Editor's note: The following article was published in Resource Library on December 8, 2014 with permission of the Indiana University Press. If you have questions or comments regarding the text, please contact the author via the Indiana State Museum, 650 West Washington Street, Indianapolis, IN 46204 at either this phone number or Web address:

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William Forsyth: Only the Strong Persist

by Rachel Berenson Perry


At the time of its critical acclaim in 1894, the 'Hoosier Group' of Indiana painters, including T. C. Steele (1847-1926), William Forsyth (1854-1935), J. Ottis Adams (1851-1927), Otto Stark (1859-1926), and Richard Gruelle (1851-1914), was important not only to Indiana, but also to the nation. The five artists were considered leaders in a potential movement to establish a distinctly American school of painting. While prestigious art collectors and museums in the United States invariably looked to Europe for their purchases, visual artists here were searching for a voice uniquely their own.

Choosing to live and work far from the Eastern seaboard, the Indiana artists were acutely aware of the disadvantage the Heartland posed concerning sales and recognition. Despite the fact that they returned during Indiana's 'Golden Age' when Indiana and American art and culture overlapped, creating a market for local landscape painting was slow and disheartening. Critical acclaim did not translate into painting sales.

The Hoosier Group artists, particularly T. C. Steele and William Forsyth, worked tirelessly to create such a market. They exhibited, lectured, wrote articles, taught, and helped found and sustain the Society of Western Artists, a nationally recognized organization with a formidable exhibition circuit to Chicago, Cincinnati, Detroit, St. Louis, Indianapolis, and Cleveland. The Hoosier Group was the envy of Midwestern artists for its name recognition and focused ideal.

To talk about Forsyth's paintings in a methodical, chronological way, as art historians typically discuss an artist's work, is problematic. For William Forsyth was an experimenter. Rather than evolving systematically to find his artistic voice, or developing a method for success and sticking to it, he continually experimented with subjects and styles throughout his life.

Despite the variety of his paintings, there are a few generally consistent components. His brushwork was characteristically vigorous and bold. Also, his subjects and shapes were rendered convincingly, with his superior draftsmanship in evidence. And the majority of his easel paintings were medium to small in size, with few works larger than 40" in height or width. His murals, the exceptions to his size preference, were simplified for distance viewing.

One reason for the smaller canvases was simply a matter of time. Forsyth taught six days each week for most of his adult life. It's also possible that the artist's restless personality didn't allow for larger, more complex works. He was not known for his patience.

Forsyth sustained his life-long interest in creating art by trying his hand at almost every medium available. In addition to mastering watercolor, gouache, and oils, Forsyth created etchings, plaster sculptures, carved wood frames and furniture, tried his hand at shaping terra cotta clay, painted china and room divider screens, and designed program covers for various clubs and organizations as well as personal annual Christmas cards.

Young Forsyth had already chosen to make art his life's calling by his early twenties. During rigorous training at John Love's art school, he frequently sketched and painted portraits of family members. Not only was his family intimately close, his opportunities to paint others were limited. Unlike Steele, who was painting commissioned portraits by the time he graduated from the Waveland Academy in 1870, Forsyth's life was relatively insular despite his residency in an urban center.

When he discovered camaraderie with former Love students in the Bohe Club, Forsyth also discovered the joy and inspiration of plein air painting. The jovial group made regular forays out of Indianapolis to paint the landscape. Already an accomplished watercolorist, Forsyth created his own version of genre scenes including figures of people and animals.

Forsyth applied himself to his five years of training from 1882 through 1886 at the Royal Academy in Munich with conscientious focus. Rather than rushing through the Nature (drawing) class, like many of his fellow students who eagerly sought the color and complexities of oil painting, he chose to remain an extra year. He wanted to refine his rendering skills, thus establishing a solid foundation on which to build. Concentrating on shading and tone in his charcoal and pencil renderings of heads and figures under the exacting eye of Nikolaus Gysis, he allowed himself to apply for advancement only after he felt he'd mastered these techniques.

