Better with Age: The Late-Blooming of Artist Will Vawter

Will Vawter, Autumn in Brown County, n.d., Flanner Buchanan Indiana the Beautiful Art Collection, https://flannerbuchanan.com/our-art-collection/.

Since at least the late-19th century, art galleries and critics have focused most of their attention on young, emerging artists. This strategy has paid off for savvy dealers and galleries, as these rising stars of the art world have brought in large amounts of money and produced blockbuster shows. The downside of this trend for the artists themselves, is that it can be difficult to find places to exhibit and sell their work as they get older. This is especially disappointing, as many artists peak later in life and produce their best work in their golden years. In this way, an artist’s best work might go largely unappreciated. [1]

Georgia O’Keeffe, From a Day with Juan II, 1977, Museum of Modern Art, www.moma.org.

There are signs that this reign of young artists may be coming to an end. For example, the Tate announced that artists over the age of 50 would now be eligible for the coveted Turner Prize, awarded to a British artist each year for innovation in the arts. This shift recognizes that older artists can also be innovators. [2]

Meanwhile, the Museum of Modern Art [MoMA] recently featured an exhibition titled The Long Run, which featured artists who were at least 45 years old when they made the exhibited piece of artwork. Most were much older, like Georgia O’Keeffe, who painted From a Day with Juan II at 90. The MOMA explained:

Innovation in art is often characterized as a singular event—a bolt of lightning that strikes once and forever changes what follows. The Long Run provides another view: by chronicling the continued experimentation of artists long after their breakthrough moments, it suggests that invention results from sustained critical thinking, persistent observation, and countless hours in the studio. [3]

The Carter Burden Gallery, accessed NPR.

The Carter Burden Gallery, which like other New York City spaces sells its artists’ works for thousands of dollars, is different in one significant way. All of its exhibited artists are 60 or older. The gallery’s director Marlena Vaccaro told NPR:

Older adults do not stop being who they are because they hit a particular age. Professional artists never stop doing what we do, and in many cases we get better at it as we go along. [4]

Frank M. Hohenberger, “Will Vawter at Work in His Studio,” photograph, n.d., Frank M. Hohenberger Photograph Collection, Lilly Library, Indiana University.

Simply put, some artists get better with age. This was true for Indiana artist Will Vawter. He began his artistic career in the 1890s as a talented but unremarkable illustrator for his local newspaper. He gained popularity mid-career for his drawings that brought the children’s books of James Whitcomb Riley to life. Vawter peaked, later in his life, as one of the finest landscape artists ever to work in Indiana. As the current art world shifts to include older artists, it’s worth examining one Hoosier painter who produced his best work in his late 60s. Will Vawter’s late-blooming reminds us to give exhibit space to older artists, not for the sake of inclusion only, but because we don’t want to miss out on the best work of their careers.

The Early Years of Will Vawter

John William “Will” Vawter was born in West Virginia in 1871 and moved with his family to Greenfield, Hancock County, Indiana, by 1880. [5] He worked as an illustrator for the (Greenfield) Hancock Democrat before becoming an illustrator at the Indianapolis Sentinel and the Indianapolis News in 1891. [6] In 1893, Vawter got his big break. The Indianapolis Journal dedicated a full page to an exclusive new poem by James Whitcomb Riley. [7] The Journal described the special edition, produced to coincide with a large national Grand Army of the Republic meeting, as “by far the most expensive and delightful feature ever offered its readers by an Indianapolis newspaper.”[8] The newspaper prominently featured Vawter’s illustrations of the poem.

James Whitcomb Riley, “Armazindy: A Borned Soldier and Hero,” Indianapolis Journal, September 5, 1893, 13, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

By the time Vawter started his illustrations for Riley, the “Hoosier Poet” had achieved national renown, and several of his volumes of poetry were best-sellers. [9] Riley was known for using “Hoosier dialect” to create poems “infused with the very spirit of the Hoosier soil from which they sprung.” [10] Likewise, Vawter honed his artistic skills observing life around him for local newspapers. Both men were Greenfield natives and keen observers of the local culture that colored Hoosier life. In this way, Vawter was uniquely positioned to interpret Riley’s work. Thus, the Riley-Vawter pairing, initiated by the Indianapolis Journal, was the beginning of a long creative partnership.

