Editor's note: The following essay was reprinted in Resource Library on July 7, 2008 with permission of the author. If you have questions or comments regarding the text, please contact the author directly at the Indiana State Museum, 650 West Washington Street, Indianapolis, IN 46204 at either this phone number or Web address:
The Paintings of Ada Walter Shulz
by Rachel Berenson Perry
The domestic genre paintings of Ada Walter Shulz (1870 - 1928) mark a significant period in Indiana's artistic legacy. As a young woman at the end of the nineteenth century, Ada Shulz fulfilled her roles as wife and mother, and pursued an equally important career in fine art.
Born in Terre Haute, Indiana, Ada Walter attended the Art Institute of Chicago for four years, studying with John Vanderpoel and Oliver Pennet Grover in the early 1890s. In her final year at the Institute she enrolled in an outdoor summer painting expedition to Delavan, Wisconsin, where she met her husband-to-be, artist Adolph Robert Shulz.
The two artists married in September of 1894 and immediately left for Paris, where Adolph studied at the Academie Julian. Ada entered the Academie Vitte, which attracted many American women as students. During her studies, Ada Shulz received criticism from Jean and Amie Morat as well as James Abbott McNeill Whistler. The school awarded her a medal for proficiency in art.
The early work of Ada Shulz and those paintings intended for important exhibitions or commissioned projects reflected her extensive academic training. In these works, interior scenes, detailed facial features, a conservative palette, and back lighting were common.
The Shulzes left Paris for Munich in April of 1895, establishing a joint studio in the German city. Ada gave birth to a healthy son, Walter, on June 10, 1895. When the baby was three months old, the family made the ocean voyage back to America to settle in Delavan.
Adolph provided his young family with a comfortable living as a landscape painter and independent art instructor while Ada concentrated her attention on being a wife and mother. Unable to devote full time to art, Ada followed her mother's philosophy that "to succeed in any line everything else must be excluded from thought," and did not paint for the next ten years.
During the summer months the Shulz home became a gathering place for the students in Vanderpoel's continuing landscape classes. The results of the student artists' efforts were periodically offered for sale at outdoor shows conducted in the Shulz's front yard.
Adolph Shulz became increasingly alarmed by the encroaching dairy farms in the Delavan area. He claimed that the cows were devouring the landscape. In his search for unspoiled painting grounds in 1900, Adolph discovered a picturesque area in south-central Indiana called Brown County. Concerned about the lack of lodging accommodations, he did not take his family there for the first time until eight years later.
The Shulzes became founding members of an artist colony in Brown County's largest village, Nashville, and painted there every summer beginning in 1908. They stayed at the newly established Pittman Inn where artists were welcome. Hoosier Group artist Theodore Clement Steele, also charmed by the region, had built a house and studio on a hilltop eight miles west of Nashville a year earlier.
Ada and Adolph Shulz made Nashville their permanent home in 1917. The rugged hills and hollows of Brown County were conducive to open air landscape painting, and many of the resident artists cultivated showy flower gardens to inspire still lifes. Alone among them, Ada Shulz concentrated on the indigenous mothers and children for her subject matter, working out of doors and emphasizing sunlight.
The style of Ada Shulz's paintings became increasingly impressionistic, as she used a myriad of contrasting colors to depict light and shadows. Facial features were painted in less detail as the backgrounds developed into more descriptive settings. Her genre paintings of children playing in sunlight, rural mothers carrying babies, and children with their barnyard pets, established her reputation regionally as an accomplished artist.
The work of Ada Walter Shulz was exhibited regularly in Wisconsin, Illinois, and Indiana, and received recognition from several institutions. Her painting, Mother and Child, won the Municipal Purchase Prize at the 1917 fall Art Institute of Chicago exhibit; Mother from the Hills received an honorable mention at the Milwaukee Art Institute's Fourth Annual Exhibition in 1918; and the Hoosier Salon conferred merit awards for A Mother From the Hills and The Pet Duck in 1926 and 1928 respectively. Commissioned magazine covers included The Advance, May 1914 issue, Woman's Home Companion, January 1920 issue, and Literary Digest, December 1924 issue.
The recognition for Shulz's work in own time was distinctive considering her gender and locale. Influential philosopher and art critic John Ruskin wrote a column for the San Francisco Call in 1896 titled "Advice to Young Women," in which he stated that "all accomplishments (for women) should be considered as means of assisting others." A man in step with the climate at the turn of the century, Ruskin believed that artistic genius was an exclusively male preserve.
In 1910 Arthur Edwin Bye wrote that the greatest artists were characterized by "pure masculinity, oftentimes of a superhuman order." He assured his readers that "To create a child is the greatest aspiration of (a woman's) life, and when she can do that she rightly cares for nothing else."
