Family Stories

William Forsyth – Early Indianapolis Artist

Buried in Crown Hill Cemetery in Indianapolis, Indiana, is William Forsyth, a nationally recognized painter and teacher.  William was born October 15, 1854, in Hamilton County, Ohio.  His parents were Elijah and Mary (Hackett) Forsyth.  They brought their family to Indianapolis before the 1880 census was taken.  Elijah Forsyth was a house painter, his son Elijah following in his footsteps.  But William took painting to another degree.  At the age of 25 in 1880, he was listed in the census as a Landscape Artist.  He was so listed until 1920 when his occupation was art school instructor.  Of course, he continued painting until shortly before he died.

October 14, 1897, William Forsyth and Alice Atkinson were married in Louisville, Jefferson County, Kentucky, by M. L. Woolsey.  Mrs. James P. Kintner, Joseph Perry and Herman Reinacke were witnesses.  Alice was born in Benton County, Indiana, not sure why they married in Kentucky.

In the 1900 census William, new wife Alice, and one-year-old daughter Dorothy, are living with his mother, his father having passed away five years earlier.  William’s siblings – Elijah, 41; Elizabeth, 30; and Alice, 35, also live in the household.  By 1910 William, Alice and their three children – Constance and Evelyn arriving in 1903 and 1906 – live at 15 Emerson Avenue, where they will continue to live until his death.

In 1931 William Forsyth took a trip to Europe – to paint?  He is listed on the manifest of the steamer Hamburg which sailed from the port of Southampton, England, September 25, 1931, and arrived in New York, October 2, 1931.  He was listed as 74 years and 11 months, born October 15, 1854, in Hamilton County, Ohio, lived at Emerson Avenue, Indianapolis, Indiana.

It seems that William was loved by everyone – his students, admirers of his work, neighbors and friends.  He died March 29, 1935.

The Indianapolis Star, Indianapolis, Marion County, Indiana

Sunday, March 31, 1935

Career Monument to William Forsyth

William Forsyth is dead.  It is with a heart full of grief, and shocked beyond measure, that I turn to my duty as a writer about Indiana art and try to put into words, halting and inadequate thought they may be, something that will bring to readers of The Star the sad news of the passing of the doughty and redoubtable little Scotch-American Hoosier – Scotch by descent, American by birth, Hoosier by adoption – who painted pictures for us through many years and trained hundreds of our artists in both the youngest group, the oldest contemporary group, and all the way in between.

How far William Forsyth might have gone, what success might have achieved, what honors he might have won for himself in the field of American art if he had not given his entire life to the training of Indiana artists, can only be conjectured.

Work as Teacher

The finest wreath of laurels should have been placed on his brow for his self-sacrificing work as teacher.  An almost equal tribute is this due for his staunch support of high principles in the profession to which he belonged.  He fought for this both in word and deed, as well as with his brush.

He had no use for the charlatan and pretender.  For such his rebukes were scathing and merciless.  But for the sincere and earnest worker, he was ever a helpful friend and counselor.  It has been my privilege to observe this, time and again.  May I point to one instance.

Several years ago Mr. Forsyth was invited to give a talk on art at the colored branch of the Y.M.C.A. at which a reception and tea were to follow the address.  I was in the audience.  And never have I known him – in the many times I have heard him speak – take pains to give forth the best that was in him on the subject of art.  He did this in a sympathetic and beautiful way.  And, after the lecture was ended, he mingled with the people and drank tea with them.  Lecturer-Artist and audience, both one in sincerity.

Adored by His Students

Young students in his classes adored him.  But, with their training completed and their own studios opened, they sometimes forgot to pay deserved tribute to their teacher.  To such as showed a wish to keep in touch and have occasional criticisms, Mr. Forsyth would go far out of his way to visit an artist’s studio and talk over the work with him.  For many years he continued to do this in the case of a striving young artist of small means.

It must have been his keen sense of humor that kept him from telling his age.  He knew that we would never believe he was 80 years old.  I fancy that he chuckled to himself when he left a sealed letter, giving his birth date, to be opened after his death.  I can hear him laugh, as he imagined the looks of surprise, even of consternation on the faces of those who knew him, when they were told that he had entered his eighty-first year.

Young-Hearted at 80

Eighty years old.  Eighty years young!  Dear Mr. Forsyth with his keen wit and lively sense of humor; mentally alert and fit as a fiddle with the best of intellectuals; all ready to go, when a subject was at the point of becoming controversial, and always on top when the controversy ended; young-hearted as the youngest student that ever enrolled in his classes; quick of movement as the squirrels that leaped from bough to bough in the forest trees at his home in Irvington.