Always ambitious and eager for recognition, Forsyth finally earned a bronze medal for his portrait of Kathie -- A Model in the July 1885 annual Academy exhibition. His training under Ludwig von öfftz, a former pupil of Wilhelm Diez, had effectively wrung "sweet color" out of his Academy paintings. Forsyth's delicate treatment of the model's youthful but preoccupied facial expression revealed his artistic sensitivity. He painted at least two portraits of her, admitting that she was a favorite model of Löfftz.

Forsyth applied his belief in the importance of drawing to his later teaching methods. He firmly held that one could become an accomplished artist only through persistence, hard work, and the mastery of traditional drawing skills.

Perhaps his most fortuitous training in Bavaria was Forsyth's introduction to expatriate J. Frank Currier, whose dedication to working directly from nature inspired summer landscape painting among many Academy students. Although loathe to credit Currier with any influence or commonality, the two artists possessed similar dispositions, were skilled in watercolor and print-making as well as oil painting, and shared a penchant for color over formalism in their work.

Also, like Currier, Forsyth approached landscape painting with force and spontaneity. Using either watercolors or oils, he painted compositions of a variety of subjects. His fascination with Bavarian peasants inspired numerous figures in watercolor, but by 1887 Forsyth preferred landscapes. His summers of sketching with J. Ottis Adams inspired more noticeable care with composition and complexity of color.

Although he wished to continue painting portraits as a discipline when he returned to Indianapolis in 1888, Forsyth could not afford to hire models, and once again used family members as subjects. His professed desire to earn his living as a portrait artist had been usurped in part by Steele's prior establishment as such in the capital city, but in reality Forsyth did not possess the diplomatic personality required for such work. He did, however, paint emotive and charming portraits of family; particularly his wife and daughters in later years.

Forsyth continued to pursue his independent painting in late summer and fall, when not occupied with teaching duties. He went to Vernon, part of the time with Steele, in 1891 and '92, and painted in the vicinity of Hanover in '93 and '94. His extreme productivity in Corydon coalesced into Forsyth's more consistent landscape style in 1896. Working in both watercolor and oils, he combined his standard vigorous brushwork with bold colors. Not averse to "showing the artist's hand," he allowed small patches of raw canvas to appear through areas of applied paint.

Forsyth's pivotal period of independent artistic growth continued the following summer at Cedar Farm on the Ohio River. His daughter, Constance (Connie), later evaluated Forsyth's best time of quality paintings to be in the late 1890s and early 1900s. Not only were his teaching duties less consuming then, but his marriage to Alice Atkinson supplied a new and joyful muse.

After two painting seasons at Cedar Farm, Forsyth reunited with his fellow Hoosier Group artist, J. Ottis Adams, in Brookville while Steele was in Tennessee for the summer of 1899. Contradicting his declared independence from them, Forsyth created watercolors in pastel hues with minimal value contrast, harkening to the "white period" both Steele and Adams had explored a few years previously. By 1901, when he returned to Corydon, Forsyth had again developed his more saturated color palette.

The only time he painted beyond Indiana's borders until his travels to Gloucester in later years, was in 1903, when Forsyth went to Shakertown, near Pleasant Hill, Kentucky. Shakertown's history stirred Forsyth's interest and the area's riverside bluffs and characteristic stone fences provided appealing compositional features. Somewhat ironically, his Kentucky landscapes earned Forsyth his first awards since Munich. Late Afternoon (oil) and In the Afternoon (watercolor) received the bronze and silver medals, respectively, at the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis.

After painting at Major's Crossing, Martinsville, in 1904, and in Waldron, Indiana, the following year, the Forsyth's purchased their Irvington home in 1906. The combination of challenging travel with three young daughters and their new neighborhood's unlimited sources for subjects, led Forsyth to paint his immediate surroundings for several years.

