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Making It in the Midwest: T.C. Steele to Today

Cutting-edge in its time, turn-of-the-century mid-western Impressionist painting laid the groundwork for the American art establishment in the heartland.

T.C. Steele is a name that’s fairly well known to art lovers in central Indiana, and especially Brown County. But the putative “father” of the Art Colony of the Midwest—who built his hilltop residence outside Nashville at age 60—was of a different generation than most of the art colonists.

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Although the House of the Singing Winds may have served as a beacon for other artists, Steele wasn’t necessarily rubbing elbows with the colonists flocking to Nashville.
Rachel Berenson Perry, Fine Arts Curator for the Indiana State Museum in Indianapolis, set out to trace an important chapter in Steele’s life that predated his connection to the beloved Brown County landscapists.

Perry’s book, T.C. Steele and the Society of Western Artists, charts the progress of the painter’s attempts to put Midwestern art on the map, going back to 1894, when Steele and four compatriots were shown as “Five Hoosier Painters” at an independent Chicago gallery.

The European-trained Indiana artists were hailed as cutting-edge because they sought to represent the subtle natural beauty of their own state, at a time when the American art-buying public still favored European paintings and subjects.

On the heels of their critical success in Chicago, three of the Hoosier Five, along with fifteen other prominent artists from Midwestern centers, organized to form the Society of Western Artists. Although the name might ring odd to contemporary ears, the Midwest was considered “the West” at that moment in American cultural history.
Far from the eastern establishment, these so-called Western artists lacked the infrastructure of museums, galleries and publications necessary to promote themselves professionally. So they created a network, of sorts. The travelling exhibition they organized lasted for nineteen years.

Between 1896 and 1914, the American art scene went through a lot of changes. When the Society was founded, the Impressionist style and outdoor practice of the Hoosier group held sway in the US.

But Impressionism had blossomed in Paris twenty years earlier, and by the 1890s had already transformed into post-Impressionism in Europe. The Grande Jatte, for example, Seurat’s pointillist tour-de-force, and Van Gogh’s The Starry Night had long since been exhibited when Steele and his Midwestern coterie were transcribing their impressions of the shifting light.

As time went on, Perry’s study recounts, inter-city rivalries and sagging sales, along with the logistics of coordinating the touring exhibition made for a case of diminishing returns.

Ideologically, too, the Society of Western Artists was increasingly estranged from the contemporary art front. The New York Armory Show of 1913, which showcased contemporary movements in European art and defined the art market as we know it, seems not to have made a ripple.

The Society mounted its last show in 1914. Their sales were never booming, and even today, a painting by Steele doesn’t fetch nearly as much at auction as one by William Merritt Chase, a Hoosier-born artist who established himself in New York.

Still, their efforts went far in establishing the nuts and bolts of the art world in the heartland. American artists no longer had to travel to Europe for their training.

But the coastal bias that prompted the formation of the Society of Western Artists in 1896 is still a factor. Perry’s catalogue is accompanied by an exhibition at the Indiana State Museum titled “Making It in the Midwest: Artists Who Chose to Stay.” The show includes many of historical examples from her book, along with contemporary work.
Making it in the Midwest: Artists Who Chose to Stay” is on view at the Indiana State Museum in Indianapolis until October 18th. On display are historical paintings from annual exhibitions of the Society of Western Artists and contemporary artwork by selected Indiana artists.

Rachel Berenson Perry’s book, T.C. Steele and the Society of Western Artists, is available through the Indiana University Press.

Perry will make a presentation from the book at a fund-raising event in Nashville. An Evening in Brown County: A Celebration of Hoosier Art and Culture takes place Sunday, October 11, 2009 from 5 to 8 pm at the Brown County Public Library.

The Chautauqua-like event will feature live music and readings celebrating the new edition of Rachel Peden’s classic text, Rural Free: A Farm Wife’s Almanac of Country Living.

A portion of proceeds from the event will help support the Brown County Public Library. Tickets and more information are available at www.PorchLightIndiana.org.

Yaël Ksander

WFIU's Arts Desk Editor, Yaël seeks out and shepherds the stories of artists, musicians, writers, and other creative people. In addition, Yaël co-hosts A Moment of Science, writes essays for A Moment of Indiana History, produces Speak Your Mind (WFIU's guest editorial segment), hosts music and news hours throughout the week, and lends her voice to everything from accounting courses to nature documentaries. Yaël holds a MFA in painting from Indiana University, an MA in art history from Columbia University, and a BA from the University of Virginia, where she studied languages and literature.

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