Inspiring loyalty: The education and preservation of T.C. Steele

Enter the wonderful story of an artist who inspired dedication, patronage, and formidable women.

Great artists are tortured. They don’t quite fit in. They suffer from bipolar disease, schizophrenia, or depression, and they often struggle with personal relationships

That’s the perception, anyway, and proponents of this theory cite Van Gogh, Hemingway, Schumann, Gauguin, and Woolf, among other troubled geniuses. But the reality is, the link between mental illness and creativity is more correlation that causation, although there’s no doubt that an artist’s mind sees things a little differently.

Take, for example, Theodore Clement Steele.

T.C. Steele, as he’s known, was an American Impressionist. He’s one of the five members of the renowned Hoosier Group of artists and the progenitor of Brown County, Indiana’s arts scene. He’s an all-too-rare example of an artist who was celebrated during his lifetime. And yet, the expected tales of self-indulgence don’t exist, and he had a lifetime of support.

I’d first seen T. C. Steele’s paintings at the Haan Mansion Museum of Indiana Art and I was struck by the luminous quality of his Indiana landscapes. I wanted to learn more about the man behind the brush, and the best place to do that was at the T. C. Steele State Historic Site in Brown County.

We drove the winding two-lane road on a Sunday morning, passing yellowed beech leaves fluttering in the March breeze and winter-bare oaks. As we neared, we saw a double-arch whose entrance was blocked by stanchions, and beyond that, a red house at the top of a hill. It was a bucolic setting, but we soon learned it wasn’t quite so idyllic in 1907 when Steele and his wife, Selma, moved to Brown County and forever changed this part of Indiana.

“We are running away from towns and people, for the hills and woods and sky, and we can get people when we need them.”

T.C. Steele, 1907

What was idyllic, comparatively speaking, was T. C. Steele’s evolution from saddle-maker’s son to successful and influential artist, beloved by friends, community, and not one, but three formidable women.

Related: Becoming Brown County

T.C. Steele State Historic Site in Brown County, Indiana
T.C. Steele State Historic Site in Brown County, Indiana

The early years of T.C. Steele

The Early life and education and Marriage and family sections in Steele’s Wikipedia entry are sparse, limited to names and dates. He was born in Gosport, Indiana, on September 11, 1847. You can find out where he went to school and when, who he married, when their children were born, when his first wife died, and when he married his second. It’s a just-the-facts recitation, and that’s fine – it is Wikipedia, after all – but it doesn’t provide the story of how this farm boy grew up to be the most influential artist in Indiana.

A visit to the T.C. Steele State Historic Site fills those gaps between births, deaths, and marriages with stories of dedication and timely patronage.

Our tour of the Indiana museum with Cate Whetzel, Program Developer, began in the Large Studio. We entered the barn-like structure bathed with natural light from the wall of windows, and Cate described the artist’s childhood. His father was a saddle-maker and a farmer, and when T. C. was five, the family moved to Waveland, partly because the community had an academy and the Steeles wanted their children to receive an education.

Large Studio at the T. C. Steele State Historic Site in Brown County, Indiana
T. C. Steele Large Studio

In 1852, Indiana had been a state for 36 years and most of it was still the frontier. That meant service providers would travel by wagon from town to town. One of those services was sign painting. At the time, paint was a rare commodity; John G. Rand invented portable tubes in 1841, but they weren’t exactly something you’d pick up at the general store.

Enter the itinerant sign painter.

T. C. had already shown an interest in light and colors. As he helped his father in the fields, he’d tie colored ribbons to the handles of the plow so he could study their movement in the wind. When the traveling artist arrived in Waveland, the intrigued farmer’s son followed the painter from job to job. Apparently the young Steele was so charming (or persistent) that the sign painter gave him his second-best paints.

It’s not clear when exactly the wandering painter bestowed this gift, but T. C. showed such an aptitude that when he ran out, his uncle ordered more paints. He began taking classes at the Waveland Academy, now known as the Waveland Collegiate Institute, and by the time the burgeoning artist turned 13 he was promoted to Teacher of Arts.

