Medium 9780253011596

William J. Forsyth: The Life and Work of an Indiana Artist

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Closely associated with artists such as T. C. Steele and J. Ottis Adams, William J. Forsyth studied at the Royal Academy in Munich then returned home to paint what he knew best—the Indiana landscape. It proved a rewarding subject. His paintings were exhibited nationally and received major awards. With full-color reproductions of Forsyth’s most important paintings and previously unpublished photographs of the artist and his work, this book showcases Forsyth’s fearless experiments with artistic styles and subjects. Drawing on his personal letters and other sources, Rachel Berenson Perry discusses Forsyth and his art and offers fascinating insights into his personality, his relationships with his students, and his lifelong devotion to teaching and educating the public about the importance of art.

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8 Chapters

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1: Small in Stature, Large in Spirit 1854–1881

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1854–1881

THE OHIO RIVER REFLECTED SEASONALLY BRILLIANT yellow and orange leaves of shoreline hardwoods when William Jefferson Forsyth emerged into the world on October 15, 1854. He was to be the first of seven children born to Elijah John Forsyth Jr. (1820–95) and his bride of less than one year, Mary Minerva Hackett (1830–1910).

Elijah John Jr.'s grandfather, Alexander Forsyth (born 1740), emigrated with his wife, Rachel O'Neal, from the north of Ireland. Settling in Baltimore, Alexander was listed in the first American census in 1790 as a tavern keeper.

Alexander and Rachel had three sons and three daughters. The third son, Elijah John, married Mary, the daughter of Bernhard Zell of Baltimore. The couple had seven children. Elijah John drowned while hunting, and in the late 1820s his wife succumbed to the first cholera epidemic in the United States. The children, including Elijah John Jr., were scattered among relatives and orphanages.

 

2: Munich Drawing School December 1881–Fall 1883

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December 1881–Fall 1883

Author's note: During his years in Germany, William Forsyth wrote many letters to his patron, Tom Hibben, and to his family. Quotes from Forsyth's handwritten letters use his wording, but I've taken the liberty of altering his punctuation to improve clarity.

WITH STEELE'S ADVICE ABOUT EVERYTHING FROM budgets to the best travel routes, William Forsyth prepared to make his ocean voyage at the end of 1881. But because he could not help but worry about nearly everything, it could not have been reassuring for him to hear from Steele the previous April that “the school has never been so full as now and there is difficulty in getting in after the session has commenced. There have been several Englishmen here for several months waiting for a place to be vacant.” Other Academy news about the difficulty of getting into the painting classes followed: “This is Friday and has been an anxious day to many of the students who have made application to pass to higher classes. A great many have applications and the Secretary's room was crowded with their drawings. Today these are being examined by the Professors. The upper classes are so full that perhaps half of those applying from the Antique [drawing class] will be compelled to stay there. The probability is that they can do so to advantage for there are a great many dummies in [this] school as well as men of artistic talent.”1

 

3: Munich Painting School and Private Studio Fall 1883–Fall 1888

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Fall 1883–Fall 1888

AS SUMMER DAYS SHORTENED, FORSYTH FOUND HIS outdoor work exceptionally gratifying, but he again anticipated his return to the smoky rooms of the Academy with wistful reluctance. “You can't get up too early in the morning and you can't work too late at night,” he wrote. “Days fly too fast for you and as the vacation draws to a close you become almost feverish in your eagerness to accomplish much in a small space of time. You count the days as a miser counts his gold. When you wake some crisp October morning and find the fields white with frost,…you feel like a condemned man whose warrant has been signed and whose pleasant days are over.”1 This pattern of grudgingly leaving a preferred fall painting ground to face a winter of studio painting repeated itself throughout Forsyth's life.

The American Artists’ Club organized an exhibit of summer work where several colleagues praised Forsyth's watercolors, but his stylistic inclinations appeared to be conflicted. “In watercolor I'm a rank ‘impressionist’; in oil I lean toward ‘realism’—the two contrive to keep me pretty lively and sometimes get me down.”2 A firm believer in accurate drawing, at the time he judged impressionistic paintings to be unfinished.

 

4: The Beginnings of a Teacher Fall 1888–Fall 1897

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Fall 1888–Fall 1897

AFTER DOCKING IN NEW YORK, WILLIAM FORSYTH spent a few days visiting old comrades in the city and “inquiring about the chances for artists at home.”1 He moved back to his family's rented Indianapolis south side house at 213 Fletcher Ave. in mid-October, 1888. Unfortunately, his valise containing clothes and art supplies was stolen by a hack driver in New York. Although the driver was caught, the valise never reappeared, and Forsyth spent considerable effort trying to get compensation for his loss. The company claimed they were only responsible for clothing and refused to pay for painting supplies.

