by Charlie Matson, Board Treasurer
Anyone who has seen more of the Bloomington campus of Indiana University than just the famous basketball court in Assembly Hall has walked past at least one fine painting by T.C. Steele. That is because the campus, which is noted for its handsome limestone buildings which are framed by hundreds of flower beds and mature trees, is also enhanced by more than 50 of Steele’s canvases.
Most of the paintings are safely hung and admired in meeting rooms and offices. But dozens are easily viewed in lobbies and hallways, especially at the Indiana Memorial Union. One of my favorites is “The Strength of the Hills.” Steele painted it in 1914 and it is located in the IMU Mezzanine Hallway between rooms M049 and M060. Visit the Tudor Room even if you are not hungry to see “The Cloister Kitchen” painted in 1883. And if the State Room West is vacant, enjoy the “Morning on the Jordan” painted on the campus in 1923.
The connection between Theodore Clement Steele and the University goes back to 1907, the year he was having the future “House of the Singing Winds” built on Bracken Hill less than 10 miles east of the campus. At the same time Steele was commissioned to paint a portrait of William Lowe Bryan, who was president of the university from 1902 until 1937. Steele found Dr. Bryan to be more than a good sitter; besides being a noted classics scholar, Bryan was in Steele’s words “a delightful and charming man.” And Bryan found in Steele more than a talented and well trained painter; Steele deeply appreciated music and nature. And without the advantage of an east coast college educationhe had become well versed in literature. And Steele’s humble grace was admired by all who knew him.
The IU Art Department invited Steele to exhibit his art on campus in spring of 1916 as part of the state centennial programs on campus. It was the first time Steele had a solo exhibit in Bloomington, but several of the well-healed members of the community had already started collecting his work. The IU exhibit was extended until the graduation ceremonies in June. Selma Steele wrote about what happened in her memoir, The House of the Singing Winds.
“Shortly before the commencement week I had been told of a secret which must be kept as a surprise to the painter. At the same time I was to arrange that he would present at the final ceremonies of the presentation of diplomas to the students. In due time a formal invitation came to him. He conceded that it was kind of the president to ask him, but other than that he made no comment. The final day arrived, a beautiful morning on the campus, a morning fit to give solemnity to any outdoor ceremony: the blue skies of June, the morning sunshine, the birds flitting about the old forest trees and breaking into song, the upturned eyes of the many watching the proceedings on the platform, and I spellbound among them all awaiting the great moment to arrive when the president would confer the degree of LL. D. upon the painter.
When finally the presentation by President Bryan came, in words so beautiful that I was in tears, the painter, too, showed plainly how deeply he was moved by the honor bestowed upon him.” It should be noted that IU gave very few honorary doctorates in those days. One was awarded to the world famous poet James Whitcomb Riley inOnly one other such honor was bestowed between then and 1916.
And it should be also noted here that Riley & Steele were old friends. When they were both struggling to earn a living from their art in the 1870’s they designed and produced business signs to sell. Riley did the letter stenciling while Steele added artful designs. It was during that time that Theodore first painted a portrait of James. He painted several more in the years that followed and the impressive one that he painted in 1902 hangs in the lobby of the Lilly Library. Go see it the next time you are on campus! Or just open your copy of Rachel Berenson Perry’s excellent book: Paint and Canvas – A Life of T.C. Steele to the color plates in the back gallery section where a full page print of the Riley portrait is included with the best work of Steele.
The other great honor Dr. Bryan & Indiana University bestowed on Steele came in 1922 when they invited him to be an honorary professor paid as an artist-inresidence by only providing open studio hours. This was truly a special honor that came a long time before other colleges were forward-thinking enough to establish such a relationship with a non-academic. Theodore, who was never much of an art instructor, really enjoyed his interactions with the students and faculty members for the next several years. Dr. Bryan reflected in 1924 about the justification of his bold offer and its successful results: “I believe that we need beauty as much as we need truth. I believe that the University needs artists as much as it needs scholars. . . I rejoice in the presence of Theodore Steele and his pictures.”
You can see dozens of these priceless paintings at Indiana University and the T.C. Steele State Historic Site.