James Whitcomb Riley, Child-Rhymes, Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1898 edition accessed Indiana State Library, 1908 edition accessed Hathi Trust.

The Riley Years

In 1898, Indianapolis publisher Bowen-Merrill Company reissued a collection of Riley poems as Riley Child-RhymesVawter’s illustrations were heavily featured in the book. In an extensive interview with the Indianapolis News, Riley  described Vawter’s innate ability to capture the spirit of the folks depicted in the poems. Riley stated:

It is a very gratifying thing to find an artist who is unconsciously aware of the exact situation and who understands his own intimate surroundings. Will Vawter is such an artist. There is no vagueness in his interpretation of the poems of this book. He is a Greenfield boy, and natively an artist . . . He depicted people and things in no patronizing way. They are taken in a realistic spirit; he is of them. [11]

Riley went on to describe the importance of understanding the subtlety of local dialect when dealing with characters like the “town gossip,” for instance. He continued on Vawter’s ability to capture these individuals:

All these characteristics have been unconsciously observed by young Vawter. Now that he comes to sit down and illustrate these scenes and people, he knows his material and surroundings perfectly . . . While he may be criticized for lack of technical finish, it would be dangerous to equip him with an exacting technical art knowledge . . . This would be to the absolute loss of native feeling, of the tone and direct blood relationship that is needed in his work. [12]

Riley’s comments are a mixed bag. He praised Vawter for his talent, but noted his unpolished rendering skills. He admired the way Vawter captured in ink the very people Riley depicted in words, but implied that the artist did so out of naiveté. Vawter captured their essence only because they were just the kind of folks that the simple young man knew and understood. At this early point in his career, Riley did not see Vawter as an artist with a vision of his own. Vawter would prove this assumption wrong much later in his career.

The fact that Riley’s appreciation for Vawter grew over the following years is evidenced by the sheer number of times the author paired with the artist on lushly-illustrated volumes of poetry. Vawter illustrated:

James Whitcomb Riley, Book of Joyous Children (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1902, accessed IUPUI Digital Collections.

Riley Farm-Rhymes (1901, 1905 editions),
The Book of Joyous Children (1902),
His Pa’s Romance (1903),
A Defective Santa Claus (1904),
Riley Songs O’ Cheer (1905 edition),
The Boys of the Old Glee Club (1907),
Riley Songs of Summer (1908),
Riley Songs of Home (1910),
Riley Songs of Friendship (1921 edition).

Vawter also created front pieces for Riley’s A Child-World (1897) and Home Folks (1900), and illustrations for short Riley volumes Down Around the River and Other Poems (1911) and Knee Deep in June and Other Poems (1912). [13]

A Golden Age for Greenfield

Vawter illustrated a children’s book for another Greenfield author: his sister, Clara Vawter. “Miss Clara” as the local newspapers called her, was a rising star of the Indiana literary scene. She was writing for “several publications of prominence,” her work was read aloud and praised by the Western Writers’ Association, and publishers had written her “offering to pay her handsomely for her literary work.” The illustrated book by the Vawter siblings, Of Such Is the Kingdom of Heaven (1899, later published as The Rabbit’s Ransom) was widely praised not only for stimulating the imaginations of children, but also for appealing to the nostalgia of older people. Unfortunately, every article that mentioned Miss Clara’s promise as a writer, also noted her “delicate health” and she died in 1900. Of Such Is the Kingdom was her only published work. [14]

Will Vawter, illustration from The Rabbit’s Ransom by Clara Vawter (Brooklyn: Braunworth, Munn & Barber, 1899), accessed GoogleBooks.

