Impressionist art has appealed to me from a very young age, and I recall spending precious allowance money during high school (you can imagine what other urgent needs were sacrificed) on art museum prints of works by Claude Monet and Camille Pissarro, among others. The light that seemed to radiate from even those flat poster reproductions could transport me in a glance from a Rochester, N.Y., winter to a warm garden pool in Giverny or a summer park along the Seine. Again and again, all for a few dollars.
Not long after moving to south-central Indiana in the mid-1970s, I discovered Theodore Clement Steele, the Hoosier state's most famous resident artist, and a devotee of Impressionism himself. Steele was born in 1847 in neighboring Owen County (locally known as Sweet Owen county). His early works, heavily influenced by training in Germany, and derivative of the dark, dramatic style of the Munich School, were not terribly appealing to me.
But once back in Indiana, he began to wander the hills of Brown County and to set up his easel out of doors. His palette lightened and brightened as he came into his own, heartfelt style of plein-air painting. As an observer of the times noted, "He has a greater love for a beech tree than for a castle."
Steele's wife, Selma, put it this way: "We felt and believed that here in this hill country were evidences of a character in the outdoors than would command of us our best and finest spirit." The Steeles built and resided in a ridge-top home they called the House of the Singing Winds, which today is a state historic site. An unfinished painting of garden peonies rests on Steele's easel.
A number of accomplished artists followed Steele's example and settled in to paint the area. Known as the Brown County Colony, the artists were captivated by the soft quality of light playing on the hilly rural landscape, and most set out to capture it.
Charlie and I occupy a ridge top too, and we know all about the delicious ways winds sing and light plays on our own woodlands and pastures. We can't paint what we see and daily appreciate, nor do our photographs ever completely capture it. Yet, T.C. Steele brought such scenes alive again and again. Given the current value of his vibrant oils, it is unlikely we'll ever own one, but we can dream.
Today, though, as I checked the animals on the back pasture after a bout of violent weather, I might have stepped right into one of those just-finished canvasses.
The cows and draft horses lazed under a row of young sassafras trees, whose leaf tips were just beginning to redden. If the storm had disturbed the animals, they showed no signs, placidly chewing their cuds with a rhythmic moist grinding in the clean, dappled sunlight. The calves lay on their sides, the fur ruffling along their fat milk-fed bellies. When the draft horses ambled up, Ben lost no time wrapping his thick soft lips around the ripe persimmons I'd collected and sampled myself along the way. The pasture, damp from the rain after weeks of drought, smelled fresh and poised for a burst of late but vigorous growth.
Rachel Perry, an art historian and personal friend noted in "The Artists of Brown County" (Indiana University Press, 1994) that "Impressionism, when applied to American art, is an indistinct term." As practiced by Steele and others of the Brown County School, she suggests, "impressionism involved the transfer to canvas or paper of the artists' immediate sense impressions of nature."
She got it exactly.
T.C. Steele canvases are about much more than light. They smack of persimmons, smell of earth, and let you know how a cow's sun-warmed coat or a horse's inquisitive muzzle feels.
T.C. Steele painted "A June Idyll," "Berry Picker," "The Poplars," "Child with Flowers," "Women on the Porch," "Cows by the Stream" and "Trees in Autumn," among other "naturescapes." I'd love to have them all.
In a way, I already do.