Theodore Clement Steele, American, 1847–1926
Oil on canvas
66.04 cm x 53.34 cm | 26 in x 21 in
Unsigned, private collection
Mary Elizabeth Lakin Steele (1850 – 1899) was the first wife of T.C. Steele. She died on November 14, 1899 at age 49 after contracting tuberculosis. She was called “Libbie” or “Bess” by most everyone. T.C Steele and Libbie were married 25 years with the marriage ceremony conducted in Rushville, Indiana. They had three children, Rembrandt (Nov. 16, 1870), Margaret (Daisy) (July 7, 1872), and Shirley (Ted) (July 15, 1878).
Few portraits are known to exist of Libbie, and these are closely held in the family. None have been acquired by museums or have gone to public auction. Upon the painter’s death in 1926, Steele’s children Brandt, Daisy, and Shirley accepted their portion of their father’s estate and paintings, and chose to keep every portrait of their mother.
This portrait of Libbie was painted early in the artist’s career (circa 1870) before he had much formal training, and prior to studying at the Royal Academy of Art in Munich, Germany (1880 -1885). T.C. Steele would have been 23 years of age when he painted this portrait of Libbie and she would have been 20 years old.
Libbie was born February, 22, 1850 near Rushville, Indiana, to Adam Simmons Lakin and Mary Cloud Matson. She left Rushville to attend Waveland Academy in Waveland, Indiana where she met T.C. Steele who was also a student. It was probably in 1867 that Libbie and Theodore met. She was seventeen on February 22 of that year, a slender girl with attractive delicate features. She was little taller that five feet four inches with large dark brown eyes and long black hair.²
“She and Theodore walked and read together – Keats was a favorite poet. They enjoyed music and often sang as she played the piano. With her contralto voice and Theodore’s baritone, they joined her older sister Laura and Theodore’s cousin Joseph Richards, – a soprano and tenor – in a quartet that was good enough to be asked to Crawfordsville and the neighboring towns to sing. Under these circumstances it was not long before they fell in love”²
T.C. Steele and his family lived in Waveland and his boyhood home remains to this day and listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The Waveland Academy (later renamed Waveland Collegiate Institute in 1859) closed after the 1878-1879 school year.³ It has since been demolished.
After Libbie completed her education at Waveland Academy in the summer of 1869, she went to live with her aunt and uncle, Kate and James Lakin, on the family farm In Rushville, Indiana. That fall, T.C. Steele visited Libbie in Rushville to plan their marriage. Libbie’s sister Laura, and T.C Steele’s cousin Joseph Richards were to be married soon as well, so the two couples decide to have a double wedding in the home of Libbie’s aunt and uncle (Kate and James Lakin), about one mile east of Rushville. The wedding took place on February 14, 1870.3
The Steele’s remained in Rushville, Indiana for a few weeks after their wedding, and then left for Battle Creek, Michigan where they lived until early in 1873. Two of their three children were born while in Battle Creek, Rembrandt and Margaret (Daisy). The move to Battle Creek was to paint on commission where it appears orders had been placed.4
The Steele’s returned to Indianapolis and the artist became successful of painting portraits and landscapes, including President Benjamin Harrison, and his well-recognized landscape Pleasant Run. He and his family settled into a small rental on Linden Street, just north of Pleasant Run creek, in an area known as Fountain Square (1899).
During this period and return to Indianapolis, T. C. Steele met German immigrant and prominent Indianapolis businessman Herman Lieber and they became friends. Lieber owned the H. Lieber and Company Art Emporium at 60 East Washington Street, and was a patron of the arts and early leader of the arts movement in Indianapolis. He and several other investors funded Steele’s study abroad at the Royal Academy of Art in Munich, Germany (1880 -1885). The Steele family returned from Germany to Indianapolis in 1885, and he painted portraits and ventured out to the outskirts of Indianapolis to paint landscapes.
Also in the late 1890’s, along with contemporary J. Ottis Adams, they began painting in the Whitewater Valley where the two painters purchased a home in 1898. Referred to as the “old Butler House” on the banks of the Whitewater River’s east fork, in the village of Brookville, it was renamed The Hermitage by Libbie. This home exits as a bed and breakfast today, and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, US Department of the Interior.
The Steele family’s primary residence remained in Indianapolis and was called Tinker Talbott property, where the artist also had a studio. Libbie died at 7:00 pm, the night of Tuesday, November 14, 1899 at this family residence with funeral and burial private⁴. Referred to in the news as the “old Talbott homestead”, at the corner of Sixteenth and Pennsylvania in Indianapolis.⁵ She is interned at Crown Hill Cemetery, in Indianapolis.
T.C. Steele also painted a portrait of Thomas Lakin (1790 – 1874) who was Libbie’s grandfather. Thomas Lakin lived in Rushville and died in 1875. The portrait of Thomas Lakin is in the collection of Indianapolis Museum of Art.
Thomas Lakin is buried in East Hill Cemetery, Rushville, Indiana. East Hill Cemetery is also the final resting place of Wendell Lewis Willkie (1892 – 1944) who was the 1940 Republican candidate for President of the United States, losing to Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Paint and Canvas: A Life of T.C. Steele
1Paint and Canvas: A Life of T.C. Steele, Perry, Rachel Berenson, Indiana Historical Society Press, 2011, pg. 34, ISBN 978-0-87195-295-0.
2The House of the Singing Winds, Steele, Selma N, Steele, Theodore, L, Peat, Wilbur D., Indiana Historical Society, 1966.
3Interview with Karen Zach, Montgomery Country Historical Society and Rick Payne, Director Waveland Public Library, May 18, 2020.
⁴The Rushville Republican (Rushville, Indiana), 17 November, 1899, Friday, pg. 4.