The youthful model’s facial features emerge from dark shadows and an unadorned background. Turned away from the viewer, the figure gazes into the distance, emphasizing the meditative drama promoted by Steele’s Royal Academy instructors.
Today most people know Steele’s landscapes, but portraiture financially sustained the artist. He painted many portraits in the late 1880s to repay investors in his Munich education.
Steele took great care in his portraits, holding up to twelve sittings in order to capture the inner personality of a subject in addition to the exterior appearance. He painted many celebrated Hoosiers, including five governors.
T. C. Steele was born in Gosport Indiana. His family later moved to Waveland where Steele began taking art classes at age twelve. By the time he was eighteen, Steele was teaching drawing and painting at Waveland Collegiate Institute. In 1873 Steele moved to Indianapolis, where he painted portraits and exhibited paintings at an art supply store owned by Herman Lieber, who became an important friend and patron. Lieber headed efforts to send Steele and his family to Europe, gathering twelve subscribers to sponsor the artist’s study in exchange for paintings. Following a precedent set by James Gookins and William M. Chase from Indiana and Frank Duveneck of Cincinatti, Steele went to Germany to study at Royal Academy of Art in Munich, a city with the added benefit of being more affordable than Paris. Steele studied in Munich 1880-1885 and after returning to Indianapolis, established the Indiana School of Art, where William Forsyth taught. The Art Association of Indianapolis (precursor to the IMA) took control of the school in 1891. Steele painted portraits and landscapes, many of them dark and dramatic, in the style known as the Munich School. As he began to explore the Indiana countryside, Steele turned almost completely to landscape painting. His work became more colorful and gradually more impressionistic, particularly after he saw European Impressionism at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Steele emerged as the leader and spokesman for a group of Indiana artists known as The Hoosier Group, comprised of Indiana’s most important Impressionist painters, including William Forsyth, J. Ottis Adams, Otto Stark, and Richard Gruelle. In 1902 and 1903, Steele toured the American West, painting in Oregon and around San Francisco. In 1906, he settled in Brown County in a home that became known as the House of the Singing Winds. For the remainder of his life, he painted the surrounding landscape in his personal variation on Impressionism.
The young woman in Steele’s canvas represents a departure from the Royal Academy’s preference for older models. This attractive figure, whose youthful facial features emerge from the dark shadows, is rendered in brown tonalities against an unadorned, dark background. The setting and execution exemplify the austere style espoused by Germany’s Royal Academy teachers. Steele’s painting instructor Ludwig Löfftz was prone to severe criticism of the “sweet color” in his students’ work and praised such somber and meditative images asMunich Girl.
William H. Gerdts. Theodore Clement Steele: American Master of Light, New York: Chameleon Books, 1995. ASIN: B002J7NK4K