Indianapolis Museum of Art

Indianapolis, IN



"The Departure"


Introductory essay by Martin Krause from the catalogue titled The Passage - Return of Indiana Painters from Germany, 1880-1905 published by the Indianapolis Museum of art in 1990 in connection with an exhibition held at the Museum November 24, 1991 through February 2, 1992.


The passenger manifest of the S.S. Belgenland sailing out of New York for Antwerp on July 24, 1880, included ten residents from the state of Indiana. They were bound for Munich and the study of art at the famed Königlichen Akademie der Bildenden Künste. Theodore Clement Steele (1847-1926). John Ottis Adams [1851-1927), and Samuel Richards (1853-93) were not headed for carefree wanderjahre in Europe. They were practicing artists who had raised their own funds and committed their future work in order to study at the Royal Academy. They were accompanied by their families: Steele's wife Mary Elizabeth ("Libbie"), his three children. and Richards's wife Louise. Two other Indiana artists. Carrie Wolff and August Metzner, completed the group. but they are best remembered for being on board. The voyagers. who were joined in Munich in January 1882 by William Forsyth (1854-1935). represented the vanguard of culture in the western United States. Never before had artists gone directly from Indiana to study abroad. and the group exodus was as unanticipated as it was unprecedented.

Fifty years before these artists were born, Indiana was wilderness. Only in the first decade of the nineteenth century did settlements begin appearing on the banks of the Ohio River. which defined the southern border of the Indiana territory and offered its only access. Over the next thirty years, the Indian tribes progressively relinquished their lands to the north. and white migration followed. Owen County, near the center of the state, saw its first settlers around 1818; among them were Jesse Evans and James Armstrong Steele, the grandparents of Theodore Clement Steele. The future artist was born in a log cabin in an orchard a mile from the brick home of his grandfather Steele.[1] His father was a common saddler by trade and a farmer, but young Steele received a better-than-average education after the family moved north to Montgomery County and the village of Waveland. This otherwise typical small Indiana town was distinguished by the presence of the Waveland Collegiate Institute. where Steele was enrolled in 1859; it was there that he received his introduction to art.

Steele's interest was sparked by the visit to Waveland of an itinerant painter.[2] These journeymen who circulated among Indiana's towns were the only professional artists the state knew before 1860. By necessity in these cash-poor times, they were not only prepared to paint portraits but were equally willing to paint houses or signs. That they were inept portraitists did not matter, since theirs was the only art in an otherwise artless region. William Forsyth recalled that in his youth "an artist was so rare that the mere fact that he could paint a portrait or a picture made him a kind of wonder man and imbued him with the attributes of genius."[3] The itinerant painter of Steele's acquaintance kindly revealed to the boy some of the secrets of his trade and gave him a box of cast-off paints. At that moment he formed his ambition to become an artist, just as such chance encounters had started Thomas Cole and James Henry Beard of Ohio, Chester Harding of Kentucky, and George Caleb Bingham of Missouri on the unlikely path to artistic fame in the previous generation.

At the age of thirteen Steele was giving drawing instruction at the Waveland Institute, even though he admitted "I..didn't know much about drawing but I knew more than anyone else:"[4] With only a few months of training in Chicago, Steele began supporting himself as a portrait painter in 1870.

J. Ottis Adams had a similar history. His grandfather, John Adams, had settled in Johnson County in 1820 on lands ceded by the Indians only two years before,[5] and laid out the town of Amity, in which I. Ottis Adams was born. For Adams, like Steele, a chance encounter with a passing artist transformed an early inclination to art into his future profession. In about 1872, when Adams was living on his father's farm near Seymour, William Greenlees, a Scottish portrait painter with relatives in Indiana, chanced upon Adams painting a picture. Recognizing some potential in the amateur artist, Greenlees, according to his granddaughter, invited Adams to return to Glasgow with him.[6] From Scotland Adams proceeded to London. where he studied drawing and design at the South Kensington School of Art for two years. He returned to Seymour in 1874 and opened a portrait studio. Two years later he moved to Muncie. Even in this growing city of 5.000,[7] there was not enough portrait work to sustain him, and he supplemented his income by working with the local photographer George R. Gamble.

Photographers in the 1870s competed for the limited business of the portrait painter, and in more than one instance the painter became the employee of the photographer. Such was the case of Samuel Richards.

