Study Head (Old Woman) (recto), study head, old man (verso)
Study Head (Old Woman) (recto), study head, old man (verso)
Study Head (Old Woman) (recto), study head, old man (verso)

Study Head (Old Woman) (recto), study head, old man (verso)

William J. Forsyth (American, 1854-1935)

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  • The scattered light on this model's weathered face exemplifies the teachings of the Royal Academy faculty, who urged their students to reduce the basic harmony of their paintings to soft, shadowy grays, relieved only by sharp and colorful details in the highlights.
  • Modeling was an established profession for many locals in Munich. Elderly peasants were favored by students, since their aged features provided more character and fine detail.
  • Looking back on studying elderly models and tonal harmonies at the Academy, a fellow student remembered, "Ruins of mankind, we used to call them. We scrutinized their faces and tried to render the studies in a grayish green tone. We called such work 'good in tone.'"

William Forsyth was born in California, Ohio, not far from Cincinnati. His early use of the family’s walls as a drawing board convinced his parents that their son need a specific space to express his creativity. When he was ten, his family moved to Versaille, Indiana and then to Indianapolis. Forsyth started his art studies with Barton Hays when he was fifteen. He earned his living painting houses with his brother and used his free time to explore his artistic talents. Forsyth became the first student in the newly established Indiana School of Art and later worked as an assistant instructor at the school. His desire for more formal training led Forsyth to follow his friend Theodore Clement Steele to Munich to study at the Royal Academy. During the summer he traveled around Europe and sent the paintings he completed during these trips home to sell at exhibitions. When Forsyth finished his studies, he stayed in Europe for another two years then returned to Indiana and set up a school in Muncie with J. Ottis Adams. After the school closed, Forsyth joined the faculty of the newly opened John Herron Art Institute where he worked from 1906 to 1933. Well into his seventies, but not prepared emotionally or financially for retirement, Forsyth took commissions from the Public Works Administration, which had been established to help artists during the Depression. In 1934 Forsyth had a heart attack and died a year later.

Old peasant types were the favored models in Ludwig von Löfftz’s Technical Painting Class. One of his pupils remarked: “Ruins of mankind, we used to call them. We scrutinized their faces and tried to render the studies in a grayish-green tone. We called such work ‘good in tone’.” Here Forsyth’s soft, shadowy grays are relieved only by the sharp details that emerged from the highlights. Though many students chafed under Löfftz’s disdain for spontaneous and colorful effects, according to Forsyth, they later acknowledged that the discipline had been worthwhile and recognized Löfftz as “the greatest teacher of painting in Germany.”


Martin Krause. The Passage: Return of Indiana Painters from Germany, 1880-1905, Indianapolis: Indianapolis Museum of Art, 1990. ISBN 00-936260-52-1

Object Information

William J. Forsyth (American, 1854-1935)
creation date
about 1883-1884
oil on canvas
20-1/4 x 16-3/8 in. (canvas)
27-5/8 x 23-1/2 x 3-1/4 in. (framed)
mark descriptions
Signed in red, u.r.: W. FORSYTH
accession number
credit line
Gift of Mrs. Phyllisann Hibben Courtis in memory of her mother, Louise Douglas Hibben
Public Domain
American Painting and Sculpture to 1945

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