At the age of fourteen, a young man in Waveland, Indiana, had taken over the family farm after the death of his father. Now responsible for taking care of his widowed motehr and supporting his four brothers, he took up the reins on the plow to begin preparing the field for planting.
Family legend has it that the young farmer, Theodore Clement Steele, tied "colored ribbons to the handles of the plow so that he could watch the ribbons in the wind and the effect they had on the [surrounding] colors." Recognizing Steele's passion for art, his mother supported his choice to make his living as an artist.
Written by author and art historian Rachel Berenson Perry, Paint and Canvas: A Life of T.C. Steele, the eighth volume in the Indiana Historical Society Press's youth biography series, traces the path of Steele's career as an artist from his early studies in Germany to his determination to paint what he knew best, the Indiana landscape. Steele, along with fellow artists William Forsyth, Otto Stark, Richard Gruelle, and J. Ottis Adams, became a member of the renowned Hoosier Group and became a leader in the development of midwestern art. In addition to creating artwork, Steele wrote and gave lectures, served on numerous art juries to select paintings and prizes for national and international exhibitions, and helped organize pioneering art associations and societies.
Though know today primarily for his landscapes, Steele was an accomplished and sought after portrait artist. By the time of his death, he had painted many of Indiana's most prominent citizens, including President Benjamin Harrison, Vice President Charles Fairbanks, Colonel Eli Lilly, James Whitcomb Riley, Catherine Merrill, William Lowe Bryan, and Lyman S. Ayres, among others.
In 1907 Steele and his second wife, Selma Neubacher, moved to Brown County, where they built their home, dubbed the House of the Singing Winds for the aural treats produced as the wind blew through the wires of the screened porches surrounding the house. From 1907 to 1921 the Steeles spent the spring season at their Brown County property and wintered in Indianapolis. In 1922 Steele became artist in residence and an honorary professor at Indiana University.
While working on a painting of a peony arrangement at his Brown County home in May 1926, Steele fell seriously ill. After a trip to a clinic in Terre Haute failed to offer any relief, the Steeles returned to their home on the hill on the Fourth of July. The painted died at eight o'clock in the evening on July 24, 1926. For comfort, Selma recalled something her husband had once said to her during a time of sorrow: "Don't you know there are some things one cannot reason out?"
Perry is the former fines arts curator at the Indiana State Museum. In addition to organizaing art exhibitions at the ISM, she is the author of numerous articles for such publications as the American Art Review, Traces of Indiana and Midwestern History, Outdoor Indiana, and Southwest Art Magazine. Her books include Children from the Hills: The Life and Work of Ada Walter Schulz (1998) and T.C. Steele and the Society of Western Artists, 1896-1914 (2009).
Paint and Canvas is a hardback book and costs $17.95. The book is available from the IHS's Basile History Market.