Vawter contributed art to other Greenfield authors. He illustrated historian and poet John Clark Ridpath’s Epic of Life (1893) and contributed engravings to William H. English’s two-volume history Conquest of the Country Northwest of the River Ohio, 1778-1783 (1897). And he illustrated a children’s book by Greenfield author Adelia Pope Branham called Grandma Tales and Others (1899) and poet Barton Rees Pogue’s work Fortunes in Friendship (1926). [15] He made art for numerous other Indiana authors outside of Hancock County. [16] And by the turn of the twentieth century, his original book illustrations were exhibited around the country. [17]

The Rise of American Impressionism

By this time, Vawter was an accomplished illustrator, working in a popular style, and highly demanded by publishers. With the drastic increase in number and circulation of illustrated journals across the country, an illustrator like Vawter could stay gainfully employed in that medium. At the same time, American artists were hungry for an artistic style they could call their own. American painters educated in Europe were returning with the influence of French impressionism – broad, quick strokes, a bright palette, an eye for capturing the effects of light, and a desire to paint en plein air, or outside the walls of the studio. For example, Indiana-born painter William Merritt Chase shifted from the darker tones of the Munich school where he was trained as a young man, to the bright, impressionist style of the era’s avante garde painters during his mid and late career. Working out of his studio in New York, Chase and his colleagues helped to define this style of American Impressionism. These artists remained at home, painting scenes of life and landscape in the United States, as opposed to expatriating to European art capitals like their predecessors. While they drew on artistic elements from European styles as they saw fit, their goal was to create a uniquely American style of art. [18]

William Merritt Chase, Ready for the Ride, oil on canvas, 1877, Museum of Fine Arts Boston, accessed collections.mfa.org.
William Merritt Chase, At the Seaside, oil on canvas, ca. 1892, Metropolitan Museum of Art, www.metmuseum.org.

The Aesthetic Pull of Brown County

Another Hoosier painter took this localism further, pushing his cohorts to not just remain in the U.S., but to paint the beauty of their home state. T. C. Steele followed in Chase’s footsteps, studying in Munich before returning to live and work in Indianapolis. Steele found his calling in the Indiana landscape and his muse in the hills of Brown County. Steele’s plein air paintings captured the light and natural beauty of the region and helped establish the reputation of the Hoosier Group, painters of the Indiana landscape that achieved international recognition by 1900. [19]

Indianapolis News, May 4, 1918, 32, Hoosier State Chronicles.

Someone of Vawter’s artistic sensibilities could not help but be influenced by this aesthetic shift, as well as the renown of the Hoosier Group. By 1909, Will and his wife Mary moved to Brown County, Indiana, just south of Nashville on a scenic farm they jokingly called “Rattlesnake Terrace” after some of the local fauna. Vawter set up a studio in an “old clapboard-roofed log cabin” with an expansive view of the property. Reportedly he kept a cow grazing on the property, despite the fact that it gave very little milk, because it added “picturesque interest to the landscape.” [20] While Vawter continued to derive his income from newspaper and magazine illustration, he too was enraptured by the Brown County landscape and began to work in an impressionist style influenced by the Hoosier Group. [21]

Will Vawter, Sunshine and Hollyhocks, 1925, n.d., accessed Fine Art America.
Frank M. Hohenberger, “Willa Vawter Painting in Studio,” photograph, n.d., Frank Hohenberger Collection, Lilly Library, Indiana University Image Collections Online.

Vawter was known to be kind and became popular with the locals. A 1917 Indianapolis News article reported on a little girl who came to visit him in his studio, carrying a well-loved doll. Noticing that the doll’s painted face had faded, Vawter “painted a new face with the rosiest cheeks and a beautiful pair of unwinking blue eyes.” The little girl left “bubbling over with gratitude.” Vawter went back to his work, but only for a few minutes. He was interrupted by another little girl holding her doll, and a half hour later, he had a dozen little fans gathered outside the studio. He quit trying to work and “gave up the day to making faces for all kids of dolls, from the old-fashioned rag baby to the most pretentious efforts in wax.” After fixing everyone’s toy over the course of a day, he joked that “this beauty parlor has closed.” [22]

Frank M. Hohenberger, “Vawter in Potato Patch,” photograph, n.d., Frank Hohenberger Collection, Lilly Library, Indiana University Image Collections Online.

Vawter was just as generous with his fellow artists. After becoming interested in etching in 1919, he opened up the small studio he had moved to in downtown Nashville, Indiana, to his peers. The modest room stood over a grocery store and still displayed the sign of the previous occupant, a realtor. It housed a copper plate printing press, cans of ink, cheesecloth for wiping the plates, a table, and a stove.