His private studio provided space and opportunity to also paint independently indoors, using views seen from his studio window and from his imagination. He wrote to Connie, "[I've been] painting one of those realistic pictures one gets out of the studio window. Just hard winter stuff. . . Quite exciting to match yourself against nothing to see if you can't create something." [i]

Forsyth's ability to create something out of nothing marked his mature voice as an artist, and garnered two major international awards. Moonrise and Twilight, an evening view from his window, and The Red City, a composition based upon past impressions (and perhaps reminiscent of J. Frank Currier's fierce landscape interpretations), received bronze medals at the International Expositions in Buenos Aires (1910) and San Francisco (1915), respectively. Forsyth also received a silver medal for a much more conventional painting, A Sunny Corner, in the latter exposition.

Excluding his nod to the traditional with A Sunny Corner, Forsyth's award winning paintings were completely different from his traditional work. Moonrise and Twilight's raw scumbled sky, and rule-breaking composition, with the picture cut in exact halves by the horizon, imparted a modern sensibility. His bold slashing strokes and massive simplified shapes in The Red City verged on abstraction. Forsyth's personal vision had evolved.

Looking at these paintings in retrospect could place Forsyth squarely among the modernists, but he never thought of his work in those terms. His paintings had evolved from his academic training, and still were realistic, no matter how simplified or abstracted. He never ventured beyond the recognizable, and returned to his more traditional works after 1915. Resisting art movements that completely ignored past traditions, he staunchly defended representational art.

After moving to Irvington, Forsyth's forays to paint Indiana landscapes were confined to short trips to places like the Indiana Dunes on Lake Michigan and Spring Mill State Park, and he particularly liked Ohio River scenes in Madison and Hanover. But after his reconnaissance trip to Brown County in 1897 he never painted there. Perhaps due to his aversion to what he considered trends, Forsyth avoided Brown County's art colony. Although he wrote about the Richmond Group in Art in Indiana, he did not mention the better-known art colony, which consisted primarily of Chicago transplants, in south-central Indiana.

Secure in his job at Herron from 1907 to 1933, and living in domestic harmony, Forsyth dedicated a tremendous amount of time and energy to his teaching. Enjoying interactions with and reverence from revolving classes of students, he believed that teaching art exposed him to fresh ideas and continually honed his own skills. When teaching outdoor classes at Winona Lake from 1924 through 1930, he took pride in his students' end-of-the-season shows.

Forsyth's mandates to render accurately and to stay true to one's own artistic voice were often preached to his students. He endeavored not only to teach them to paint well, but to give them a real reverence for their work.

To satisfy his curiosity about the much-heralded painting subjects of Gloucester, Massachusetts, Forsyth traveled there in 1927 and again in 1929. But by then he struggled with his plein air work, and was rarely satisfied with the results. He feared that he'd become exclusively a "studio painter," a situation worthy of his own disdain.

After being fired in a purge to establish solvency at the Herron Art Institute in 1933, Forsyth worked primarily for the Public Works of Art projects, creating approved easel paintings and murals for schools and the State Library. Although he continued to paint regularly, his illnesses, combined with waning energy, could not have made the creative process easy. His opinion of his last works is not documented.

"Perhaps [Forsyth's] most outstanding characteristic was his independence," his daughter Constance affirmed. "He painted what he wanted to paint and in the way he wanted to paint it."[ii] The variety of Forsyth's paintings, however, hindered easy identification of his work to the uninitiated. Artists who found a formula for success and stuck to it, often enjoyed more lucrative sales.

Forsyth's propensity to try new creative approaches could be interpreted negatively. A chameleon-like painter who was able to mimic other artist's styles, he occasionally tried subjects with proven salability and painted with an eye to marketing. Despite his preference for landscapes, "[Forsyth's] submission of figure pieces [to the [National Academy of Design's annual exhibitions in 1887 and 1888] must be seen as a concession to an established prejudice in East Coast circles for the ever-popular German genre scene."[iii] And his dead fish still life in 1909 seems derivative of multiple such subjects by William Merritt Chase. However, Forsyth's life-long experimentation was entirely consistent with his mercurial personality.