Richards, like Steele. had been born in Owen County, and they in fact shared a common cousin in Major W. J. Richards,[8] who would later be instrumental in Steele's career. Samuel Richards received a rudimentary art education and employment in 1871 in the Indianapolis photography studio of Theobald Leitz. He was engaged to produce portraits that were a curious amalgamation of photography, drawing, and painting. As Richards recalled:

By means of a negative in a solar camera, the face or figure to be painted was thrown upon canvas, where, enlarged to life size, it was carefully traced with pencil .... The tracings were covered with paint of various admixtures and blendings and then 'finished up' with sittings to approximate...the color of eyes and hair. This constituted a portrait from life.[9]

Such "originals'' on canvas or in charcoal on paper satisfied many local patrons and were popular in that era, but Richards found the work distasteful and soon left to open his own portrait painting studio in Franklin. He married and in 1877, having exhausted the portrait painting business in Franklin, moved to the town of Anderson, where he found employment as a newspaper illustrator.

In 1873 T. C. Steele arrived in Indianapolis with his wife and their first two children. Twenty years earlier, Indianapolis had been unable to support one full-time professional painter. but it could now count three: Jacob Cox. Barton S. Hays, and Steele. Prosperity had come to the landlocked state capital following the arrival of the railroad in 1847. Local industry finally had a way to reach distant markets, and the city grew from 8,034 in 1850 to 48,244 in 1870 and to 75,056 in 1880. Wealth supported culture.

Two more artists arrived in 1877, and. unlike their predecessors, they had had the advantage of art training in Europe. John W. Love (1850-80) and James F. Gookins (1840-1904) were natives of Indiana, but they had left the state for New York and Chicago, respectively, before journeying to Europe. Love had studied at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris from 1872 to 1876, and Gookins at the Royal Academy in Munich from 1870 to 1873. In Indianapolis they applied their academic training by opening the Indiana School of Art in 1877, the first such institution in the state. Of greater significance than the school's solid curriculum was the proof the instructors offered that it was possible for Indiana's artists, however academically unprepared, to seek training in Europe. Furthermore, they counseled that going abroad was necessary if those artists hoped to perfect their art. Love and Gookins constantly promoted their European experiences[10] and proposed that the school offer a scholarship to finance a year's study abroad for their most promising student.[11] This wish was never fulfilled and the school failed two years later for lack of local support, but Love and Gookins had convinced those who were inclined to listen that Europe was attainable. It is not recorded how Steele, Adams, Richards, Wolff, and Metzner came to the decision to go to Munich together, but by early 1880 they had decided.

According to William Forsyth, who had come to Indiana from his native Ohio in 1864 and had been one of the first pupils in the Indiana School of Art, there were four reasons for the choice of Munich over Paris: one was philosophical and three were practical.[12]

The first sizable group of Americans to study at the Royal Academy had arrived around the same time as Gookins in 1870. The Academy was being reorganized, young professors were spreading the gospel of Munich "realism," and when the Americans returned, they were championed in such national periodicals as Scribner's and The Century as the new breed of American figure painters. What was particularly encouraging to the Indiana artists was that the most heralded of these artists had gone to Munich with backgrounds similar to their own. Frank Duveneck (1848-1919) was from nearby Cincinnati. Walter Shirlaw (1858-1909) was from Chicago and had traveled to Munich with his friend Gookins. Of most interest was the success of William Merritt Chase (1849-1916). He was from Indiana and had studied with Barton Hays in Indianapolis until 1869, before he left for New York, St. Louis, and finally Munich in 1872.

The practical considerations were no less crucial. The Royal Academy was much more accessible to foreign students than was the Ecole des Beaux Arts because it did not require letters of introduction, which the Indiana artists did not have, nor demand an entrance examination. Munich was also a less expensive city than Paris. The Indiana artists were not wealthy and would have to raise their own funds. The fourth criterion for the artists' choice, according to Forsyth, was that since the young men were "more familiar with German than French. the language would be easier to acquire."[13] With the exception of Metzner, the artists were not of German heritage, but Indiana was strongly Germanic. Of the state's 1,680,637 citizens counted in the 1870 census. 203,758 were German-born. [14] In Indianapolis, half of the foreign-born residents were Germans. By 1877 there were six German-language newspapers, and all city ordinances and municipal advertising appeared in both English and German.[15] The German community was especially influential in cultural affairs. One man in particular. Herman Lieber, a native of Düsseldorf who had transformed his book bindery into the only art gallery in Indianapolis, was the major force in the nascent artistic life of the city.