Imagine, Cate prompted, being so talented at that age that your teachers think you should also be instructing students.

Then, sadly, his father died in 1861. Sam was 38 years old and T. C. was just fourteen. His mother, also 38, was now alone with a farm and five children, the youngest of which was only one month. Harriett had given birth to nine, but in that rough time and place, four had died.

Despite that hardship, this formidable woman, the first in T. C.’s life, told the young man that he would be able to pursue his art; for now she needed him to help around the farm, but only until his brothers were old enough to take over.

His mother must have been true to her word, because T. C. continued his studies at Waveland and, while there, met Libbie Lakin. The couple married in 1870 and moved to Battle Creek, Michigan, where T. C. made a living by painting commissioned portraits and, like the man who got him started, commercial signs.

The Steeles had a boy and named him Rembrandt, followed two years later by a girl they named Daisy. With two children in tow, the family moved to Indianapolis, and a few years later their third child and second son, Shirley, was born.

T. C. continued painting portraits because they paid the bills, but soon his art, and life, would change forever.

Portrait of Shirley, T.C. Steele's third child
Portrait of Shirley holding an orange

Patronage and creation of the Hoosier Group

We stood in front of a wall of T. C. Steele’s early works and Cate set the scene. The post-Civil War cycle of boom/bust/boom/bust exhausted the heavily-German population of Indianapolis. Many of them had fled Europe after the failed revolution of 1848, and their ethos of social responsibility and pride in the capital city, the third for the state, led them to determine that Indianapolis must have a thriving arts and culture scene.

To achieve that, Herman Lieber asked T. C. Steele what he needed to truly be a great artist. T. C. replied, “Formal education.” So, Lieber and other prominent businessmen sent him to the Academy of Fine Arts, Munich, under one condition: that he return to Indianapolis.

From 1880 to 1885, the family of five lived in Munich while T. C. learned. With fellow Hoosiers J. Ottis Adams, Carrie Wolf, August Metzner, Samuel Richards, and later, William Forsyth, he trained at the academy and studied Old Masters. The students also gathered around Boston landscape artist J. Frank Currier, becoming known as “Currier’s boys.”

It was during this period that T. C. fell in love with plein air, and once he returned to Indiana that love became more and more evident in the vibrancy of his work.

Unfortunately, no one bought it.

Americans simply did not want paintings of their home, especially in Indiana. “Why would I buy that when I can just look out my window?” was the thought.

Landscapes by T.C. Steele

T. C. took every single portrait commission he could get. The family would spend their winters in Indianapolis, and his paintings of prominent citizens funded the other three seasons. Once spring came, the Steeles piled into his custom studio wagon, a modified version of that traveling sign painter’s rig, and would head for the country.

This isn’t to say T. C.’s art was ignored. In fact, he exhibited at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. He founded the Indiana Art School. His work was displayed at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, in the same gallery as Monet, Renoir, and Pissarro.

In 1894, Chicago critic Hamlin Garland saw an exhibit by Steele; J. Ottis Adams and William Forsyth, who had both been with him in Munich; and Otto Stark and Richard Gruelle. Their collective works impressed Garland so much that he brought the exhibition to Chicago and dubbed the artists the “Hoosier Group.”

The name stuck.

The public follows critics, and it seemed everything was coming up daffodils. T. C. was respected among his peers, respected by critics, respected by collectors. Slowly, his landscapes began to sell.

And then tragedy struck. In 1899, his beloved Libbie died.

Cate stopped in front of a painting distinguished from the others by its lack of light, depth, and complexity. The painting offends her because, she said, “It’s almost naive in its skill level.”

For an artist of T. C.’s talent and stature, this was an affront. It was also a visual representation of his grief.

T.C. Steele Painting post-Libbie's death
The grief of the artist is evident

The artist continued to paint every day after Libbie’s death, but he struggled. So, his daughter, Daisy, took him on a journey to California and Oregon. This 1902 train ride, with its foreign vistas of snow-capped peaks and endless ocean, revitalized T. C.

