Exploring Indiana: Bloomington and Brown County
Last weekend, we slept in the fifteenth bed in six weeks, visited the 27th town at home and abroad in three months. We drove south from Crawfordsville to Bloomington, Indiana to visit a dear friend and graduate school colleague with whom we also visited Terre Haute, Nazareth Pantaloni. Naz took us to visit the T.C. Steele State Historic Site in Brown County. Brown County is today considered the art colony of the midwest, but in the early twentieth century, T.C. Steele was the first artist to make Brown County his home. Steele was one of the first of the “Hoosier group” of American impressionists. He had studied in Germany in the style of the Old Masters, but explored the impressionist style of painting first in Indianapolis and then in Brown County (the theme of the urbanites coming to the country and not understanding the rural ways and not being understood by the countryfolk is a recurring one in the docent’s spiel).
I had just been in Philadelphia where I was able to attend the exhibit organized around the collector, Paul Durand-Ruel, who had supported and promoted the French Impressionists in the late 19th century. That exhibit, which is up until September 13, contextualizes the work of the French Impressionists by displaying their work alongside the words of their critics, who found the display of brush strokes, the lighting and the non-realism of their paintings obscene. The critics said the Impressionists couldn’t draw and their colors were vulgar. It was a critic who gave them the name “Impressionists,” saying that all they painted were impressions.
Steele hadn’t seen the work of the French Impressionists, but it had read about them when he was in Europe. When Steele’s work was displayed at the World’s Columbian Exhibit in Chicago in 1893, Steele was asked to defend the work of the Impressionists. His eloquent defense opened the American market for the reception of the Impressionists both from abroad and at home.
The Site has over three hundred of Steele’s pieces with a good number on display in his studio and the house (called The House of the Singing Winds for the way the wind sang through the screens), both of which are open for those who pay the $7 for the guided tour. You can also visit the surrounding grounds which include small cabins that offer refuge from the elements were you to go off in the woods in the middle of the day to paint. The paintings that I liked best were those that were most in the impressionist style, with attention to light and brush strokes appearing explicitly. Some paintings start to veer over into the kitsch, but that’s how I feel about at least half of Renoir’s oeuvre, so I won’t hold it against Steele.
We returned to Bloomington in the evening to eat at the ever delicious Farm, which was a great experience despite the scolding look from the hostesses when we confessed that we did not have a reservation. Back at the actual farm, we visited the chickens and were pleased to leave with some fresh tomatoes, squash, onions and garlic. We went to a furniture store, got stuck in the rain and finally bought some chairs from the antique mall in Bloomington.
It’s nice now to sleep in the same bed for weeks and weeks on end, but we’re glad for the many places we were able to lay our heads.