Bolstering his credentials, Forsyth sent a snow scene titled March to Fred Hetherington to be entered in the 1889 National Academy of Design spring exhibition in New York. He also entered three paintings in the 6th Annual Art Association of Indianapolis exhibit in Masonic Hall. His concern about immediate income was somewhat relieved when he took over Adams’ weekend art class in Ft. Wayne.

 

5: Creating a Market for Landscapes Fall 1897–Summer 1904

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Fall 1897–Summer 1904

PART OF HIS RELUCTANCE TO RETURN TO THE CITY had to have been Forsyth's tender romance with his new bride. Alice Atkinson, eighteen years her husband's junior, was born in Oxford in Benton County, Indiana, on May 5, 1872. Her ancestors were Quakers who emigrated from England to America in 1699 and originally settled in Philadelphia. Later moving to Clinton County in Ohio, Alice's grandfather, Thomas Atkinson (1806–92), went to Benton County to herd cattle in 1830. He liked the area and returned with his family eighteen years later. Two of his twelve children, Cephas and Robert Atkinson (1826–81), bought acreage and thrived as farmers. They founded the town of Atkinson (now extinct), which became an important shipping station for the Big Four railway.

After his first wife's early death, Robert Atkinson married a widow, Nancy Crosson, and they had seven children together. Alice was the fifth child, and the youngest died in infancy. Combined with children from both her parents’ previous marriages, the family included thirteen children who lived.1

 

6: Independent Painting while Teaching 1905–1923

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1905–1923

FOLLOWING HIS NOTABLE LOUISIANA PURCHASE Exposition awards, Forsyth successfully sold a few landscapes, including On the Kentucky River and a couple of paintings displayed at the Lieber Galleries. In early 1906 the Louis Katz Art Gallery in New York City wrote, wishing to negotiate an agreement to sell some of his work.1

William Forsyth ca. 1907,
Indiana Historical Society, M0691.

Along with improving sales, Forsyth consistently donated or partially donated paintings to schools, including the Bluffton Public School, Garfield Public School in Richmond, Gary Public Schools, and Manual Training School in Indianapolis. He also gifted paintings to various organizations and individuals, such as the Orphans’ Asylum, the Art Association of Indianapolis, and James Whitcomb Riley (who was ill), and to celebrate marriages and anniversaries. For his seasonal excursion in 1905, Forsyth returned to Martinsville in August, then moved due east about thirty-five miles to Waldron, in Shelby County, to sketch and paint colorful foliage.2

 

7: The Last Fight 1923–1935

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1923-1935

FORSYTH'S PAINTING THE SMOKER WON THE Mary T. R. Foulke Purchase Prize of $150 at the Richmond Art Association's Twenty-second Annual Exhibition in 1923. Calling it “that portrait of myself with a cigarette in my mouth,” Forsyth wrote to Dorothy, “I'm afraid I won't be a good example to the Richmond High School kids with that cigarette…and that impudent grin in evidence, as if I didn't give a whoop who saw me…. I never dreamed of it getting a prize and really didn't want to part with it…. Well, the prize money will come in handy.”1

In fact, the prize money was sorely needed. Extra income from awards and judging paid the tuition for the three girls’ Butler University education, which were high priorities in the Forsyth family.2 Despite his regular employment at Herron, occasional artwork sales, and some painting repair work, the Forsyths always struggled to make ends meet. Alice continually patched, sewed, and refashioned to keep her family respectably clothed, and the garden provided fresh vegetables and canned goods. They made their own cherry juice and raised chickens in their spacious backyard.

 

8: Forsyth's Students

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FORSYTH TAUGHT HUNDREDS OF STUDENTS IN his forty-two years as an art instructor. His commitment to teaching began in 1889 with the Muncie Art School and weekend classes in Fort Wayne; moved on to Steele's Art School of Indiana; devoted years to giving private classes and organizing plein air jaunts with students; and taught drawing and painting at the Herron Art Institute from 1907 to 1933, with seven summers of classes at Winona Lake. He wanted students to be well trained and prepared for lives dedicated to Art with a capital A.

His daily teaching schedule limited time for his own work, but he gained much from the revolving legions of aspiring artists. Walter Mcbride, a fellow teacher at Herron and later director of Michigan's Grand Rapids Art Museum, wrote, “Mr. Forsyth always said he would rather be with students and young people than those of his own age. He learned from the young ones; [in Forsyth's opinion] the older people were in a ‘rut.’”1

 

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