Painting by T.C. Steele

They repeated the trip in 1903, and after they returned, Daisy met Gustave Neubacher and they married in 1905.

Gustave had a sister. A remarkable sister. Selma Neubacher took herself to the Bronx when she was in her early 30s. After ten years of teaching elementary school in Indianapolis, Selma decided to attend the Pratt Institute in New York, the first college that accepted students regardless of race, gender, or class.

Selma graduated, returned to Indianapolis, and became the assistant supervisor of art for public schools. This was during a time, Cate pointed out, when women in Indiana had no rights. It was so bad that if a couple got divorced, the husband could put the kids up for adoption and their mother could do nothing about it. And yet, Selma could design the whole art curriculum for the state’s capital city.

She also taught at the John Herron Art Institute, which, coincidentally, was located in a former home of T. C. Steele’s. The now-famous artist had been on the faculty, but it was because of the connection through his daughter and her brother that the two became friends.

Despite the age difference of 23 years, they married, which meant Daisy’s sister-in-law became her step-mom and T. C.’s son-in-law was also his brother-in-law.

Artists.

T.C. Steele studio

The Brown County Years

In the corner of the Large Studio sits a three-dimensional still life. A tall cabinet and a shorter case are filled with items an artist might use. Some of the artifacts, like the palettes haphazardly stacked on the table and the brushes stuffed into a pottery bowl, actually were used by the artist.

Selma, Cate explained, kept everything. Even his cigar butts.

Cate pointed out a brush whose bristles had been worn to nubs, and a glance from that tool to the works created with it provided an intimate connection with the artist and the woman who preserved everything of her husband’s she could.

T. C. and Selma married in 1907 and promptly moved to the remote hills of Brown County, Indiana. To call it remote is like saying T. C. was a painter: the description fits, but doesn’t begin to describe.

Despite being just twenty miles from Bloomington, Brown County was forty years behind that college town and the larger city of Indianapolis to the north. Where there had once been old-growth forests, the hills in 1907 were bare due to clear-cutting. That meant erosion of the thin soil covering the bedrock, which meant treacherous roads, which meant locals couldn’t go very far. Considered a “village in amber,” there was no industry and those who could, left.

This is where T. C. and Selma, his cosmopolitan and educated wife, chose to build their home and studio, on the top of a tree-less hill with rutted roads and a two-mile hike to the closest water source.

It sounds like a recipe for disaster, but as we left the studio and entered the House of the Singing Winds, so named for the whistle made by its metal screens, we found a home.

House of the Singing Winds
House of the Singing Winds

Because Selma kept everything, walking into that red building is to walk into how they lived, and it was very different from anyone else in Brown County.

Hundreds of books, books they pulled from the shelves and read, lined the walls. A Victrola and player piano sat silently, but we could imagine neighbors hiking up the hill to listen to recorded music for the first time.

In the corner a stuffed peacock sat on a pedestal, which confounded the neighbors: why would anyone stuff something you can eat and keep it inside the house?

Elegant Victorian furniture and oriental rugs welcomed their guests. Selma could afford both of those luxuries because, at the time, Queen Victoria was out of style. The intricate rugs weren’t popular, but their neighbors with looms would get down on their hands and knees to see how the floor coverings were made.

Victorian furniture and oriental rugs decorated the House of the Singing Winds
Victorian furniture and oriental rugs decorated the House of the Singing Winds

Selma also installed a closet, and it was the first built-in closet in Brown County. People would stop by just to see that wonder.

T.C. Steele - Selma's built-in closet
Selma’s wonder-of-wonders, the built-in closet

And stop by they did. Every day. From locals checking out their neighbors to fellow artists that also heeded the siren call of the “Little Smokies,” it was a never-ending stream of people come a’calling. Even members of the Palette & Chisel club in Chicago would take the train down to Helmsburg and make their way to the House of the Singing Winds.

Selma tried to funnel visitors to one day a week, calling it Sundays at Home and creating special programs.

It didn’t work.