William Forsyth formed strong opinions, which he never hesitated to express. His habit of firing off letters in the heat of the moment, especially during his early years, alienated friends and associates. (His family seemed to take his diatribes in stride.) A lucid writer, he had a fondness for waxing eloquent (often sarcastically) about the artwork of others. He was not above competitive jealousy, sometimes insulting fellow students' work in Munich, or later denigrating colleagues in his professional life.

Forsyth was quick to take offense. He often assumed the worst of others, going on the attack before finding out the motivations or reasons behind an individual's actions. At his worst he was judgmental and self-righteous, ready to condemn on superficial grounds. Also a terrible worrier, he paradoxically procrastinated when it came to important business correspondence. He chaffed under rules and restrictions.

But he was not unaware of his own personality flaws. Forsyth's correspondence with family and close friends revealed perceptive self-humor. He wasn't averse to playing the fool for a laugh. He loved to be in front of an audience and excelled at giving spontaneous public presentations.

Although they maintained civility, were interminably linked as members of the Hoosier Group, and worked in tandem to help found the Society of Western Artists in 1896, T. C. Steele and Forsyth never enjoyed a warm friendship after a territorial squabble over student exclusivity at the Indiana School of Art in 1894. Steele and Forsyth's personalities could not have been more dissimilar. T. C. Steele was a diplomat; tactful, deliberate, and sensitive to others. He cultivated respectful relationships with his patrons and worked hard to accommodate them. Forsyth declared his strong opinions publicly as well as privately. Rarely considering consequences, he said whatever he thought, even to those whose support was badly needed. As artist Edward August Bell commented in 1893, Forsyth was eternally "spoiling for a fight."[iv]

Forsyth's reluctance or inability to play politics or kowtow to several of the city's more privileged citizens didn't suppress his need to be among people. His interest in individuals from all walks of life attracted numerous friends. He loved joining groups and organizations, always wanting to be part of the action. A leader of the Bohe Club in his early days; an active member of the Irvington Group, Literary Club, Portfolio Club, Century Club, Optimist Club, Masonic Order; and an uninhibited thespian in two different amateur acting groups, he easily bonded with others. Forsyth's household with Alice kept an "open door" policy, welcoming their children's neighborhood friends as well as Herron students, faculty, fellow artists, relatives and acquaintances. Lively dinners with opinionated conversation were the norm.

William Forsyth was a self-educated man and avid reader. He read history, art, poetry and politics; three walls of his library were crammed with books, many of them in German.?Perhaps due to his exposure to opera in Munich, music, particularly opera, was a life-long passion. But visual art was Forsyth's calling and life-long work, and his contribution, as part of the Hoosier Group, to Indiana's fledgling culture was huge.

These artists weren't concerned about being "painters of their time" but more about continuing a tradition, built upon the shoulders of other artists before them. The Hoosier Group artists were the preemptive Regionalist painters of our country. They captured the sense of place in Midwestern America with honesty and originality, pioneering a unique American visual identity and artistic independence from Europe's pervasive influence.

Forsyth wrote and was interviewed extensively about the significance and meaning of his fellow Indiana artists' work. "The Hoosier Group. . . has made an honorable name, has brought a certain distinction to its State, has almost founded a school, has done creditable work that may be more sought after and treasured as the years go by than it is today unless history fails to repeat itself. Above all it has held steadfastly to an ideal."[v] That ideal was to add the influence of art to our civilization. Forsyth held that art was a standard of life, making existence worthwhile. He believed art was an "attitude toward life, and that attitude was the joy of living."[vi]

Forsyth's hopeful prediction that his artwork would be more appreciated in the future held true. Private and public collections of historical Indiana paintings would be incomplete without at least one Forsyth. In 1984, an historical marker was erected near the location of his studio and home in Irvington, and a year later, 26 original charcoal drawings, watercolor and oil paintings by Forsyth were purchased for the Indiana State Museum with Governor Branigin's Contingency Funds. Perhaps the ultimate in compliments, two forgeries of Forsyth paintings were discovered by Marty Radecki, conservator at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, in 1985.

