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Indiana State Museum curator discusses her new book about T.C. Steele

Rachel Berenson Perry is the fine arts curator for the Indiana State Museum in Indianapolis. In addition to organizing art exhibitions at the museum, she has written numerous articles for the American Art Review, Traces of Indiana and Midwestern History, Outdoor Indiana and Southwest Art Magazine. She provided the introductory essays for Painting Indiana II: The Changing Face of Agriculture and The Artists of Brown County (IU Press). Her books include Children of the Hills: The Life and Work of Ada Walter Shulz (Artist Colony Inn and Press) and the more recent T. C. Steele and the Society of Western Artists 1896-1914 (IU Press, 2009).

Currently, Berenson Perry is working on an exhibit of Indiana regionalist paintings (1930-1945) as well as an exhibit of contemporary furniture by individual Hoosier furniture makers. Here, Perry talks to Live at IU about her new T.C. Steele book.

Rachel Perry

Rachel Berenson Perry

Live at IU: What got you interested in T.C. Steele, and the Society of Western Artists traveling show in particular?

Rachel Berenson Perry: Since working at the T. C. Steele State Historic Site in Brown County for nearly a decade, Steele's art philosophy and living circumstances have grown to be a significant part of my general knowledge and interest. The Society of Western Artists had been mentioned in Steele's various biographies, but a clear understanding of the organization and his role in the society's inception and nurturing had not been thoroughly researched. It seemed like a great subject through which to explore Midwestern art at the turn of the last century and to examine Steele's work during that time period.

LIU: What do you think was important about the Society of Western Artists?

RBP: The Society of Western Artists was composed of Midwestern artists (we were the West in 1896) who had studied abroad, but had chosen to paint what they knew best -- their home territory, albeit rather subtle in beauty compared to the mountains and oceans of the East or the Far West. Their challenge was to gain national recognition when the only significant venues for exhibitions in the late 1800s were in New York City or Philadelphia. When the top artists from Chicago, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Detroit, Indianapolis and St. Louis gathered to form the society, they decided to organize an annual exhibition to travel to all of their cities. Their success at garnering reviews from national art publications and newspapers made the organization a force to be reckoned with. The annual exhibitions lasted for 19 years.

LIU: How did T.C. Steele help develop Midwest impressionism?

RBP: T. C. Steele, along with other members of the Hoosier Group of Indiana artists (including J. Ottis Adams, William Forsyth, Otto Stark and Richard Gruelle) had received critical acclaim for an 1894 exhibit in Chicago. At the time, the Hoosier Group's impressionistic 'plein air' style of painting homegrown subjects was 'cutting edge' and considered to possibly be the new 'true spirit' of American art. Four of the Hoosier Group artists (excluding Gruelle, who left Indiana) were important movers and shakers in the development of the Society of Western artists, and the only group of regional artists in the Midwest to have a cohesive plan and recognizable name. They were the envy of artists from the other participating cities in the Society. Steele, the most active lecturer of the Hoosier Group artists, was generally considered to be their spokesman.

LIU: What was Steele's influence on the Brown County Art Colony?

RBP: When T. C. Steele bought property in Brown County and built his 'House of the Singing Winds' in 1907, he was the first artist to do so. A well-respected and notable artist in his own time, his relocation to this picturesque rural area, combined with the area's discovery by Adolph Shulz and other artists from Chicago, created an influx of seasonal painters which eventually developed into a full-time artist colony.

LIU: What is Steele's relevance today?

RBP: Today, Steele is the best known historical Indiana artist. Although his national importance has been diffused over time, his devotion to his home state's natural beauty and his prolific output of Indiana landscapes has left a lasting legacy. Indiana has been a leader in the resurgence of the popularity of plein air painting throughout the country, and most current Hoosier plein air painters study and admire Steele's work for its truthfulness and mastery of execution.

T.C. Steele

LIU: How did you choose the art for your new book, T. C. Steele and the Society of Western Artists 1896-1914?

RBP: All of the paintings for the book were exhibited in the historical exhibit circuits of the Society of Western Artists. Although the works are by many of the Society's members, those by Hoosier group artists were more easily identified and located. The book is accompanied by a double exhibition at the Indiana State Museum featuring a gallery of paintings from the book and a gallery of the work of 20 contemporary Indiana artists. The exhibit, titled "Making it in the Midwest: Artists Who Chose to Stay," will be up until Oct. 18.

For more information about the Indiana State Museum, see For more information about IU Press, see