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Hoosier School’s German Roots

The dappled light and broken brushstrokes of the landscape paintings that belong to the Hoosier School seem indebted to the French movements of impressionism and post-impressionism. But the paintings’ true background is more precisely German. The most prominent open-air landscape painters living and working in Indiana during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century received their training at the Royal Academy of Painting in Munich.

Continental training was considered indispensable for a serious American artist of the day, and Indiana’s prevailing German culture may have determined the destination. Midwestern natives who were gaining acclaim in New York by the late 1870s—such as Indiana-born William Merritt Chase, and Cincinnati-based Frank Duveneck—had studied in Munich earlier in the decade; a steady stream of compatriots followed suit.

In the summer of 1880, a group of Hoosier painters including Theodore Clement Steele, John Ottis Adams and William Forsyth, along with their families, sailed out of New York on the S.S. Belgenland bound for Antwerp, and ultimately Munich. Their ocean passage and academic fees were funded in part by wealthy Indianapolis residents solicited by gallery owner Herman Lieber, a Duesseldorf native. Other artists repaid their backers by making copies from Old Master paintings in Munich’s Alte Pinakothek.

At the Royal Academy, the Americans were schooled in the somber, tonal realism of the day. That style characterized the portraits and landscapes Steele, Adams and their peers made for the decade after choosing to return to Indiana—instead of trying their luck in New York. After exposure to French impressionist paintings at the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago, however, the Indiana artists began experimenting with the colorful palette, flickering light, and bucolic subject matter that would become the trademark of the Hoosier School.

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