not lived long enough with his subjects.” Although he had successfully interpreted the light and scenery of alien Oregon and California five years earlier, Steele now believed that familiarity with the territory was essential for effective plein air painting.
Though city collectors did not immediately embrace his paintings, other artists noted Steele’s Brown County residency. Motivated by enthusiastic reports from Wisconsin artist Adolph Shulz (1869-1963), after his own investigative trip, members of the Palette and Chisel Club in Chicago began arriving in Brown County on the newly established train to Helmsburg. The county seat of nearby Nashville offered a accommodating boarding, and soon an art colony was born. Eighteen artists made Nashville their permanent home, with temporary numbers swelling in warm-weather months.
The Steele’s divided their time between Indianapolis and Brown County for about six years. Wintering in the city, where the artist continued to earn their living with commissioned portraits, the couple eagerly returned to their House of the Singing Winds as soon as the daffodils bloomed. In 1912 they decided to give up their loft in the city and move full-time to Brown County.
Now able to paint in all seasons, Steele wrote about one of his paintings. “The picture was one of a series of winter pictures painted in a deep ravine that is near our house in Brown County. I had built a work studio on the banks of this little stream with special regard for winter subjects. Here I could be protected from the weather and paint from the windows, looking both up and down the stream and in fact many directions, and finding many subjects in that picturesque combination of hills and trees and running water.” He created several versions of winter ravine paintings.
While the painter occupied himself with his plein air painting, Selma transformed the forest floor into gardens. One of her stated reasons for growing flowers was to inspire her husband by providing more varied color for his paintings. Her gardens celebrated spring with masses of peonies, iris, columbine, foxglove, bleeding hearts, and lilies. The Steele’s property became known for hundreds of daffodils carpeting the hills in early spring. In addition to garden subjects, Selma’s fresh arrangements for the house motivated Steele to create floral still life paintings. His first still life painting in many years appeared in the 1910 fifteenth annual exhibition of the Society of Western Artists.
T. C. Steele had eliminated all figures from his landscapes by then, and was creating paintings with less obvious subjects. His emphasis on natural details that most would not notice, such as fall foliage against gloomy skies, did not always make sensational paintings to the casual viewer. But his complex and realistic colors, combined with his confident brush strokes, reflected years of intimacy with outdoor Indiana.
The Steeles went out on a limb financially to build a large, barn-like studio in 1916. In keeping with their desire to promote art appreciation, they opened the building free to the public, and visitors soon arrived from far and near. While the artist routinely left early each morning to paint outdoors on the property, Selma served as hostess whenever visitors arrived.
William Lowe Bryan (1860-1955), president of nearby Indiana University, proposed a way for more Bloomington students to interact with T. C. Steele without making the trip out to his Brown County studio. Bryan wrote to Steele on June 9, 1922, “I write on behalf of the Trustees of the University to invite you to be in residence at Indiana University next year. Your service would be what you choose to make it.”
Steele agreed to keep a studio on the top floor of the University Library (now Franklin Hall), and could often be seen painting on campus. To facilitate the artist’s University obligations, the Steeles spent their winters in Bloomington, returning to Brown County each summer. The artist found new subjects on campus that interested him — old limestone buildings, the round-roofed observatory, and well-tended woods with springtime flowering bushes.
Steele continued his demanding schedule of talks and lectures requested by various organizations throughout the state. The Fort Wayne Art School and Museum organized an exhibition of work by Brown County artists in December of 1925 and asked Steele to speak at the opening reception. Selma drove the Ford for the daylong trip to Fort Wayne, and they left the following morning to visit with an old friend, Dr. J. H. Weinstein, in Terre Haute.
That night, T. C. Steele suffered a severe heart attack. Dr. Weinstein immediately recognized the symptoms and was able to save the artist. But Steele was ordered to quit smoking cigars and limit his coffee. After their return to Bloomington, Selma arranged a space in their rented cottage for her husband to paint, instead of going to the campus studio. He reluctantly obeyed, and became strong enough by early May of 1926 to create several new paintings for his annual exhibit at H. Lieber galleries in Indianapolis.
But in June Steele again became seriously ill and doctors were unable to do much for him. Believing that nature would revive his spirits, Selma brought her husband back to the Brown County hills on July 4th. She placed a couch-hammock in the cool shade of the trees, where Steele rested in the afternoons while friends came to see him during his last days.
T. C. Steele died on July 24, 1926. Hundreds of people attended a simple ceremony at the House of the Singing Winds and his ashes were buried at the bottom of the hill. The epitaph on his tombstone reads, “Beauty Outlives Everything.”
The legacy of T. C. Steele is being recognized in this year of Indiana’s 200th birthday. His love of his home state, decision to remain here despite career hardships, and his ability to help all Hoosiers see their surroundings “with new eyes,” have made him a symbol of all that’s good in Indiana.
1 The Passage by Martin Krause, The Passage (Indianapolis Museum of Art, 1990), 52.
2 Thomas Lakin Steele, “A Vision: The Portraiture of Theodore Clement Steele,” (Evansville Museum of Arts and Science, catalog accompanying the unveiling of “Portrait of Daisy,” 1992).
3 Artist Struggles with Adversity,” The Indianapolis Journal, October 2, 1874.
4 Brant Steele, “Meanderings,” manuscript read to The Portfolio, ca. 1930, T.C. Steele collection, Indiana Historical Society Library archives.
5 Bloom of the Grape is now owned by the Indianapolis Museum of Art.
6 T. C. Steele, “In the Far West” paper presented to The Portfolio, 1903. T.C. Steele collection, Indiana Historical Society archives.
7 Selma N. Steele, Theodore L. Steele, and Wilbur Peat, The House of the Singing Winds (Indiana Historical Society, 1966), 85.
8 Ibid, 107.
9 T. C. Steele, handwritten draft of letter, 1912. Selma Neubacher Steele collection, Indiana State Museum and Historic Sites archives.
10 William Lowe Bryan, letter to T. C. Steele, June 9, 1922. Selma Neubacher Steele collection. Indiana State Museum and Historic Sites archives.
Rachel Berenson Perry is the former fine arts curator of the Indiana State Museum, where she organized and curated all of the art exhibitions from 2003 through 2011. She wrote numerous articles for American Art Review and Traces of Indiana and Midwestern History (Indiana Historical Society), and her books include The Life and Art of Felrath Hines: From Dark to Light (Indiana University Press and Indiana Historical Society); William J Forsyth: The Life and Work of an Indiana Artist (Indiana University Press, 2014); Painting Indiana III: Heritage of Place (Indiana University Press, 2013); Barry Gealt: Embracing Nature (Indiana University Press, 2012); Paint and Canvas: A Biography of T. C. Steele (Indiana Historical Society, 2012); T. C. Steele and the Society of Western Artists 1896-1914 (Indiana University Press, 2009); and Children from the Hills: The Life and Work of Ada Walter Shulz (Artist Colony Press, 2001).