Historical Highlight: One of Our Founding Fathers, William Forsyth

Suzanne Slick, Collection Information Specialist

He was small and wiry. There was none of the languor about him which one naturally associates with the idealistic dreamer. Instead, he was full of nervous energy that bespoke action, constant action. His eyes sparkled as he talked, and he wasted no words in poetic phrases. He was practical and answered questions with a conciseness and directness which always bring joy to the heart of an interviewer.

Paul R. Martin, William Forsyth, Indiana’s Artist – His Triumph in Fight for Fame, Star Magazine, May, 1914
Forsyth at work. Notice the pipe in his mouth? He almost always painted himself with one! Image courtesy of the Indiana Historical Society.

Long before J. Ottis Adams, William Forsyth, Otto Stark, T. C. Steele, and Richard Gruelle were dubbed the Hoosier Group, they were a band of unknown but earnest young artists strapped for cash and eager for any opportunity to replenish the funds they had spent on years of rigorous art training in Germany.  Teaching was one option for gainful employment. Adams, back home in Muncie in 1887, intended to launch an art school there, but he jumped at the chance to earn a little cash teaching in Fort Wayne a couple of days a week. It didn’t hurt that his patron, Mrs. Clara Bell, had a fetching niece, Miss Winifred Brady, the future Mrs. Adams, who was also a serious art student. Adams’ time teaching in Fort Wayne was brief, but fortunately for his students, he recruited his friend, William Forsyth, to step in because Adams’ aspirations bound him to Muncie.  Forsyth was still in Germany, but living “on the ragged edge” financially when his friend proposed the idea.

A bit of business, are you coming home in the Autumn and if so would you teach? I had a class here that is paying me a hundred dollars a month, above expenses, which I may give up next winter, if I find prospects good when I go to Florida. I have spoken of you to my pupils, in case I leave and I am sure they would guarantee you at least ten pupils at ten dollars a month for the winter, perhaps more . . . This is a place of about forty thousand, quite a little city.

–From a letter written by John Ottis Adams in Fort Wayne to William Forsyth in Munich, 1888, courtesy of the Indiana Historical Society’s William Henry Smith Memorial Library

This Fort Wayne teaching job would not only tide Forsyth over, but would prove the beginning of a lifetime as an art instructor. William Forsyth’s time in Fort Wayne is often mentioned as little more than a footnote in Indiana art history, but his contributions warrant more than a brief nod.  He would continue the commute to Fort Wayne into the mid-1890s, creating a firm teaching foundation that would endure as the Fort Wayne Art School. 

‘Mr. William Forsyth has been busy teaching in the Art School (Indianapolis) four days of every week and in instructing pupils at Fort Wayne the other two days of the week. Spare time has been devoted to portrait painting.

Among the Studios : A Resume of the Winter Work of the Indianapolis Painters, Indianapolis Journal, March 11, 1894

Both gruff and supportive, and, apparently, something of a tyrant as a teacher (a trait he may have learned from his strict Munich instructors), he was much admired by his students.  He maintained relationships with many of his students and corresponded with them long afterward, continuing to offer critiques and friendly advice.

William Forsyth, American, 1854-1935. White River Valley. Watercolor on paper, 1934. Image courtesy of the U.S. General Services Administration, Public Buildings Services, Washington, D.C.

His own body of work was praised and highly rated for his use of bold color and independent sensibilities. In his day he was awarded several prizes and earned accolades and positive reviews for his portraits and scenes of Indiana in oil and watercolor.

‘There is no higher emotion, unless it is religion, than the effect of color upon the human soul.’

– William Forsyth, 1896
William Forsyth, American, 1854-1935. Outdoor Market. Oil on board.

Forsyth was a scrappy, some say pugnacious fellow, short in stature, in steel-rimmed spectacles, constantly puffing on a cigarette or pipe. He was known for his sarcastic wit, scathing critiques, straight talk, loyalty, and energy. From the time he returned from Germany until just two years before his death he taught. As Indiana art schools came and went, Forsyth guided the students of the Fort Wayne School of Art, the Muncie Art School, the Indiana School of Art (Indianapolis), and the John Herron Institute of Art. Forsyth spent long hours traveling “Hoosierdom” by train to reach all of his students.

He painted landscapes when time allowed, painted portraits on commission, was actively involved in several clubs and theatre groups, delivered lectures, wrote articles, gave gallery talks, and took care of his expansive flower garden (where he had blooms from frost-to-frost) while also reading and studying voraciously.  He and his wife, Alice, raised three daughters in their rambling home in Irvington, once a small village on the outskirts of Indianapolis.  In the summers, he painted in southern Indiana around Corydon and on the Ohio River or conducted intensive outdoor painting courses at Winona Lake, Indiana and around the village of Irvington.

Forsyth with Students at Winona Lake. Image courtesy of the Indiana Historical Society.

He was a Herron faculty member for 27 years and died just two years after he was forced to retire. Forsyth and several other faculty members were “let go” in 1933 under the direction of the new dean, 27-year-old Donald Mattison.  Students, angry about Mattison’s draconian measures, hung him in effigy on the campus grounds. One of Forsyth’s younger colleagues, Forrest Stark, taught sculpture at Herron and captured the old professor in cast bronze near the end of his life. And as the continuum of Indiana art teaching goes, Forrest Stark joined the faculty of the Fort Wayne Art School & Museum in 1937, retiring in 1974.

The papers and many images of William Forsyth and his fellow Hoosier painters are held by the Indiana Historical Society, 450 West Ohio Street in the Canal and White River State Park Cultural District in downtown Indianapolis.

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