Given this cultural milieu, it is not surprising that, while Ada ShuIz chose a career in art, she interrupted it for ten years to care for her husband and child. A product of her times, Ada believed that the pursuit of an artistic career and her obligations to her family were mutually exclusive.
Patricia Trenton wrote in her recent book, Independent Spirits: Women Painters of the American West:
Of the three most recognized professional women artists in the Brown County art colony, Ada ShuIz was the only one who became a wife and mother. Well-known portrait artist, Marie Goth, and landscapist Lucie Hartrath chose to remain single. Interestingly, Goth and Hartrath also elected to paint in genres (portraiture and landscapes) that competed with male artists.
By concentrating on painting images of children, ShuIz's work fit comfortably within one of the socially sanctioned genres for women at the time. Still-life work, monopolized by floral painting, was the other most common option for women. In choosing artistic subjects completely different from her landscapist husband, Ada also discouraged comparison between their works.
Despite working in non-competitive genres, there is evidence of professional jealousy between Adolph and Ada Shulz long before their marital split. The Shulzes often exhibited together at the Chicago Galleries Association and in the exhibit space of the H. Leiber Company in Indianapolis. When reviewed by Indianapolis Star art critic Lucille Morehouse, Ada Shulz's paintings of children invariably received more lavish praise than her husband's landscapes.
While it would not be accurate to completely discount cultural inclinations or motives, Ada Shulz's decision to paint children was influenced early in her artistic career by encouragement from Mrs. Rudolph, an instructor at the Art Institute. There is no doubt that the genre choice was consistent with Shulz's religious philosophy.
Ada Shulz was a devoted follower of the Christian Science Church throughout her adult life. California artist Jessie Arms Botke expressed her interpretation of the church's message: "We are entitled to express energy, vitality, and joy."
According to Christian Scientist Margaret Radke:
Shulz's artistic productivity depended as much on her family responsibilities as her emotional state of being. It is safe to assume that Ada Shulz dedicated full time and energy to art while she attended the Art Institute in Chicago and when she studied in Europe. However, after her son's birth, Shulz temporarily put aside her career.
Beginning in 1905, inspired by her thoughts of "children and sunlight," Shulz began to experiment with painting Delavan children out of doors. She expanded her open air agenda during summers spent in Brown County, reaching a pinnacle of productivity in 1914 when her son Walter, who had begun to show promise as an artist, enrolled in the Art Institute of Chicago. The entire family exhibited at the Milwaukee Art Society gallery in December of that same year.
Against his parents' wishes, Walter enlisted in the army in the spring of 1917. He survived trench warfare only to contract diphtheria after the armistice while on duty in Germany. He died December 12, 1918. Ada experienced a period of artistic inactivity from 1918 to 1920 which was likely caused by this terrible loss.
Fresh scenes and subject matter inspired Ada Shulz to resume painting regularly in Florida during the winter of 1920 - 21. These works included depictions of black women in domestic settings, often with white children. Marital problems precipitated a second lull in exhibition entries from 1922 through 1924. The Shulzes remained in a lengthy separation until they finally divorced in May of 1926.
Ada Shulz's liberation from the marriage, although emotionally unsettling, served to inspire more artistic dedication and productivity than in any previous time period. Her creative output and active exhibition schedule in 1925 - 28 became the sole focus of her life. In the spring of 1928, Ada Shulz became ill and died on May 2. Her faith in the Christian Science religion prevented any medical diagnosis or possible treatment for her condition.
As her artistic expression matured, Shulz had become increasingly concerned with color, and mixed more white into her palette. At the same time, shapes were simplified. Large blocks of color had become major compositional elements. By 1928, Indianapolis Star art critic Lucille Morehouse noticed this change, writing, "It is also noted in these later canvases that the drawing and the arrangement of color masses, as well as lights and darks, are kept simpler than in earlier pictures."
While staying within her chosen genre her entire career, Shulz's continuously experimented and changed the focus of her compositions. Emphasis on backgrounds accompanied the less detailed shapes, whereas early open air paintings were more concerned with foregrounds. The subject of the painting (usually a figure) became more abstract while complex, chromatically colored backdrops were only vaguely representative.
Ada Shulz sought to convey happiness through her work, but she rarely portrayed emotion between the subjects in her paintings. While other painters had attempted to capture the bonding relationship between mothers and children, Shulz chose to paint dedicated mothers with relatively indifferent children. In most Shulz paintings, the mother and child are both looking at a book or at the artist. Only three paintings, including an early untitled mother with infant (c. 1908), Motherhood (1915), and Mother and Child (1917) characterize the mother and child locked in mutually affectionate gazes.
