L. Clarence Ball (1858-1915)
Those who knew L. Clarence Ball and his work wanted the world to remember him. Upon Ball's death in 1915, a group of friends led by the Stephenson Family of South Bend, Indiana, went to Ball's widow, Cora, and bought the artist's most famous work. Ball's friends then gifted the painting, Felling the Bee Tree, to the city of South Bend, which hung it in the City Library—and it remains there to this day. Felling the Bee Tree is cited and included as an image in art historian William Gerdt's seminal series American Impressionism.
Although Felling the Bee Tree is Ball's most famous work, it is neither particularly Impressionistic nor particularly representative of his ouevre. Felling the Bee Tree is an enormous oil-on-canvas painting, which is rather formal in structure. To know L. Clarence Ball is to know that he was an exceptional watercolorist.
Born in Mount Vernon, Ohio, in 1858, newspaper accounts reveal that by 1880, L. Clarence Ball had moved to South Bend. He started as an artist working for the Studebaker Wagon Company, painting various scenes on commissioned wagons. Ball studied briefly at the National Academy of Design in New York, and also at the Art Institute of Chicago. Ball, a serious artist, exhibited in Boston, Philadelphia, and Chicago, and, in 1904, was selected to exhibit at the St. Louis World's Fair. Ball's paintings are a fine contribution to midwestern art at the turn of the 20th century.
Many of Ball's works feature the typical agricultural fare of cows, sheep, corn shocks and pumpkin patches; but by far, it appears that Ball was inspired by the majesty of nature. His muse was the Kankakee Marsh surrounding South Bend. Watercolor after watercolor captures the changing light of day and the changing time of year on the marsh. His watercolor works are usually small, rendered expertly in a loose, Impressionistic style. His horizons are vast, and the figures, if any, are subjugated by the enormity of nature.
Perhaps Ball today would be surprised to see his marsh drained and ditched. Perhaps not, as Felling the Bee Tree isn't just Ball's most famous work; it is also his most prescient: predicting the disappearance of a vast wilderness, one tree at a time.