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Forsyth, William Constitutional Elm, 1897


William Forsyth, born in Hamilton County, Ohio, said he could not remember a time when he did not want to paint. Both of his parents were supportive of his talent. After his family moved to Indianapolis, Forsyth’s father took him to Barton S. Hays’s studio, but Forsyth was too young to begin study. Some years later, he visited Hays’s studio again and was fascinated with one of William Merritt Chase’s paintings. In 1877, when John W. Love opened the first Indiana School of Art, Forsyth was the first pupil. Afterward he had a studio in Indianapolis for a short time. In 1883 he decided to study at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts, Munich.

After seven years in Europe, Forsyth returned to Indiana and held art classes with J. Ottis Adams in Muncie and Fort Wayne. He then assisted T. C. Steele in establishing a school in Indianapolis. In 1906 he took charge of the life class at the Herron Art Institute and was considered an excellent teacher. He was a member of the Hoosier Group of painters. His 1916 essay Art in Indiana is a valuable source of information on this period in Indiana’s cultural history.

  • Constitutional Elm, ca. 1897
  • 17″ x 23″
  • Indianapolis Museum of Art
  • Keywords: paintings, natural landscapes, watercolor and gouache on paper
  • Subjects: outdoors, trees, Hoosier Group

This scene was painted in Corydon, where Forsyth often took his art classes. According to historical accounts, at the time the 1816 Indiana Constitution was being written, it was too hot inside the territorial capitol building, and so the men worked outdoors in the shade of this huge tree. Only a stump remains now because the tree became diseased and had to be cut down. Forsyth also did an oil painting of this scene, but in this gouache he used opaque watercolors mixed with gum arabic to create an actual layer of paint. Opaque watercolor is a water-soluble paint composed of pure pigment to which white has been added.

Some Points To Consider

  • Ask students if they think this painting recorded an important event in the history of Indiana. If so, what event? Do they think art should be made only for enjoyment or decoration? Why or why not? Ask them to describe some reasons why it is important to make art that documents history. (Art 4.5.2)
  • Tell students that Chicago art critics said Forsyth’s work had strength and freshness. Ask them to use art elements and principles to describe what is strong and fresh about this painting. (Art 4.4.2)

Suggested Activities for Classroom Follow-Up

  • Allow class time for students to draw portraits of themselves in their journals. Ask them to add objects important to them to the drawings. Afterward, have them make notes about how they are dressed in the drawing and what that says about them. Ask: What would a student a century from now be able to tell about you by looking at your portrait?
  • Ask each student to bring a photo of an older person to class. This could be a grandparent or other person important in their lives. Share each photo with everyone in class and discuss skin tone and other characteristics that make the people in the photos appear older. Give students time to draw pictures of themselves as they think they will look at age 78.
  • Ask students to imagine themselves as the tree in this painting. Have them write in their journals about the events that took place as they grew tall, strong, and older. With each new year a tree develops a growth ring. Ask students: How old do you think this tree is, and what historical events might it have seen?