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Theodore Steele

 (1847 - 1926)
Theodore Clement Steele was active/lived in Indiana, California.  Theodore Steele is known for landscape, coastal views and portrait painting.

Theodore Steele

Biography from the Archives of askART

The following information is from material developed for Crown Hill Cemetery in Indianapolis, Indiana by Tom Davis.

"My wife is my most helpful critic, she brings to me a clearer eye, a more poetic vision." This was the influence Libby Steele had upon her husband, T.C. Steele, the most prominent member of the Hoosier Group, both at the turn of the last century and today.  Much of his continuing fame today may rest upon his having chosen Brown County, now long viewed as the Indiana mecca for any art which glorifies nature and the rustic, as the place to which to retire and spend his last twenty years at his studio in the hills, "the House of the Singing Winds," now a state historical site and a secondary tourist attraction to the crowds who throng to Brown County and Nashville every fall.

But it was in Indianapolis, alongside Forsyth and Stark, that Steele actually forged his artistic career and rose to the prominence he continues to enjoy.  And it was in Indianapolis, in Crown Hill, that he buried his beloved first wife Libbie, who had been at his side during that long, hard climb to the top.  (He is not buried there; his ashes are scattered on his property in the hills of Brown County within a forest of great oak trees)

T.C. had been born in Gosport, Indiana in 1847, the family moving to Waveland in 1851.  By the age of twelve, he was taking art classes at the Waveland Collegiate Institute, and by the time he was eighteen, if not sooner, he was on its faculty as the teacher of drawing and painting.

Meanwhile, Mary Elizabeth "Libbie" Lakin, born in Rushville and into a family with Methodist circuit riding roots, was growing up in Greencastle.  Her mother died in 1862, and after the Civil War, which had claimed the life of one of her brothers, her father moved to Kansas to start a sawmill, sending most of the children to the Waveland Collegiate Institute to get an education instead of bringing them with him.

It was probably in 1867 that she and Steele met at the school, he attracting her attention as the gallant art teacher, she his as the "slender girl with attractive delicate features" who rode her Indian pony "at a gallop over the neighboring roads and meadows with her large dark brown eyes flashing joyously and her black hair flying in the wind." (Theodore Lakin Steele, in "The House of the Singing Winds," Indianapolis:Indiana Historical Society, 1966, pp. 6-7)

Soon they were a couple, walking and reading poetry together, and singing in a quartet with her sister and his cousin.  After her graduation in 1869, he asked for her hand in marriage, and they were married on February 14, 1870 in a double ceremony, as her sister and his cousin decided to get married as well.

They spent their first years as a couple in Battle Creek, Michigan, where T. C. eked out a living by painting portraits and teaching drawing.  Their first son, Rembrandt Theodore, was born there in in 1870, and daughter Margaret "Daisy" in 1872.  In 1873, they moved to Indianapolis, where T.C. continued to paint portraits and dream of continuing his studies by going abroad.  Seeing within him the promise of greatness, local art patron Herman Lieber, a local pioneer, and many of his friends in the Fletcher family offered to advance him money in exchange for future paintings. Theo packed his bags, his wife, and their now three children and were soon off to the Royal Academy in Munich, where he studied from 1880 to 1885.  Much of our knowledge of his experiences there comes to us from an essay entitled "Impressions" which Mary wrote for the Portfolio Club* in 1893.

The Steeles returned to Indianapolis in 1885, taking up residence in an old home known as the Tinker home, or Talbot Place, at 16th and Pennsylvania, the present day home of the Herron School of Art.  He established a studio downtown, and soon his commissions included painting Governor Albert G. Porter and the members of the Fletcher family who had contributed towards his studies abroad.  He began building his reputation, and lining his pocketbook, with a full career that included some teaching, some exhibits, and many commissions.  Libbie contributed not just by being his best critic and supporter, but by suggesting that all the artists in town, no matter what their medium of expression, join together.

So in May 1890, The Portfolio Club was founded with the goal of bringing together those involved in the artistic, literary, and musical life of the community.  These became the people involved in contributing to Joseph Bowles periodical Modern Art, that until he later moved it to Boston, took the writings and opinions of Riley, Nicholson, Steele, and Stark, to an audience that didn't just include the Midwest, but to the capitals of art such as Paris, London, Leipzig, and Florence.  It also caught the eye of novelist Hamlin Garland, who was looking for a genuine American art to rise out of the Midwest, and who took the local exhibition of Steele, Forsyth, Stark, and Gruelle, to the big city of Chicago in 1895.

But just as her husband was reaching his 'top', Libbie began the long decline that would eventually lead to her death.  The onset of rheumatoid arthritis left her in crippling pain by the spring of 1895.  Many of T.C. Steel's trips away from Indianapolis to paint were dictated by a desire to find surroundings in which Libbie would be more comfortable such as: the former Fletcher estate, Ludlow, outside Spencer; Steele's purchase of an old mill near Brookville to use for a home and studio she named the "Hermitage;" and a trip to Tennessee.  But nothing really changed the course her health had taken, and in the summer of 1899, she developed tuberculosis as well.  She died in Indianapolis on November 14th, two days after T.C.returned from New York having helped an American Committee select paintings to be displayed at an international exhibition in Paris.