Once the decision to go to Munich had been reached, it was necessary for each artist to raise the means. Adams, ascertaining from Chase that copying of Old Master paintings was allowed in Munich's Alte Pinakothek,[16] placed the following notice in the Muncie Daily News on May 21, 1880:

Subscribers to the fund will be reimbursed by Mr. Adams with careful copies of celebrated productions of old and new masters of art, to be sent to his patrons as rapidly as he can reproduce them, at prices more reasonable than they can get them on regular sale.[17]

In addition to these prearranged funds, Adams supplemented his income while in Munich by painting portraits from photographs sent from home.[18] Richards did the same to augment the monies he had raised among his patrons in Anderson and Spencer on the promise of repayment in pictures. In Indianapolis Steele raised $1,300 in pledged support from thirteen prominent families solicited by Herman Lieber in November 1879. In exchange, Steele committed himself to repayment in paintings upon his return from Germany. Forsyth had the financial backing of Thomas E. Hibben, who had been a classmate in Love and Gookins's school, and a fellow member of the Bohemian Club, a group of students who had banded together to continue their studies after the school failed. Hibben whose family owned an Indianapolis dry goods firm, was more of a man of art than business.[19] Serving either as Forsyth's agent or his patron, Hibben had charge of most of Forsyth's Munich work by 1885.[20]

With their finances in order, the Indiana contingent gathered in New York on July 23, 1880, bearded ship, and two weeks later arrived in Antwerp. They disembarked in what Libbie Steele called "that land of Art, the Mecca of our dreams:"[21] It took nine days to get to Munich, traveling by steamer down the Rhine to Cologne and then by train to their destination. They found lodgings in the city, presented their portfolios to the professors, and prepared to enter the drawing classes when the Academy's year began on October 16.


I. T. C. Steele, autobiographical information; Steele Papers.

2. Mabel Sturtevant, "Theodore Clement Steele:" The Hoosier Magazine 1: 2 (February 1930), p. 20.

3. William Forsyth. Art in Indiana (Indianapolis: H. Lieber Co.. 1916), p. 6.

4. Steele Papers.

5. Illustrated Historical Atlas of the State of Indiana (Chicago: Baskin, Forster & Co., 1877), pp. 317-18.

6. Indianapolis Star, June 26, 1927.

7. Illustrated Historical Atlas of the State of Indiana, p. 307.

8. Jacob Platt Dunn, Greater Indianapolis II (Chicago: The Lewis Publishing Company, 1910), p. 1240.

9. Quoted in Marguerite Hall Albjerg, "A Nineteenth Century Hoosier Artist, Samuel Richards, 1853-1893." Indiana Magazine of History (June 1948), p. 146.

10. William Forsyth, Indianapolis Star, December 1913.

11. Indianapolis News, December 24, 1877.

12. Forsyth, Art in Indiana. p. 13.

13. Ibid.

14. Illustrated Historical Atlas of the State of Indiana, p. 399.

15. Frederick Doyle Kersher, Jr, "A Social and Cultural History of Indianapolis. 1860-1914," PhD. Thesis (Madison: University of Wisconsin. 1950). pp. 152-53.

16. William Merritt Chase to J. Ottis Adams. May 31, 1880. quoted in Judith Vale Newton, The Hoosier Group: Five American Painters (Indianapolis: Eckert Publications, 1985), p, 91.

17. Quoted in Ned H. Griner, Side by Side with Coarser Plants, The Muncie Art Movement, 1885-1985 (Muncie: Ball State University, 1985), p. 8.

18. Draft of a letter from T. C. Steele, March 1881; Steele Papers.

19. Indianapolis in the "Gay Nineties": High School Diaries of Claude G. Bowers (Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Society, 1964), pp. 182-83.

20. Ye Hoosier Colony in München (Indianapolis: Art Association of Indianapolis. 1885), n.p.

21. Mary Elizabeth Steele, Impressions (Indianapolis: The Portfolio Club. 1893). n.p.


About the author

Martin Krause was at the time of writing the above essay the Curator of Prints and Drawings at the Indianapolis Museum of Art


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