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Wheeler, Clifton Self Portrait, No Date


Clifton Wheeler was born in Hadley, in Hendricks County, Indiana. When he was in the fourth grade, his family bought a flourmill at Mooresville and moved there. In a 1945 letter to the Art Museum of Greater Lafayette, he wrote, “One of my first new friends introduced me to James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales, and we built wigwams, tracked each other through the woods along the creek and had a few camping and hiking trips into the hills in southern Morgan County. By this time I was scrawling very poor drawings all over the flyleaves of my schoolbooks instead of studying. I got good grades in English, Civil Government and History, poor grades in Mathematics, until I reached solid Geometry when they went up, and awful grades in Latin, in which I flunked one year. . . . When I finished high school I was reluctantly allowed to come to Indianapolis to Wm. Forsyth’s studio for a year. Forsyth and my doctor aunt, who lived in New York, assured my parents that I would not necessarily be a tramp if I studied art and at last they sadly agreed that I might go to New York for a year to art school.”

Wheeler had studied under Forsyth at the Herron Art Institute. He then studied with William Merritt Chase in New York City and went to Europe twice to study. Around 1911 he returned to Indiana with his wife, and they built a home and studio in Irvington, an eastside Indianapolis neighborhood where Forsyth and other artists also lived. He became an instructor at the Herron Art Institute, in charge of the antique class.

Wheeler had no special technique or subject, but his decorative work was well known, and he had murals all over the country. His murals at the Indianapolis Circle Theatre and City Hospital (now Wishard) are among his best work. His landscape paintings—especially his snow scenes—are held in high regard.

  • Self Portrait, n.d.
  • 16 1/8″ x 20 1/16″
  • Indianapolis Museum of Art
  • Keywords: paintings, portraits, oil on masonite
  • Subjects: outdoors, people, men, hats, eyeglasses, trees, cabins, Brown County Art Colony

When looking at this painting you get an honest feeling for the artist’s love of the outdoors, especially in his clothing and peaceful expression. Great detail is given to the face, with the background and clothing less detailed, yet the clothes have an outdoor appearance. The background is light in color and appearance, which is very different from the dark backgrounds in the majority of the earlier portraits. Note that he has not painted himself as an artist with visible tools of the trade.

Some Points To Consider

  • Help students find meaning in the candid pose the artist has chosen to paint. Ask them what they think he is trying to convey, if not his profession. What does the pose tell them about the subject? (Art 4.3.2)
  • Ask students why most artists use themselves as models. Is it because they can’t afford to pay someone to pose, because they know their own faces well, because they are trying to learn more about themselves, or because they need to practice painting and problem solving? (Art 4.1.2)

Suggested Activities for Classroom Follow-Up

  • Have students write a biography about the man in this image. Where does he live, what is his home like, and what activities does he participate in? What kind of man do they think he is?