Theodore Clement Steele is perhaps the most famous of the “Hoosier Group” of American impressionist painters. Other painters in the group included William Forsyth, J. Ottis Adams, Richard B. Gruelle and Otto Stark. These five artists trained abroad but returned to Indiana and developed a distinctive style of landscape painting.
Born in Owen County, on Sept. 11, 1847, T.C. Steele moved to Waveland, southwest of Crawfordsville, when he was 5 years old. Steele attended a college prep school called the Waveland Collegiate Institute, where he was given a box of paints and began to develop his talent as an artist. By the age of 13, he was giving his fellow students lessons in drawing.
Steele also received some instruction in Cincinnati and Chicago and later moved to Indianapolis to become a portrait painter. In 1870, he married Mary Elizabeth Lakin. For the first few years of their marriage, they lived in Battle Creek, Mich., where Steele did some portrait painting. The couple returned to Indianapolis in 1873 and T.C. began painting portraits of wealthy Indianapolis residents, some of whom supported the artist enough to fund five years of study in Munich, Germany. In 1880, T.C. and Mary left for Europe with their three children, Brandt, Daisy and Shirley.
While in Munich, T.C. studied under professors at the Royal Academy alongside three other members of the Hoosier Group – J. Ottis Adams, William Forsyth and Otto Stark. The Steele family returned to Indianapolis in 1885 and T.C. opened an art school in addition to painting portraits. Though T.C. made his living by painting portraits, he knew that painting landscapes was his true love. He wanted to capture the light and color of the autumn landscape and spent summers and autumns in the country so that he could work on his landscapes. He even purchased a “studio wagon” in which he and his family could travel the countryside in comfort.
In the 1890s, Steele became a nationally recognized painter, but this success was bittersweet due to his beloved wife’s death in 1895. After Mary’s death, he decided to focus on painting landscapes, something his wife had always encouraged him to do. Steele purchased 200 heavily wooded acres in Brown County, married Selma Neubacher, the assistant superintendent of art in the Indianapolis school system, and settled into “The House of the Singing Winds” to paint the hilly landscapes of this rural area near Bloomington.
At first, his farmer neighbors thought Steele and his wife were strange. The Steeles were refined “city folk” who did not seem to understand that the land was to be worked for profit, not captured in art. Over time, the neighbors came to respect the artist. Steele eventually became an honorary professor at Indiana University. He died on July 24, 1926.
“Biographical Sketch” in Indiana Historical Society’s Collection Guide for the Theodore Clement Steele and Mary Lakin Steele Papers, 1869 to 1966. Indiana Historical Society.
“Hoosier Group of Indiana Painters.” Ball State University Museum of Art.
Price, Nelson. Indiana Legends: Famous Hoosiers from Johnny Appleseed to David Letterman. Carmel, Indiana: Guild Press of Indiana, 1997.
“T.C. Steele State Historic Site” gives information about the Nashville, Indiana, historic site and the events held there.
The Indiana Historical Society holds the Theodore Clement Steele and Mary Lakin Steele Papers, 1869 to 1966. The collection guide describes the collection and gives biographical information on T.C. Steele.