Some historians believe that Forsyth's teaching is his most enduring legacy. He sacrificed much of his own painting time to mentor other serious artists. Forsyth was not only a teacher of art students, but of the general population of Indiana, with his passionate writing and public speaking. He was a spokesperson for the state's artists in his own time, and perhaps even for plein air painters of today. His determination to carry on his life as an artist was motivated by his unshakable belief that "Art is not an adventure undertaken by the few for the gratification of their natural instincts, but a part of the complete expression of a people. . . Only the strong persist, for they must feel and speak for all." [vii]

Forsyth's commitment to art-making and his willingness to try new ideas left behind a large body of disparate works. Perhaps his experimentation would have been impossible if he hadn't earned a steady income from teaching and had been entirely dependent upon his paintings for livelihood. But his ability to sustain a lifelong commitment to the ideals of art as he saw them, combined with his inquiring personality, indicate that his work would still have continually changed. No matter what the pragmatic circumstances, William Forsyth was inarguably a strong and fearless artist.

i William Forsyth to Constance Forsyth, November 7, 1927, William Forsyth papers, Indiana Historical Society's William Henry Smith Memorial Library

ii Constance Forsyth to Gary Stephen Lynn, March 4, 1975, "The Painter Man."

iii Martin Krause, The Passage: Return of Indiana Painters from Germany, 1880-1905 (Indianapolis: Indianapolis Museum of Art, 1990), 74.

iv Edward August Bell to William Forsyth, July 29, 1893. William Forsyth papers, Indiana Historical Society Library.

v William Forsyth, Art in Indiana (Indianapolis: H. Lieber Co., 1916), 17.

vi "William Forsyth Tells Women of Attitude To Art: A Standard of Life Says Foremost Critic of State," Kokomo Daily Dispatch, April 16,1922.

vii Forsyth, Art in Indiana, 35.

About the author

Rachel Berenson Perry is the former fine arts curator for the Indiana State Museum in Indianapolis, IN. She organized and curated all of the museum's art exhibitions from 2003 through 2011 and has written numerous articles for the American Art Review, Traces of Indiana and Midwest History, Outdoor Indiana, and Southwest Art Magazine. Ms. Perry's books include William J Forsyth: The Life and Work of an Indiana Artist (Indiana University Press, 2014), Painting Indiana III: Heritage of Place (Indiana University Press, 2013) Barry Gealt: Embracing Nature (Indiana University Press, 2012) Paint and Canvas: A Biography of T. C. Steele (Indiana Historical Society, 2012); T. C. Steele and the Society of Western Artists 1896-1914 (Indiana University Press, 2009); and Children from the Hills: The Life and Work of Ada Walter Shulz (Artist Colony Press, 2001).

About the related exhibition and catalogue

The exhibition William Forsyth: Only the Strong Persist is being held at the Indiana State Museum, Indianapolis, Indiana from November 8, 2014 - March 29, 2015. The above article is comprised of excerpts from William J. Forsyth: The Life and Work of an Indiana Artist by Rachel Berenson Perry (Indiana University Press, 2014).

Indiana University Press says of the catalogue:

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

William J. Forsyth: The Life and Work of an Indiana Artist is cloth bound, 172 pages, 61 color illustrations., 1 b&w illustration, size 10 x 10 inches, ISBN: 978-0-253-01159-6. To learn more about the catalogue and to purchase a copy, please click here. (right: image of front cover of William J. Forsyth: The Life and Work of an Indiana Artist. Image courtesy of Indiana University Press)

Resource Library editor's note:

The above article was published in Resource Library on December 8, 2014, with permission of the Indiana State Museum, which was granted to TFAO on December 5, 2014. Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Sarah Jacobi, Interim Regional Sponsoring Editor, Assistant Sponsoring Editor, Indiana University Press, Bruce Williams of the Indiana State Museum and Rachel Berenson Perry for their help concerning permission for publishing the above text.

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