T .C. Steele was a man of mystery.
In 2012, an art conservator working to restore Steele's "An Old Garden" was surprised to find another painting underneath that work. At the time, no one knew why Steele had covered up the piece. In fact, we'll never really know the truth.
So when interpreters at the T.C. Steele State Historic Site in Brown County were unpacking artwork received from the Indiana State Museum, they were surprised to find "Cluster of Buildings in Redlands, California" had a rectangular hole in the backing to show there was a painting behind it.
"It is a pleasure and a surprise. And you do hear about these things, but this is the first painting I have seen that has another painting hidden behind it. It's a two-painting deal," said Cate Whetzel, historic site program developer.
Because of the hole in the backing, it is obvious that when the state took possession of the painting — likely as part of 350 pictures obtained through a deed of gift from Selma Steele, T.C. Steele's second wife — the hidden item was found. But not much more is known.
First, the painting is neither finished nor dated. It also isn't signed. The paint doesn't quite go to the edge of the canvas. Without a date, it's hard to know which painting came first in this two-part deal. But the mystery remains. Is there a reason that Steele kept it? Did he intend to finish it? Was he planning to paint over it?
"I wonder sometimes, too, because he's painting for a living, and the paintings paid for the land, the buildings, took care of the family. And the landscapes themselves, they caught on to the public imagination, but as a beginning painter and even I think into his middle years, it was the portraits that everybody wanted and everybody was willing to pay top dollar for. The landscapes became his reputation, but that's not how he started. So as to why he wouldn't just ball it up and toss it out — maybe he thought he'd paint over it. It's a canvas, after all," Whetzel said.
She pointed to Steele's brushes and paint tubes as examples of how the artist used things without being wasteful. Checking out his brushes, visitors will see they are quite worn and the tubes of paint have obviously been squeezed to extract as much as possible.
"This was not a man who was wasting, and he grew up on the frontier. This was not a culture of waste," Whetzel said.
Also, at the time of the "Cluster of Buildings in Redlands, California," which was done in 1903, Steele was traveling in California, where art supplies wouldn't have been readily available for purchase.
"It might have been hard for him to find canvases or paints or brushes," Whetzel said.
Steele was most likely traveling light and not able to carry extra supplies.
"I look at this, and I don't see an art supply store," Whetzel said.
"Cluster of Buildings in Redlands, California" is just one of many paintings that have recently been hung at the Steele site. Paintings annually are rotated out from the large studio and the house. One of the paintings that is back in Brown County is Steele's famous "Selma in the Garden." Whetzel explained that paintings are rotated so that they can return to the state museum to "rest."
"Oil paintings are kind of like human bodies. They require rest. They require darkness, cool temperatures," Whetzel said.
Despite the controlled climate the paintings are kept in, damage still is a concern.
"That's what we're trying to do, I think, with the resting, is that they tend to do better, they tend to be more stable and live longer when they have breaks from being on public display," Whetzel said.
Also, the state has a large collection of Steele paintings. Rotating them allows for more pieces to be shown to the public.
When the site's interpreters were unpacking the latest rotated collection, Rebecca Timmons decided to take a photo of the hidden painting and post it to Facebook, thinking that the public would like to see it since it can't be displayed. While the undiscovered Steele from four years ago was given its own frame, it's unlikely that will happen with this painting, which Timmons described as being on the same stretcher as the Redlands painting.
Whetzel said there may be interest in a show that focuses on hidden paintings or backs of paintings, but she wouldn't know if separating the paintings could be done without damaging one or both.
"I don't know if the risk would be worth the interest or the novelty," she said.
And while the public may find it unusual that this is the second time a "hidden" painting has been discovered, Whetzel said the first instance from 2012 was truly strange, as the hidden painting was younger than the one on top of the stretcher. Most people would think the older painting would have been done first and when the painter decided to do something new or better, the old one would have been covered up.
"Why would a new painting be tucked behind an old painting? That suggests secrecy and mystery. I think when that happened, nobody really knew what was going on," Whetzel said.