They had moved there so T. C. could paint, and at first, he set up his easel in the living room. When that proved impossible because of the frequent visitors, the Steeles built a wing with emergency studio space. Then he added a small studio in a separate building.

Finally, in 1916, he moved his studio into the large barn-like structure with its wall of windows and they opened their grounds to the public (officially).

T.C. Steele Large Studio
The Large Studio

Despite having this impressively large space in which to create, most of the time T.C. painted outside, continuing to pursue his love of plein air. Selma encouraged him by planting elaborate gardens, specifically so he’d have more subject matter.

For the first few years, the couple traveled back to Indianapolis for the winters, but by 1912 they lived in their house on the hill year-round. This lasted for a decade, when in 1922 Indiana University invited T. C. to be its first artist in residence. After that honor, the couple spent their winters in Bloomington, but they returned to their home and gardens once the daffodils bloomed.

The first sign of spring is when the daffodils bloom at the T.C. Steele State Historic Site
The first sign of spring is when the daffodils bloom

Preserving the legacy of T. C. Steele

T. C. Steele died July 24, 1926. Selma stayed on the hill, even through the great depression. To survive, she rented cabins and sold produce on the side of the road. She sold some her husband’s paintings, but kept many.

Importantly, she kept the house and studio the way they were, and when she died in 1945, she bequeathed the entire estate and more than 300 of his paintings to the Indiana Department of Conservation (now the Indiana Department of Natural Resources) with the explicit purpose of establishing an historic site. Because of her vision, nearly a century after T. C. Steele’s death, you and I can see how this remarkable couple lived.


We left knowing there must have been something truly special about T. C. Steele. He began his life with a mother who supported his art, and then met and married two women who believed in him enough to follow wherever his passion took them. He inspired an itinerant sign painter to give up some of his precious supplies, an uncle to buy him more, a school to invite the teenager to teach, and a community of businessmen to send him across the ocean so he could receive the training he needed.

He inspired his contemporaries and they followed him to a hidden region of the country, turning it into the haven for artists that it is to this day.

T. C. Steele’s story seems, from this distance, to be of a wonderful life. As Cate said, it’s a biography with no apologies. There are no tales of narcissism, or abuse, or misanthropy.

Just loyalty, dedication, and gorgeous, enveloping art.

Selma in her garden depicted by T.C. Steele
Selma in her garden

Visiting T. C. Steele State Historic Site

The T. C. Steele State Historic Site covers the original 211 acres of the homestead. Visitors are invited to hike any of the five trails, four of which Selma designed. You can also:

  • Explore her gardens, which were restored to their original state in 2017. You’ll see the same gardens T. C. painted.
  • Set up an easel and paint your own masterpiece
  • Visit the 1875 Dewar Log Cabin, moved to the grounds by Selma in the early 1930’s to preserve its Brown County history.
  • Take a guided tour of the Large Studio* and the House
  • Bring home a piece of Brown County from the gift shop

*The Large Studio is temporarily closed. It’s getting a “refresh” and its opening will coincide with the new Singing Winds Visitor Center, ~June, 2019.

How much does it cost to visit T. C. Steele Historic Site?

It’s free to roam the grounds. Tours of the Large Studio and Home are $7 for adults, $6 for seniors (60 and up) and $4 for children (3 – 17).

Are there self-guided tours?

Only of the grounds themselves. Guided tours of the Large Studio and Home take place at quarter past the hour from 10:15am until 4:15pm.

When is T.C. Steele Historic Site open?

This Indiana museum is open Tuesday through Sunday. It’s closed every Monday as well as Easter Sunday, Thanksgiving Day, and Christmas Day.

Where is T.C. Steele Historic Site located?

4220 T.C. Steele Road
Nashville, IN 47448

Visit the T.C. Steele Indiana State Museum website for information on upcoming events and programs.

Find a place to stay nearby

With its location in Brown County between Nashville and Bloomington, there are several nearby places to stay.