Their son, Theodore Lakin Steele, says this of his mother's death; "Libbie was only forty-nine. The beauty and sincerity of her nature had been an inspiration not only to her husband and children, but to many others. Though she had remained outwardly hopeful and courageous during her painful illness, she apparently was aware that her life was drawing to an end, for the following words written in her hand---probably in the summer of 1898--- were found some years later in the desk at the Hermitage:

"In the dusk of life, as the spirit nears the night which is to enthrall it for a time, and the dissolution from its past comes ever and inevitable nearer, the mind takes up that past as a precious volume of pictures, and one by one and slowly the pages are tuned and dwelt upon with unutterable tenderness.

copyright 2000 by Tom Davis

Biography from the Archives of askART
One of the most outspoken proponents of Impressionism* in the Midwest, Theodore Steele became a leading artist of the Hoosier School*, Indiana painters who were the first Midwestern Impressionists.  Their favorite place to paint was in Brown County, where they gathered at Steele's home, known as the "House of the Singing Winds."

He was from Waveland, Indiana, and began his career as a portrait painter, although he also did a few landscapes.  In 1873, he moved to Indianapolis and cultivated a friendship with Herman Lieber, who became his patron.  Steele studied at the Indiana School of Art with its founder John Love, who had studied with Jean Leon Gerome in Paris and had also painted at Barbizon*.

Lieber raised the funds to send Steele and his family to Europe, and Steele chose to go to Munich because of being able to study there with Frank Duveneck, prominent Ohio painter, and because it was less expensive than Paris.  Steele's primary teacher in Munich was Ludwig Loefftz, with whom he studied figure painting. He also worked with expatriate J. Frank Currier.

In 1885, Steele returned to Indianapolis and established an art school with William Forsyth.  He did both portraiture and landscapes, many of them dark and dramatic in the style known as the Munich School*.  The next year, he began to explore the Indiana countryside and turned almost completely to landscape painting because he was fascinated in the way it conveyed a sense of place.  His work became much more colorful, and gradually his style became much more Impressionistic.

By 1893, Steele was exhibiting Impressionist paintings at the Chicago Exposition of 1893*, and newspaper reporters and other writers, particularly Hamlin Garland, became publicizing Steele and other Midwestern Impressionists.

Steele emerged as the leader and also became their spokesman.  In a famous debate in 1896 with the conservative Chicago painter F. Hopkinson Smith, Steele took a strong stance for this new Modernist* art called Impressionism.  To advocate their theories, Steele and his followers organized the Society of Western Artists* in 1896, and some persons were saying that Steele's paintings were every bit as good as those of Claude Monet, a leading exponent of French Impressionism.

In 1902 and 1903, Steele toured the American West, painting in Oregon along Puget Sound and in the San Francisco area, where he associated with William Keith.

In 1906, after his first wife died, Steele remarried and settled in a remote area of Brown County, and from there until his death in 1926, became the outstanding figure in Indiana art in the early part of the 20th century. In 1910, the John Herron Institute* of Indianapolis held a one-man show of his work, then totally committed to Impressionism.

Steele also taught at Waveland Collegiate Institute form 1865 to 1868, and was honorary porfessor of art at the University of Indiana from 1818 to the time of his death.

William Gerdts, American Art Review, October 1996
Edan Hughes, Artists in California, 1786-1940
Peter Hastings Falk, Editor, Who Was Who in American Art

* For more in-depth information about these terms and others, see Glossary

Biography from the Archives of askART
Born in Owen County, IN on Dec. 11, 1847. Steele studied at the Royal Academy in Munich. While in the West in 1902 and 1903, he painted around Puget Sound, along the Oregon coast, and, after visiting with Wm Keith in San Francisco, continued on down to Redlands where he painted several Impressionist mountain and forest landscapes. He taught at the University of Indiana until his demise on July 24, 1926. Member: ANA (1914). Exh: Paris Expo, 1900. In: Cincinnati Museum.

Edan Hughes, "Artists in California, 1786-1940"
American Art Annual 1925; California Impressionism (Wm. Gerdts & Will South), p.17.

Nearly 20,000 biographies can be found in Artists in California 1786-1940 by Edan Hughes and is available for sale ($150). For a full book description and order information please click here.

Biography from William A. Karges Fine Art - Carmel
Theodore Clement Steele is considered to be one of the finest of the
American Impressionist painters to work in the Midwest. A leading
member of the Hoosier School painters, Steele was a native in Indiana who
studied at the Indiana School of Art, as well as the Royal Academy in
Munich. Upon returning to the U.S., Steele co-founded the Indianapolis
School of Art with William Forsyth. In these early years, Steele's paintings
were very much in the dark, dramatic style of the Munich School. It was
only after Steele began exploring the Indiana countryside for inspiration
that his palette would brighten. By 1893, Steele was showing, to critical
acclaim, Impressionist landscapes at the Chicago Exposition. In 1906
Steele settled in the remote region of Brown County, Indiana, where he
painted exclusively in the pure Impressionist style he'd adopted.

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About  Theodore Steele

Born:  1847 - Owen County, Indiana
Died:   1926 - Brown County, Indiana
Known for:  landscape, coastal views and portrait painting