Since the depiction of emotion between mother and child was not a common element in Shulz's work, it is likely that she experienced outside influences when painting one of her most widely acclaimed paintings, Mother and Child. The emphasis on the intimate bond between mother and child coupled with the unique use of stripes on the child's outfit, are reminiscent of Mary Cassatt's work. Reproductions of paintings by Mary Cassatt such as The Child's Caress, in which the mother and child are joined in an inquisitive yet mesmerized stare, were easily available to Ada Shulz.
The primary difference between Cassatt's and Shulz's subjects is their social class. Whereas Cassatt portrayed the domestic scenes of wealthy mothers, Shulz's madonnas were hard working rural women whose lives were eased by few luxuries.
There is little doubt that Ada Shulz was also influenced over the years by her husband, Adolph. As backgrounds became more important in her paintings, Ada definitely benefited from having a landscapist in the house. Her treatment of foliage and purple haze to show distance are similar to Adolph's renditions. Eventually Ada's growing confidence in painting open air backgrounds prompted her to paint several landscapes without figures, the predominant compositional style for the Brown County school.
One other source of strength in the work of Ada Shulz was aided by her exposure to other Brown County artists accomplished in open air painting techniques. Her unique handling of the depiction of sunlight infused her work with a bright and optimistic ambiance. T.C. Steele, in particular, was regionally acclaimed for his experimentation with light in his paintings, and Ada Shulz visited with him on a regular basis.
Consistent with the Brown County school, but unlike many American Impressionists, Shulz rarely painted much detail in her subject's faces unless the work was intended as a portrait. Faces most often were painted as suggestions only, and were as impressionistic in style as the surrounding composition.
Preferring to paint small to medium-sized works (approximately 14 x 12 inches for oil on board, and never larger than 35 x 35 inches for oil on canvas), Ada Shulz often left them unsigned and never recorded the date on her paintings. Her indifferent attitude toward the documentation of her art suggests she had little sense of the survivability of her work. Although painting was her life's calling, interrupted periodically by the demands of domesticity, it does not appear that Shulz considered herself to be a significant artist.
It has been both poignant and ironic that, in recent years, the value of Ada Shulz's paintings has far surpassed that of her husband's. Considering her lack of notability in all but a few areas of the midwest, it is remarkable that works bearing her signature are currently so much in demand and command such a high price.
So prized are they by their owners, paintings by Ada Shulz are rarely available for purchase. In September of 1992, Returning From A Visit caused a stir in New England when it was offered for auction to an audience unfamiliar with Shulz's work. Antiquing America reported:
What do female artists, conservative estimates, bright colors, New England and Indiana have in common? In a recent Massachusetts sale, these were the conditions that touched off an unexpected bidding war for a little-known artist's work. When the gavel finally struck, the painting commanded a price equal to fifteen times its presale value.
Although Ada Walter Shulz did not consider herself to be an unusually gifted artist, time appears to have contradicted her judgement. In 1994, several paintings by Ada Shulz were seen by the public in two different museum exhibits: Art by Indiana Women 1850 - 1950 at the Columbus branch of the Indianapolis Museum of Art and Strokes of Genius: The Brown County Art Colony, 1907 - 1937 at the Indiana State Museum.
Ada Shulz's work is inherently autobiographical, portraying the people and places that populated her world. True to her Christian Science philosophy, Shulz left a legacy of work reflecting the simple joys and freedoms of childhood. Without sentimentalizing her subjects, she painted rural people doing things they enjoyed in natural settings.
Paintings by Ada Shulz continue to intrigue viewers fortunate enough to encounter them. Her ability to capture facial expressions while using little detail, her skill at convincingly rendering active children along with her unusual color sense combine to create strong, memorable paintings. While there is little doubt that Ada Walter Shulz was, and is, an important artist, there can be no doubt that she fulfilled her religious and personal philosophy to "bring joy to the heart" through her art to the world in which she lived.
About the author
Rachel Berenson Perry is the fine arts curator for the Indiana State Museum in Indianapolis. She has written numerous articles for the American Art Review, Traces of Indiana and Midwest History, Outdoor Indiana, and Southwest Art Magazine. She provided the introductory essay for Painting Indiana II: The Changing Face of Agriculture and "An American Art Colony" in The Artists of Brown County, published by Indiana University Press. Her books include Children of the Hills: The Life and Work of Ada Walter Shulz, published by Artist Colony Inn and Press, and T. C. Steele and the Society of Western Artists 1896 - 1914, to be released by Indiana University Press in spring 2009.
Resource Library editor's note:
The above essay was reprinted in Resource Library on July 7, 2008, with permission of the author, which was granted to TFAO on March 24, 2008. Ms. Perry's essay pertains to an exhibition, Children and Sunlight: The Paintings of Ada Walter Shulz, which was on view at the Indiana State Museum February 6 - May 31, 1998. This essay was published in the January - February 1998 issue of American Art Review.
Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Shana Herb Johannessen for her help concerning permissions for reprinting the above text.
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