INDIANAPOLIS — In the mid-1970s, when my new, Hoosier husband first took me to visit Indianapolis, the city seemed haunted by the ghosts of middlebrow culture. Murmurs of genteel ambition echoed throughout the Propylaeum ladies’ club, the Athenaeum cultural center, and the Indianapolis Museum of Art (IMA).
Much has changed since then. Indianapolis is booming, and the buildings that housed the above institutions have been revitalized. The IMA has moved to a sprawling new facility, where it vies with shopping malls and sports arenas in popularity. Currently, it’s hosting two small exhibitions that telegraph the respectably cultivated past I sensed some 40 years ago.
A Land Enchanted: The Golden Age of Indiana Art, 1877-1902 offers a survey of paintings, sculpture, and literary documents that communicates the vitality of American regional culture prior to the advent of modernism. The other, A Gentleman Collector from Indiana: Portraits from the Collection of Booth Tarkington, supplements the former with figurative pictures by artists of that period and region, as well as from other times and places.
Between them, the two installations reflect important cultural realities. One is the eclectic contributions that Indiana writers made to early-20th-century literature — from Theodore Dreiser’s socialist dramas to James Whitcomb Riley’s humorous poems to Tarkington’s own bittersweet accounts of Midwestern social norms. Another is the class- and race-based privilege that got these people published.
Yet another is the seriousness that these artists — writers and painters, male and female — brought to honing their technical skills and broadening their aesthetic horizons. Most of the pictures and writings in A Land Enchanted represent Indiana as a Midwestern idyll, but that homey vision was informed by travel to and study in venues as far-flung as Munich and Princeton, New York and Paris.
One of the most impressive and valuable aspects of the exhibition is that it shows William Merritt Chase as a fledgling artist. Most collections of American art represent Chase as a suave society portraitist or painter of sunny Impressionist scenes along the coast of Long Island. These are the styles he’s best known for, and mirror his instruction in the Chase School (later Parsons School of Design) and in summer workshops at Shinnecock. But Chase’s works in this exhibition show him experimenting with and processing other ways of painting.
For example, the installation’s centerpiece is a large, darkly dramatic and highly finished easel painting of a studio setup. Titled “Still Life (Brass Bowl)” (1903) it was influenced by the Munich School, where Chase studied during the early 1870s. His portrait of a subject named Mary Y. Robinson (1890) is modest and even rudimentary; despite being named, the woman seems more of a hired model than a society subject. Even Chase’s fluidly brushed Long Island landscape here (1889) is more akin to something out of the Barbizon School than to his own tame version of Impressionism, filled with broken brushwork and bright colors.
Likewise, pictures by artists of the Hoosier Group belong more to Munich than to Paris (even as they belong to Indianapolis). Although T.C. Steele, Otto Stark, Richard Gruelle, William Forsyth, and J. Ottis Adams ended up as Impressionist-style artists, Steele’s painting of German marshlands (1885) glimmers darkly under its oily finish, and Stark’s evening street scene (c. 1880s) is romantically brooding.
There are two artists whose work brightens the murky mood. James F. Gookins’s small painting “Fairy Marauders” (c. 1870s) reprises a fantastical subject popular with Victorian British artists, albeit with less grace. Janet Scudder distinguishes herself with two small, low-relief plaques, both cast in silver, and with a bronze sculpture in the round (all from the early 1900s). The latter shows a capering, naked child and was modeled to serve as a garden sculpture. Scudder’s career was boosted by prestigious patrons, including architect Stanford White, and she became one of the era’s premiere artists of garden statues.
Paintings in the Tarkington collection reflect the author’s interest in psycho-social studies of human subjects, many of whom inhabited middle-American cities such as Indianapolis. He explored such subjects in his two Pulitzer Prize-winning novels, The Magnificent Ambersons and Alice Adams.
James Montgomery Flagg’s portrait of Tarkington (1916) is particularly compelling in that respect. Tarkington described the painting both as “zip-bang” and as portraying a “darn ugly messy-faced chap.” But, given Flagg’s best-known painting — the iconic World War I recruitment poster of an aggressive Uncle Sam with the caption, “I Want You” — it’s not surprising that this portrait of another feisty male subject seems so apt.
Guy Pene du Bois’s study of a fashionably veiled woman seated by a small table is arresting for entirely opposite qualities. “Portia in a Pink Blouse” (1942) is remote and self-contained, occupying a space defined by her introspection and evidently high social standing. It’s easy, too, to perceive her lack of engagement as gender-appropriate for the times: a woman who engaged the viewer’s gaze too readily could be considered a trollop.
The works in both installations lack innovation overall. The artists we see here were followers and adaptors of established styles. But the ambition and self-discipline they brought to their work helped nurture the local cultural community, as so many other regional artists did in so many other urban centers outside of the great cities like New York and Chicago. These exhibitions are a chance to recognize their foundational contributions, as well as the greater sophistication they fostered, now evident among the city’s contemporary artists, patrons, and institutions. Indianapolis is middlebrow no more.
A Gentleman Collector from Indiana: Portraits from the Collection of Booth Tarkington and A Land Enchanted: The Golden Age of Indiana Art, 1877-1902 continue at the Indianapolis Museum of Art (4000 Michigan Road) through February 26, 2017, and May 14, 2017, respectively.