The Brown County Democrat reported:

Indianapolis News, June 7, 1919, 18, Hoosier State Chronicles.

It is understood between the few members of a little community etching and printing club that any member is free to use the press, stove, table, etc, but no member must be guilty of using any other member’s printing rags. [23]

In September 1919, Vawter exhibited some of these etchings at the H. Lieber Company art store in downtown Indianapolis, along with oil paintings by Steele and others. [24] While his work gained popularity across the state, Vawter worked to enhance the art scene in Brown County.

Will Vawter, Brown County Landscape, 1920, accessed MutualArt.

By August of 1920, Vawter and fellow artist Adolph R. Shulz, were working to establish an art museum. They found support in unlikely places, both with artists and locals hoping that such an art center would preserve the “nature wonders of a country that is fast losing its old-fashioned atmosphere,” and local businessmen who saw it as a means to increase tourism. [25] Their dream became a reality in 1926 with the opening of a gallery on the public square.  The artists and locals supporting the gallery formed the Brown County Art Gallery Association in order to open quality exhibitions to the public. [26]

In 1925, the work of Vawter and his fellow Brown County artists was exhibited at the art galleries of Marshall Field & Co. in Chicago. This exhibit, known as the “Hoosier Salon,” was popular and well-covered by the press, thus establishing Vawter permanently in the canon of great Indiana artists. For his oil painting Our Alley, which depicted a winter scene in Brown County, he won the Frank Cunningham prize and one hundred dollars. He continued to exhibit regularly at the H. Lieber gallery in Indianapolis and the Hoosier Salon in Chicago into the 1930s. [27]

The Late-Blooming of Vawter

Indianapolis Star, February 19, 1961, 27, accessed Newspapers.com.

But it was in the last years of his life that Vawter created his finest work. No one was better poised to observe this development than Lucille E. Morehouse, an insightful art critic whose popular column “In The World of Art” ran for decades in the Indianapolis Star. [28] In 1936, she covered the Annual Brown County Exhibit at the H. Lieber Company galleries, as she did every year. Morehouse clearly had a fondness for the Brown County artists but also a certain weariness of their subject matter, the landscapes of the county in various seasons, which had become standard fare by the 1930s. Nonetheless, she covered the show in her usual energetic and descriptive manner, because it was still in demand by the public. She explained that the show’s popularity was owed to Indianapolis residents, who vacationed in Brown County and looked to the paintings as reminders of their scenic vacations.

She explained that the public appreciated that Brown County Artists hadn’t changed their style, that they resisted modernism, and made pictures that could “smooth away the cares of the day.” [29] On the other hand, Morehouse wrote: “Sometimes we wish they would paint new subjects or would interpret the old ones in a different angle.”[30] Vawter did just that. Unlike his colleagues, Vawter began to travel in his later years and it refreshed his work. Morehouse especially praised Vawter’s recent painting Blue Pool, which was “one of the fine things from the group of New England coast scenes and Marines.” [31]

Will Vawter, Along the Coast, n.d., accessed Fine Art Dealers Association.

 

Besides exhibiting his reinvigorated work alongside the Brown County artists, Vawter showed his marine paintings in a one-man show at the H. Lieber Company gallery. Morehouse praised his bold paintings in a lengthy article. [32] Comparing his marinescapes with an earlier, popular Brown County fall landscape, she wrote:

When a Hoosier from the Brown county woods goes East to paint New England coast scener[y], one might expect him to go about it timidly. Not so Will Vawter. He makes his brush slash into the ocean just as if it were putting “the glory of autumn” on canvas. [33]

For Morehouse, who had long been familiar with Vawter’s work, these paintings of coastal scenes were like seeing his work fresh for the first time. She wrote:

But I never have been able to throw off my early feeling of wonder when I back away from a broadly-painted canvas and see form emerging from massively-painted surfaces over which the brush had evidently moved with more or less of inspiration. [34]

Detail of Vawter’s Along the Coast showing the abstraction of the work up close as opposed to the impressionist style of the larger work as noted by Morehouse.

