State museum uncovers hidden Steele painting

The Indiana State Museum has just discovered a painting by famous Hoosier artist T.C. Steele that, oddly, has been in its possession for more than 65 years, museum officials announced Wednesday.

The unusual find occurred when the museum, which boasts the largest collection of Steele paintings in the country, shipped one of the late Indiana artist’s works to suburban Chicago to be cleaned by an art conservator.

After taking the canvas painting, titled “The Old Garden,” off its frame to be restretched, conservator Barry Bauman found, to his amazement, another painting directly beneath it.

“It was like a King Tut discovery, for me,” he said. “I’ve been conserving paintings for 40 years, and it’s never happened to me. I’ve never heard of it happening to any other conservator. That’s how unique this is.”

Museum officials unveiled the painting privately to major donors on Monday evening before taking it to Steele’s former home and studio in bucolic Brown County south of Indianapolis for a public showing Wednesday afternoon.

Steele, who died in 1926 at the age of 78, was an American Impressionist painter known for his Indiana landscapes. He is considered the most important of a cluster of Indiana artists known as The Hoosier Group.

His second wife, Selma Neubacher Steele, donated more than 300 of Steele’s works to the state of Indiana shortly before her death in 1945.

The painting is dated 1890 and is a landscape piece, depicting a couple of buildings and a clock tower. A small, female figure wearing a red bonnet could be Steele’s daughter, Daisy, who was featured in a few of Steele's paintings, said Kathi Moore, the museum’s communications director.

The museum is trying to determine the location of the painting.

“No one has been able to identify those buildings,” Moore said, “so it’s kind of a mystery.”

Curt Churchman, a collector of Indiana art who operates Fine Estate Art & Rugs in Broad Ripple, said an 18-inch-by-24-inch painting by Steele from that time would probably bring $50,000 to $100,000 if it were sold on the open market.

“It’s a good period for Steele," said Churchman, who sold a Steele painting last year for $75,000. “He was at the top of his form.”

Steele had returned from Munich in 1885, five years before finishing the newly discovered painting, and was working in Indianapolis between sojourns to Indiana communities such as Brookville, Metamora, Spencer and Vernon.

What’s more unusual about the painting, however, is that it’s dated three years later (1890) than the one (1887) that was covering it.
“Initially you think, this is impossible—why would an artist cover one of his paintings?” Bauman said. “He may have put two paintings on one stretcher to conserve them. You just don’t know.”

Bauman, a former associate conservator for the Art Institute of Chicago, has been restoring paintings without charge the past nine years and has finished 60 for the state museum.

The Steele painting has not been known to exist at least for the past 86 years. His widow authenticated his paintings after his death and unknowingly authenticated the back of the “new” painting, identifying it as “The Old Garden” stretched over the top.

Experts say it’s doubtful she knew there were two canvasses on the stretcher.

“I was just completely taken aback when I saw what I had discovered,” Bauman said. “For the museum to have another acquisition like this is just incredible.”

The museum has yet to name the painting.

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