T.C. Steele painting was hidden in plain sight 

click to enlarge An untitled 1890 painting by T.C. Steele was found beneath another canvas this April.
  • An untitled 1890 painting by T.C. Steele was found beneath another canvas this April.

The field of visual arts is often fertile ground for mysteries - and the Indiana State Museum has solved a huge "who-dunnit" with the discovery of a previously concealed painting by Hoosier icon T.C. Steele.

"I was stunned; I was thrilled; I couldn't wait to share with my colleagues; I couldn't wait to see the painting myself," recalled Meredith McGovern, ISM Arts and Culture Collections manager, as we visited at the T.C. Steele State Historic Site in Nashville, prior to the formal unveiling of a painting heretofore "hidden in plain sight" beneath another painting.

So expertly had "An Old Garden," signed and dated 1887 visible been stretched over the other painting - presumably by the artist himself - that no one suspected there was anything beneath it. This quietly engaging mother and child scene, bequeathed to the ISM in 1945 by the artist's widow, Selma Steele, had become yellowed and cracked. So last October it was sent to conservator Barry Bauman in River Forest, Ill., for cleaning and restoration.

"Several times a year we send paintings to Chicago for conservation," said McGovern, "so we weren't expecting a spectacular surprise when Barry Bauman called in April and said, 'Do I have a story for you. I found something else when peeling away an "An Old Garden" from the stretcher.'"

Concealed since at least 1926, the "mystery" painting bore T.C. Steele's customary signature and was dated 1890. This immediately raised questions. Why was an older painting stretched over a more recently completed work? When since 1890 was this overstretching done? Why were the two left that way?

McGovern set out to identify the untitled painting, looking in the logical places - 1890 correspondence, daily logs, the published 1890 portfolio. Finding nothing, she went further afield, searching the succeeding years without luck.

The 28 ½ " x 18 ¼" painting has a vibrant pastoral foreground and an architecturally engaging distant background. The focal point is a woman clad in a long black coat and a bright red bonnet who appears to be walking past a gracefully arched tree limb toward a building some distance away.

click to enlarge Steele's 1887 "An Old Garden" has been part of the Indiana State Museum's collection since 1947.
  • Steele's 1887 "An Old Garden" has been part of the Indiana State Museum's collection since 1947.

Side-by-side, the 'mystery' painting has an ethereal feel in contrast with "An Old Garden," with its solid rocks and foliage, identified as depicting Steele's first wife, Mary, resting as she observes their son at play.

The 'mystery' work defies immediate identification for setting and intent. The Italianate tower bathed in the haze of a seeming afternoon sun isn't recognizable as an Indiana-based location. Nor is it certain what the function is of the buildings at the end of the meadow. Is one a mill? Or did Steele depict a flight of wooden steps to a second story?

The people who attended the unveiling on May 23 hovered and clustered around the 'new' painting conjecturing, as would have Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. McGovern's hope is that as the story of the painting spreads someone will come along with information to clear up the mystery. For now, she points out, "This historic work broadens the museum's collection of Steele after the artist returned from Munich in 1885 but before he settled in Brookville in 1898."

Until November the two paintings are on view at the T.C. Steele Historic Site. Andrea de Tarnowsky, site manager, demurred to second-guessing how alluring the find will be to the art world. "We will welcome people if they come. That's the delight of art, you never know what will come up."

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