She continued to praise the spontaneity of the work and the “striking evidence of genius” in his mastery of form and “expression of light and atmosphere.” [35] The works were vigorous, alive, and fresh, proving the innovative spirit of the older artist.

In 1938, Vawter again held a solo show. This time he combined his seascapes with other scenes from his travels, including hilly landscapes painted on the East Coast. In a show of maturity as an artist, he also included new, but traditional views of Brown County. He could both try new things and showcase his mastery of the light and scenery of his home county. Morehouse took note:

Indianapolis Star, December 26, 1939, 10, accessed Newspapers.com.

What a heritage Will Vawter will leave to Hoosierdom! The longer he paints, the more beauty he captures from nature and transfers to canvas. Because the present exhibit is so all-inclusive, representing every phase of his work. [36]

Morehouse described his Brown County landscapes as “lusciously painted,” his flower still lifes as “vigorously alive,” and again praised his adventuring beyond his home state for new subject matter. [37] She concluded that Vawter’s 1938 exhibit “surpasses all previous showings by this gifted Hoosier painter of landscape.” [38] At 67 years old, Vawter was reaching his artistic peak.

Indianapolis Star, December 8, 1940, 76, Newspapers.com.

In 1940, just two months before his death, Vawter held what would be his last one-man exhibition. It surpassed all previous exhibitions, even the acclaimed 1938 show. Vawter showed nineteen paintings, including tranquil seascapes, the Great Smoky Mountains in early fall, the New England coast in spring, and Brown County landscapes from all seasons. For Morehouse, even his paintings of traditional flower still lifes felt fresh and vibrant. She explained that Vawter didn’t just reproduce the appearance of the plants, but that “he interprets the souls of flowers, makes us feel their personality.” In fact, Morehouse regretted that she couldn’t do Vawter justice by describing his paintings; you just had to see them. She wrote that he depicted something “spiritual that can be expressed only in terms of paint, and not in words.”

Vawter passed away in 1941 after a forty-eight year long art career. But before he died, he mastered not just the technical aspect of art, but found in the heart of his life’s work a spiritual connection to nature so powerful it could be sensed secondhand by the viewer. Will Vawter remains an example to artists everywhere to keep working, despite obstacles the art world places before older artists. By considering the long career of a late-blooming artist, we see that artists can do their best work in their autumn years. Hopefully, art museums and galleries will continue to make more space for this mature, yet still innovative and evolving work.

Will Vawter, A Sunny Day in Springville, n.d., accessed Fine Art Dealers Association.

 

 

 

 

Notes:
All newspapers accessed Newspapers.com unless otherwise noted.

[1] Susan Stamberg, “This New York Gallery Has an Unusual Age Limit: No Artists Younger Than 60,” Morning Edition, January 11, 2018, NPR.

[2] Thomas Marks, “Is This A Golden Age for Older Artists?” Apollo: The International Art Magazine, May 29, 2017.

[3] The Long Run, MoMA, November 11, 2017-May 5, 2019.

[4] Stamberg, “This New York Gallery . . .,” NPR.

[5]“The Eclectics,” Indianapolis News, May 14, 1879, 4, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles; “Seriously Hurt,” (Greenfield) Hancock Democrat, July 24, 1879, 3; 1880 United States Census (Schedule 1), Enumeration District 194, Greenfield, Hancock County, Indiana, Page 15, Line 27, June 5, 1880, accessed AncestryLibrary.com; “Eclectic Physicians in Council,” Indianapolis News, November 17, 1880, 3. Newspapers and the 1880 census show Will Vawter’s father Lewis working as a physician in Greenfield by 1879. The 1880 census confirms the family’s move.

[6] (Greenfield) Hancock Democrat, March 5, 1891, 1; (Greenfield) Hancock Democrat, April 9, 1891, 1; “Notes of Newspaper Men,” Indianapolis News, December 5, 1891, 7.

