Rembrandt Steele: Exploring local history through art and artists

Today I have been engaged in a little freeform research, the kind of thing that keeps me engaged with history even when I don’t have much in the way of professional opportunities to practice it. The real problem over the last year has obviously been the pandemic, and I am excited about opportunities that may be forthcoming to get back into the physical archive space as opposed to the very limited virtual one. Nonetheless, online is the place to start so that you don’t waste time at the repository. 

This morning I logged some web hours researching my old school, the John Herron School of Art and Design. There are a wide range of materials available, some of which are located in the Ruth Lilly Special Collections & Archives at IUPUI’s University Library (Herron joined in partnership with IU in the late 1960s and became part of IUPUI in 1969), with some other materials found at The Indiana Historical Society’s Glick Center, and still more being hinted of as being located in the Indianapolis Museum of Art Archives at Newfields. In addition to material about the school itself, of course, and its associated parent organization, there is a coterie of personalities associated with its hundred-plus year history, many of which have their own personal collections in the archives. 

The Tinker House, site of the original Heron School of Art

One of these personalities, who I have investigated at a bit in detail, was an artist, photographer, and amateur architect named Rembrandt T. Steele, son of well-known Indiana painter T. C. Steele. It turns out that when the Art Association of Indianapolis, which was organized in 1883, decided to form a school with the monies left to it by local businessman John Herron, they looked to the Steele family for inspiration. The organization purchased the artist’s former house and studio property, known as the Tinker-house, just northeast of the intersection of Pennsylvania and 16th streets, and transformed it into an art school. This was in 1902. 

They also made ‘Brandt’ Steele, one of the first faculty members of the new school to be opened in the former residence. A galley was to be opened as well, and the property was much renovated to accommodate it’s new functions. It probably didn’t hurt his career that Brandt’s father was the vice president of the Art Association.

The standard curriculum was to practice art intensively, “six hours daily, six days in a week.” Steele was assigned to teach design daily in a class listed as, “Modern ornament. The study of nature and its application to design.”

1902 Circular

A note on the back of the circular notes that “the annual membership fee to the art association is five dollars,” and that when “both parents are members” it entitles children to attend all lectures and receptions given by the Association.

Brandt Steele House In Woodruff Place Indianapolis

There were other items of interest about Steele the younger in the archives as well, along with his immediate family. Not only was Brandy a successful ceramicist, but he also designed his own home from scratch, one of the more distinctive properties in the city dating to the turn of the century, still standing on East Drive, in Woodruff place. Steele was an avid photographer, so there are large collections of his photographs in the archive. With none of them digitized, however, their contents only hinted at by the available finding aids.

In addition to Brandt’s drawings and papers, the archives also contain many writings and drawings attributed to his wife, Helen McKay Steele, including essays, letters, and most intriguing of all diaries. Helen was the daughter of a local newspaper magnate, and an accomplished writer, making her letters a pleasure to peruse.

Taken together the archival collection of the two personalities offers insightful and personal first hand views into Midwestern urban life during the Victorian Era. Early letters between them reference the Spanish-American War, and photos show that Brandt joined the Indiana Militia later, during the First World War. 

Page from letter of Hellen McKay Steele to Brandt, dated May 14 1898

6 P.M. Sunday —

Been over to corner of Meridian and 5th to see regiment go by. It was very quiet and solemn but I cant see anything with normal eyes while you are sick. I wanted to call and perhaps get a glimpse of you earlier but mamma thought better not — I do hope this messy note will not be delayed

Hellen McKay Steele to Brandt Steele: May 14, 1898.
Indiana Historical Society.

Hellen Elizabeth died in 1947, while Brandt died in 1965 at the generously old age of 95. Both are buried together in the famous local landmark, Crown Hill Cemetery. Together they lived through two world wars, a pandemic, and a great depression, while Brandt survived his wife well into the Cold War. I am looking forward to looking deeper into their joint histories, as well as those of the Art School and Association, with a view to recreating some of the elements of upper class life in downtown Indianapolis during the turn of the last century. Wish me luck!

2 thoughts on “Rembrandt Steele: Exploring local history through art and artists

    1. Satya,

      Thank you so much. It is great to hear from people, finally. I have had some sort of blog forever, but never was able to promote it in anyway until recently. Twitter is the way to go I guess. Anyway, thanks for the comment, it means a lot really. I’ll be looking forward to seeing your own blog posts as well!

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