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Enter the world of Indiana's most influential artist with a visit to the T.C. Steele State Historic Site in Brown County. | American Impressionism | Things to do in Brown County | Midwest Travel

2 thoughts on “Inspiring loyalty: The education and preservation of T.C. Steele”

  1. Theresa is spot-on in this review. But I especially like her beginning, noting that this isn’t the artist biography we expect. I tend to avoid movies about artists, because they’re depressing. The life tends to go downhill.

    I gave 300 tours at T.C. Steele State Historic Site two years ago. I quickly noticed that it was easy, though so much is known about him it is complex to try and craft a good 45-,minute tour. It’s easy because people are often blown away by the paintings, because almost everything on site was theirs — from the china to the chairs to the cigar butts — and because we know a lot of stories.

    But mainly it’s easy because this was someone who people find inspiring. He liked to go to work early every morning — to paint. He may be the most prolific painters in history, certainly one of them. When he wasn’t painting he liked to spend time with his family, with artists, and the general public. He liked to talk about the arts with all of them. About 15,000 people visited T.C. Steele when he lived in Brown County, but he also talked with thousands more in Indianapolis, in Bloomington (where he was one of the first artists in residence in the nation), and in talks he was asked to give around the Midwest. It’s what he wanted to do when he wasn’t outside painting.

    It was not uncommon to get applause and enthusiastic compliments at the end of these informal tours. Directed at me. But they were a bit misdirected. People feel very uplifted by his paintings and his life, a G-rated life many of us can relate to, that needs no editing when eleven-year-olds are in the room. I managed not to get in the way of this all that much.

    The applause is really for Steele, Libby, Selma, and others in his life. It’s for art. It’s for the great resources at the site. Few museums can match it for authenticity. “Was this his chair?” someone might ask. “As we go around, if something didn’t belong to them, I’ll point it out,” I’d say. “That’s much faster.” It’s their books, their chairs, their Gustave Baumann print, his painting of Selma hung right above where she sat for the painting, their portrait Wayman Adams did of Steele, etc.

    The enthusiasm is also for three key people you may not see, plus the people who make up Friends of T.C. Steele, the non-profit that has done so much to enhance the site. Those three are Cate Whetzel, mentioned here and responsible for innovations like Steele’s studio wagon (great for children), and the two who’ve done much of the historical work –art history author Rachel Berenson Perry and site director Andrea deTarnowsky. In my opinion, Perry’s re-shaping of The House of the Singing Winds, based around a memoir by Selma Steele, is the best art history writing and editing in the world. Seriously. And the plates Rachel added to the book are superb.

    Rachel started at the site as a landscaper, having been a farrier down the road and accidentally got that landscaping job. She eventually would be a curator at the State Museum. She knows how to talk with anybody and everybody as she writes, as I envision Steele did when he was relaxing in his studio and talking with the general public.

    Nobody knows more about this site and this history than Andrea deTarnowsky, who has been there 25 years and lived for a time in Selma and Theo’s house. She is the prime fountain of knowledge the rest of us work from, and she is the glue that makes sure the whole thing stays there for you.

    I should also mention the lead gardener, Anthony. He is first and foremost a garden historian, helping to bring Selma Steele’s love of nature back to life. He and the other landscapers are often out, and can answer all of your questions about the 211 acres. They’re the guys who re-created the extremely popular frog ponds.

    Everything about this site, from its original owners to the current staff says, “The public can relate to art; they are art experts; they know beauty; they like history.”

    Reply
    • Thank you, Jim, for the wonderful compliment. I’m glad that I captured an accurate depiction of this remarkable artist’s life. I can imagine how fulfilling it would be to give tours and share the stories, daily, of his happy world.

      Cate was absolutely wonderful. Her passion was contagious, and we were thrilled we had her all to ourselves! There’s much she shared that I didn’t include, only because it was already getting to be quite lengthy! I came across the results of Rachel Berenson Perry’s work frequently in my research, and I plan on adding her book to my library.

      I would love to return when Selma’s gardens are in bloom and explore the trails and the cabin. It would also be a treasure to meet Andrea and Anthony!

      Thank you for sharing your story.

      Reply

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