[7] James Whitcomb Riley,“Armazindy: A Borned Soldier and Hero,” Indianapolis Journal, September 5, 1893, 13, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

[8] “That Girl Wuz, and Is, I know, A Borned Soldier and Hero,” Indianapolis Journal, August 30, 1893, 4, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

[9] Advertisement, Indianapolis News, October 14, 1893, 9, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

[10] “Riley’s New Book,” Indianapolis News, October 6, 1900, 16, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

[11]“A Co-Worker with Riley,” Indianapolis News, reprinted (Greenfield) Hancock Democrat, December 8, 1898, 5.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Most of Riley’s books featuring Vawter’s illustrations are accessible via Livin’ the Life of Riley Digital Collection, IUPUI University Library. Most other Riley books are accessible via Hathi Trust. First editions are accessible through the Indiana State Library. Vawter’s illustrations for Riley Songs of Cheer are accessed through Newfields.

[14] “New Authoress Rapidly Coming to the Front,” Hancock Democrat, September 21, 1899, 5; “Of Such Is the Kingdom,” Indianapolis Journal, December 11, 1899, 4; Book Buyer 19: 2 (September 1899), 83, accessed HathiTrust; “Miss Clara Vawter Dead,” Indianapolis News, October 12, 1900, 14.

[15] John Clark Ridpath, Epic of Life (New York: Hunt & Eaton, 1893), accessed HathiTrust; “Mr. English’s New Book,” Indianapolis News, December 14, 1895, 5; William Hayden English, Conquest of the Country Northwest of the River Ohio, 1778-1783 and, Life of Gen. George Rogers Clark (Indianapolis: Bowen-Merrill Company, 1897), accessed Archive.org; Advertisement, (Greenfield) Hancock Democrat, June 1, 1899, 1; “Greenfield Genius,” Hancock Democrat, June 8, 1899, 8; Adelia Pope-Branham, Grandma Tales and Others, (Greenfield, Indiana: Harold Pub. Co. Press, 1899), accessed Archive.org; “Greenfield Now at the 5,000 Mark,” Indianapolis News, November 30, 1901, 3; Charles H. Bartlett, Tales of Kankakee Land (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1904), accessed HathiTrust; “C. H. Bartlett’s New Book,” South Bend Tribune, April 9, 1904, 6; John William Vawter, Sheet of 15 Illustrations to Barton Rees Pogue’s ‘Fortunes and Friendship,’ pen and ink over pencil on paper, n.d., Prints, Drawings, and Photographs Collection, Indianapolis Museum of Art.

[16] Robert J. Burdette, Smiles Yoked with Sighs (Indianapolis: Bowen-Merrill, 1900), accessed HathiTrust; “Recent Literature,” St. Louis Globe-Democrat, June 30, 1900, 13; Advertisement, Indianapolis News, November 14, 1903, 6, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles; Wallace Bruce Amsbary, The Ballad of Bourbonnais (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1904); “The Ballads of Bourbonnais,” Indianapolis News, May 7, 1904, 16; “Among the Books,” Topeka State Journal, June 4, 1904, 13.

[17] Advertisement, (Rochester, New York) Democrat and Chronicle, October 29, 1898, 8; “Exhibit of Paintings by Indiana Artists,” Indianapolis Journal, April 24, 1904, 16, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles; “Exhibit of Original Drawings for Novels,” Indianapolis News, March 20, 1905, 8. Vawter’s illustrations from Riley’s Child Rhymes were exhibited in Rochester, New York in 1898. In 1904, his original illustrations were exhibited at the H. Lieber Art Gallery in Indianapolis and the St. Louis Exposition; in 1905, at the Indianapolis “city library.”

[18] “William Merritt Chase,” accessed Indiana Historical Bureau.

[19] “T.C. Steele Home, Studio, Gardens,” accessed Indiana Historical Bureau.

[20] (Greenfield ) Daily Reporter, October 9, 1908, 2; (Greenfield) Daily Reporter, April 7, 1909, 2; (Greenfield) Daily Reporter, May 11, 1909, 1; (Greenfield) Hancock Democrat, May 13, 1909, 1; “Vawter’s Brown County Home,” (Greenfield) Daily Reporter, August 8, 1909, 1; “Rattlesnake Terrace, the Vawter Home,” (Greenfield) Hancock Democrat, August 12, 1909, 6, accessed Newspapers.com; N. L., “A Day in the Artists’ Arcadia in Brown County,” (Muncie) Star Press, September 5, 1909, 14; (Greenfield) Hancock Democrat, October 28, 1909, 8.

