The Hoosier Group

[This essay by J Ronald Newlin, Director of Public Programs, Indiana State Museum and Historic Sites, is reprinted from the catalog for "The Best Years: Indiana Paintings of the Hoosier Group, 1880-1915." Courtesy Outdoor Indiana.]

In the summer of 1893, Hamlin Garland, the Chicago-based critic and author of Main Travelled Roads, met Indiana’s poet laureate James Whitcomb Riley. During their conversation, Garland complained about how American artists "go hunting themes in foreign lands."

Riley, who made a career of writing about Indiana, agreed. \

Returning to Indianapolis in November 1894, Garland discovered an art exhibition at the Denison Hotel featuring local landscapes by four Indiana painters. Garland dubbed the artists "The Hoosier Group," and the following month he sponsored the same exhibit, in Chicago, with the addition of works by a fifth painter. These exhibitions were definitive events in the careers of the five members of the Hoosier Group, and for a time they defined Indiana as an art center as well.

The names of the artists — Theodore C. Steele, William Forsyth, Otto Stark, John Ottis Adams and Richard Gruelle — may  not be familiar, but their work should be: their landscapes and murals grace libraries, schools and public buildings around the state. Our images of many 19th-century Indiana governors and authors are based on portraits by members of the Hoosier Group. Most of the next generation of Indiana artists learned their trade by studying with one or more of these men. Today, art historians point to the Hoosier Group as an identifiable school of artists of national significance.

The members of the Hoosier Group are recognized for being part of two major artistic trends of their day — regionalism and Impressionism. Of the two, their adherence to Impressionism has been studied most closely.

The technique and philosophy of Impressionism was new and radical in the late 19th Century. By choosing to experiment with Impressionism’s broken brushwork and emphasis on light and color, these artists moved into the cutting edge of American art. 

However, their decision to paint in Indiana, to be regionalists, is even more important in defining the Hoosier Group. These were men who had traveled and studied abroad, who had the talent and opportunity to practice their art anywhere in the Western world. They chose to work in their native Midwest at a time when such writers as Riley and Carl Sandburg were making the same decision. It was this choice that caught the attention of Hamlin Garland, the most vocal advocate of regionalism in art and literature. The Hoosier Group was part of the movement that gave the Midwest a cultural heritage.

Being part of the regionalist movement was more difficult in the fine arts than in literature or music.

Indianapolis did not have a long art heritage. In 1883, there were only four statues in the city. While there was a growing circle of art patrons in the capital city, most Hoosiers at the turn of the century probably agreed with the poet Riley, who once remarked, "Speaking o’ art, I know a feller over t’ Terry Haute ’kin spit clean over a box car."

The Hoosier Group had to make their living through practical applications such as painting portraits and teaching. Before the Hoosier Group began teaching, there had never been a successful art school in Indianapolis. Their artistic legacies — the Impressionist landscapes — were in their early years done on the side as labors of love.

If Indianapolis in the 1890s was not yet an art center, it was in many other respects a city entering a golden age. Historian John Bartlow Martin has called this era in Indianapolis "the best years, the best place." For businessmen, politicians and writers, this was certainly true.

In the two decades surrounding the turn of the century in central Indiana, businesses flourished and fortunes were made in brand-new industries: pharmaceuticals, natural gas and auto- mobiles. (For a time, Indianapolis produced more makes of autos than Detroit!) The effects of this boom on art were indirect, but substantial: commerce and industry created an affluent class of potential art patrons, and a generation of prospective art students congregated in new suburbs like Irvington. Most significantly, the major businesses in Indiana in 1900 were locally owned, and in the 20th Century, the philanthropic benefits of these businesses remained in Indiana.

This was also the era in which Indiana was flexing its political muscle. During the careers of the Hoosier Group painters, Indiana gave the nation a president, Benjamin Harrison, and three vice-presidents: Thomas Hendricks, Charles Fair- banks and Thomas Marshall. Both parties courted Indiana voters by placing Hoosiers on presidential ballots. Such Indiana legislators as Senator Albert Beveridge and Speaker of the House Joe Cannon dominated Congress. Hoosiers were in Presidential cabinets and represented the nation in overseas diplomatic posts. This political clout certainly had something to do with the regionalist pride sweeping Indiana. Historian Mark Sullivan noted the "omnipotence" of the Indiana voter in national elections around 1900: "His ideas, his prejudices, his economic interests, were universally considered and generally deferred to."

Indiana could be equally proud of its literary achievements in this era. General Lew Wallace was widely known as the author of the epic historical novel, Ben Hur. Although Wallace was not a regionalist, he drew national attention to other Indiana authors who were. The New York Times editorialized that Wallace represented the passing of the literary center of the United States from Boston to Indiana. The quintessential Indiana writer was James Whitcomb Riley, who produced such folksy hymns to rural life as "The Frost is on the Punkin’ " and "The Ole Swimmin’ Hole." The next generation of writers, including Booth Tarkington, Meredith Nicholson, Maurice Thompson and George Ade, chose urban settings for their works, but decidedly Midwestern ones. In this respect they were kindred spirits with the artists of the Hoosier Group. They were part of generations of nationally known Indiana authors.

It is pride, pure and simple, that is reflected in Theodore C. Steele’s comment in the Indiana- polis News in 1888: "Indiana has beauties which are just as worthy of study as landscapes elsewhere. Hereafter I shall confine myself more to my own state than in the past."