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Steele, T.C. Portrait of James Whitcomb Riley, 1916


Theodore C. Steele did not see French Impressionist paintings in person in Paris in the 1870s and 1880s; rather he became aware of Impressionism through others’ descriptions of it. T. C. Steele first saw French impressionist paintings at the World’s Columbian Exposition, which was held in Chicago from May through October 1893. He had learned to paint en plein air, or outdoors in front of the motif, while studying informally with fellow American J. Frank Currier outside Munich in the early 1880s. Currier’s dark, tonal palette, however, was quite different from the bright, airy colors of Impressionism. Steele visited the fair at least once and afterwards changed his style of painting toward a much brighter palette, looser brushwork, and attention to atmospheric effects.

  • Portrait of James Whitcomb Riley, 1916
  • 50″ x 42″
  • Courtesy of Indiana State Museum and Historic Sites
  • Keywords: paintings, portraits, oil on canvas
  • Subjects: indoors, people, men, hands, eyeglasses, books, Hoosier Group

Author and poet James Whitcomb Riley often stopped by his friend T. C. Steele’s studio on Washington Street to chat with Steele and get his reaction to some new poems. Riley is best known for his poems written in dialect, such as “Little Orphant Annie” and “When the Frost Is on the Punkin.” Both men encouraged their community’s efforts to attract attention to the artistic talents in the Midwest. Steele painted Riley first in 1878, when the poet was 28, and then again in 1880. This image is a 1916 copy of another portrait painted in 1902, when Riley was 52. It is a formal portrait against an Impressionistic background.

Some Points To Consider

  • Ask students to describe the details in this portrait. Why do they think Steele included those objects? What might those objects say about Riley? Why do they think Steele might have painted him this way? (Art 4.1.2, 4.3.1, 4.3.2)
  • Read some of Riley’s poems with the class. Then have them look again at his portrait and compare his writing to their impression of him based on the way he looks. (Art 4.5.1; English Language Arts Reading 4.3.3)