Theodore Clement Steele, American, 1847–1926
Oil on canvas
90.17 cm x 69.85 cm | 35 1/2 in x 27 1/2 in
Framed: 121.92 cm x 101.6 cm | 48 in x 40 in
Signed and dated lower right
Restored by Snodgrass & Davis Studio, February 1999
From the collection of Indianapolis Public Schools – used by permission
Clemens Vonnegut, Sr., (1824 – 1906) is the great-grandfather of American writer Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
Vonnegut was born in Munster, Westphalia, Germany and educated at the Hochschule in Hannover. He spoke German, English, Latin, Greek and French. Vonnegut became a textile salesman for a firm in Amsterdam, Holland and traveled to the United States as an agent for the mill. He decided to immigrate to the United States in 1850.
Moving to Indianapolis in 1851, Vonnegut was politically active, socially and culturally active and made a strong impact on the Indianapolis community. He started Vonnegut Hardware Company on East Washington Street, and became a respected member of the business community. Vonnegut Hardware had a long successful period of serving Indianapolis residents from 1852 through the early 1970’s. It remained in the hands of Vonnegut family until it closed.
In 1870 Vonnegut was a founding member, along with Hermann Lieber, and became board chairman of The Freethinker’s Society of Indianapolis. The Freethinkers had two primary goals: education and advocacy, with topics ranging from socialism, women’s suffrage, science, theology and American Government. Vonnegut was active in lectures and debates the Society hosted, and his opinion was held in high esteem. This group believed strongly in public education and that is was the best way to educate youth through a well-rounded curriculum that involved critical thinking and was free of religious constraints.
He also belonged to the Indianapolis Turngemeeinde, a social/gymnastic German Group started in 1851. He actively pushed for the teaching of physical education in public schools. Vonnegut believed in the motto of “a strong mind in a strong body” in order to better serve society. Vonnegut also belonged to the Maennerchor (German men’s choir) and served at one point as president.
Vonnegut strongly supported public schools and served on the Board of School Commissioners of the City of Indianapolis for 28 years.
One of Clemens four sons, Bernard Vonnegut, became a noted architect in Indianapolis and co-founded Vonnegut and Bohn. Bernard Vonnegut designed the John Herron School Art Institute at 16th and Pennsylvania Streets in Indianapolis which later became the Indianapolis Museum of Art, and now houses Herron High School, a Mayor’s Chartered High School.
The cornerstone of the new building designed by Vonnegut was laid in a ceremony in November 1905. T. C. Steele was a featured speaker at the event (see full text of speech). Over time, the John Herron Art Institute grew extensively and added buildings on its campus that can be seen today. The original building Bernard Vonnegut designed, remains virtually unchanged since it was originally built. An Indiana State Historical Marker noting T.C. Steele’s original studio at this site, prior to the construction of the John Herron Art Institute can be seen in the front greenspace facing 16th Street.
Clemens Vonnegut, Sr. is buried in Crown Hill Cemetery in Indianapolis, Indiana.
Special thanks to Kurt Vonnegut Museum & Library, Indianapolis, Indiana.