[21] William Forsyth, “Art in Indiana,” Indianapolis News, September 27, 1916, 12, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles; “Paintings of Local Artists Exhibited,” Indianapolis News reprinted (Greenfield) Hancock Democrat, December 27, 1917, 4; “Brown County Pictures,” Indianapolis News, September 17, 1919, 26, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles; William Herschell, “Will Vawter’s Home in Brown County,” (Greenfield) Daily Reporter, August 5, 1920, 1; “Art Notes,” Indianapolis News, December 4, 1920, 5; John William Vawter, Barnes Cabin on Owl Creek, Brown County, circa 1920, Oil on Canvas, Indianapolis Museum of Art; Will Vawter, Sunshine and Hollyhocks, 1925, Oil on Canvas, Private Collection, published in Lyn Letsinger-Miller, Artists of Brown County (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1994), 41.

[22] “Little Stories of Daily Life,” Indianapolis News, May 3, 1917, 24, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

[23] “Produced in Brown County Etching Club Shop,” Indianapolis News, June 7, 1919, 18, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles; “Brown County Etchers’ Club,” Brown County Democrat, June 12, 1919, 5.

[24] Ibid.; “Brown County Pictures,” Indianapolis News, September 17, 1919, 26, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

[25] “Will Vawter’s Home in Brown County,” (Greenfield) Daily Reporter, August 5, 1920, 1; “Urge a Museum to Keep Romance of Hoosier Art,” South Bend News-Times, August 12, 1920, 7, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

[26] “Brown County Art Gallery at Nashville,” Brown County Democrat, September 2, 1926, 1; “Brown County Art Gallery Is Assured,” Brown County Democrat, September 9, 1926, 1; “New Art Gallery,” Huntington Herald, September 8, 1926, 8; “Artists in Brown County Organize,” Indianapolis Star, September 8, 1926, 1; “Art Gallery Association Grows Rapidly,” Brown County Democrat, September 16, 1926, 1; “Open Art Gallery in Brown County,” Indianapolis Star, October 9, 1926, 5; “Vawter Heads Local Artists’ Association,” October 23, 1930, 1.

[27] “Brown County Artists at Exhibit in Chicago,” Brown County Democrat, March 5, 1925, 1; “Winter Scene Wins Prize for Artist,” Indianapolis Star, March 14, 1925, 11; “Richmond Man Wins Art Prize,” Richmond Item, March 7, 1926, 1; “46 Paintings by Brown County Artists Put on Display at Lieber’s Galleries,” Indianapolis Star, November 16, 1927, 24; “Vawter’s Landscape Wins Prize in Exhibit at Hoosier Salon in Chicago Galleries,” Indianapolis News, January 31, 1928, 7; “Eighth Hoosier Salon Will Be Held in Field Galleries Jan. 23 to Feb. 6,” Indianapolis Star, December 20, 1931, 50. Other newspaper articles on Vawter’s exhibitions available in the IHB marker file.

[28] “Miss Morehouse Dies; Ex-Art Critic,” Indianapolis Star, February 19, 1961, 27.

[29] Lucille E. Morehouse, “In The World of Art: Local Art Exhibitions Scheduled for December Are Distinctly Inviting and of Unusual Character,” Indianapolis Star, December 6, 1936, 75.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Lucille E. Morehouse,”In The World of Art: Brown County Landscapist Turns Marine Painter; One-Man Show at Lieber Gallery for Another Week,” Indianapolis Star, November 22, 1936, 65.

[33 – 35] Ibid.

[36] Lucille E. Morehouse,”In The World of Art: Will Vawter’s Exhibition Tops Previous Shows,” Indianapolis Star, December 18, 1938, 69.

[37] Ibid.

[38] Ibid.

The Lost Mrs. Ralston

Photo 1-Jennie C Ralston
Jennie C. Ralston, wife of Governor Samuel Ralston, First Lady of Indiana (1913-1917), image courtesy of Indianapolis Star.

Tracking down a portrait of Jennie C. Ralston, wife of Indiana Governor Samuel Ralston, was our most pressing challenge last week. The problem? It appeared as though no one had actually seen the painting since 1970. When we got a call from Jennie’s great-great granddaughter, who thought the portrait had been donated to the Indiana State Library, we were honored to help track it down.

Though most well-known as wife of Indiana Governor Samuel Ralston, Jennie was a civic leader in Indiana in her own right. Born on November 15, 1861 on a farm near Danville, Indiana, she met Samuel while attending Central Normal College in Danville. She graduated in 1881. The two married in 1889 and lived on a farm near Lebanon, Indiana. Throughout her life, she participated in numerous clubs, often holding leadership roles. A few of her positions included President of the Pioneer Woman’s Memorial Association, in which she helped organize the Parent-Teachers’ Association, Trustee of the Indiana Girls School, and Vice-President of the Indiana Federation of Clubs. She was also a member of the Democratic National Committee from 1934 until she retired on her 91st birthday in 1953.

Photo 2-Senator Samuel and Jennie
Samuel and Jennie Ralston sitting together on their front porch, c. 1922-1925, image courtesy of Indianapolis News.

The first place we looked for Jennie’s portrait was the Indiana Governors’ Portrait collection, managed by the Indiana State Library and the Indiana State Museum. The collection contains portraits of all of Indiana’s
governors (except for one) since Indiana became a territory. The state museum makes sure every newly elected governor has their portrait painted and added to the collection. Most of the paintings are currently on display in the State House or in government offices.

Photo 3-ralston portrait
Portrait of Indiana Governor Samuel Moffett Ralston by Wayman Adams in the Indiana Governors’ Portrait Collection.

It was possible the collection contained Jennie’s portrait. When he was governor (1913-1917), her husband Samuel significantly expanded the collection. In honor of the state centennial in 1916, he had his own portrait completed by Muncie artist Wayman Adams, and hired T.C. Steele to paint portraits of four famous Indiana governors, William Henry Harrison, Jonathon Jennings, Oliver Perry Morton, and Thomas A Hendricks.

However, no records indicated that Jennie’s portrait came with her husband’s to the Indiana Governors’ Portrait Collection. We contacted nearly every other major archive and museum in Indianapolis and no one seemed to have record Jennie’s portrait in their collection or knew where it currently was.

4 govs
Steele’s portraits commissioned by Gov. Ralston, courtesy of IHB.

Next, we scoured books and digital publications for reprints or references of Jennie’s portrait, with the hope that a citation might lead to a repository that currently owned the painting. After searching through several books from First Ladies of Indiana and the Governors to Portraits and Painters of the Governors of Indiana, there was still no trace of the portrait. Without paperwork, the name of the artist who completed the portrait, or even an image of the painting itself, it seemed difficult to know where else to look. However, there was one source left to check.

Perhaps one of the best places to find information at the Indiana State Library is the trusty clippings files, collected in the 1920s and having grown to nearly 250 linear feet since then. The library maintains a vertical file of clippings from newspaper and magazine articles, pamphlets, and various publications on a number of Indiana topics for public perusal. There are folders dedicated to broad subjects, such as women or health, and others for specific individuals, events, places, and organizations.

Photo 4-jennie c ralston article
Jennie Ralston’s niece, Ruth Cravens (left) presents the portrait of Jennie at IU’s Sycamore Hall girls’ dormitory at. This photo led us to the portrait’s current location in the IU Campus Art Collection. Image courtesy of Indy Star.

Luckily, Samuel and Jennie Ralston had a folder dedicated to them in the biography section of the clippings files. Ironically, the first clipping in the folder was a small captioned photo cut from the Indianapolis Star, dated May 22, 1956. The photo showed the portrait of Jennie Ralston presented at the Sycamore Hall girls’ dormitory in Indiana University-Bloomington. Apparently, Jennie’s brother John Cravens, worked at the university as a registrar for many years.

Eventually, we connected with the Campus Art Collection at Indiana University. After sending a scan of the article, Amy Patterson, Campus Art Collection Manager and Registrar at Indiana University told us Jennie’s portrait was indeed in their collection. SUCCESS!

The portrait is currently in storage to undergo restoration and will be rehung next summer. Moral of the story; always check the ISL Clippings Files. You never know what you’ll find in there.