All who knew him would have vouched that he was the youngest member of the original “Original Hoosier Group” – T. C. Steele, J. Ottis Adams, Otto Stark, Richard B. Gruelle, all of whom he outlived by several years.  It was my impression that the deaths of Steele, Adams and Stark, coming so near together, brought a subtle undercurrent of sorrow and depression to Mr. Forsyth that was locked away within his innermost self.  It may have hastened his own death by ever so little.

It must be a source of consolation to the members of the artist’s family and to his legion of friends and former students that Mr. Forsyth was able to revisit his student-day haunts in Munich – doubtless a source of greater delight and enjoyment to him than anything else the world could have offered – and also to visit the ancestral home in Scotland.

Trip to Europe

The European trip, a few years ago, was the last of three or four pleasure excursions that brought refreshment to the artist late in his career.  He had always prided himself on being able to find enough motives for landscapes right here in Indiana, and he just a little resented the thought that other members of the early landscape group made such frequent trips to Michigan and Florida.

But there came a time when he felt he would like to try his water color brush along the Atlantic coast.  And a summer vacation, several years ago, brought such a painting excursion.  The H. Lieber Company held an exhibition of these water colors soon after Mr. Forsyth’s return.  A few sticklers for photographic precision said that his boats were not constructed as a ship builder would make them.  But who gave a fig for that!  Forsyth got the spirit of the sea.  And that was what he was after – not the detailed structure of a bit of wood and steel that floats on the surface of the sea.

Second Painting Trip

There was a second painting trip to the Atlantic coast.  And the next vacation brought a visit to the Pacific coast country.  The Western trip was not intended as a painting excursion, Mr. Forsyth told me on his return, but was in the nature of an outing and to see the country.  While there may have been no downright work at landscape sketching, yet, I dare say, many motives sifted through the artist’s imagination to be used in later compositions.  If you keep this in mind when looking at Forsyth’s most recent work in tempera, you will doubtless feel, as I do, that the Western mountain country had much to do with its inspiration.

While Mr. Forsyth worked with real flowers when he spaded his garden, he did not paint them realistically.  He idealized his flower subjects when he worked with his brush.  He put more romance into a big bouquet of gladiolus than half the writers do into their fiction.  He worked gloriously in color and spontaneously in constructing form when he painted flowers.  He took great pride in having flowers in his garden “from frost to frost.”  He also took an equal pride in a fine sycamore tree that stands prominently near the Washington Street front of the home grounds.  “I salute it every morning,” he used to say.

Pride in Hedge Fence

Before East Washington Street was widened, several years ago, the hedge-row along the front sidewalk at Mr. Forsyth’s home was one of the finest in Irvington.  The artist might frequently be seen snipping the pruning shears over its broad surfaces.  The hedge was ruined because of that “progress” which brings about street changes.  The little point of immaculate lawn was untouched and the tangle of wild-wood still farther in, didn’t give a hoot for progress.

The Irvington public school is the richer because Mr. Forsyth lived in the suburb.  A beautiful painting came as a gift to the school each time a daughter completed the eighth grade.  And there are three daughters.  I am not so sure but there were several other pictures thrown in for good measure.  That each one of the daughters is a graduate of Butler University, should be made note of, as evidence of the artist’s interest in supporting local institutions, as well as carrying out his belief that a good education is one of the best foundations upon which to build.

Artist and Speaker

William Forsyth was one of the few artists who can talk as well as they can paint.  For many years he gave gallery talks at the Herron Art Institute whenever an important exhibition was to be discussed.  Sometimes they were pretty peppery.  And those who looked forward to them were never disappointed.  It was always the way in which he said things, as well as what he said, that riveted the attention of gallery visitors.

If he had lived to be 100 years old, I feel certain that he could still make that characteristic quick little turn on his heel that seemed to place added emphasis upon something that had just been said.  And you will certainly never forget the Forsythian intonation and implied disgust when he gave vent to an old-fashioned exclamation, “It can go to pot!”  Then his infectious laugh – it is one of my last and dearest memories of Indiana’s beloved Forsyth – when his face broke into wrinkles and crinkles by the dozen and the score, each meaning a separate ray of sunshine.

Over one of my bookcases, between two sunny west windows, hangs an imaginative landscape.  It has hung there for many years – since the close of a retrospective exhibition that filled the large east gallery of the Herron Institute with many pictures from different periods of William Forsyth’s career (last fall a similar display as held, but the one of which I speak was many years before the recent one).

The rough land of an uncultivated valley extends from the foreground around to the left of the picture-space and loses itself in a line of low bushes in the distance.  At the right is a hill slope.  And, half way up its rounding surface, is a dark tree mass, outlined against a luminous sky.  Two or three plume-like trees are directly opposite on the low ground.

Drawing in Charcoal

A good-sized drawing in charcoal, the picture is full of the suggestion of color.  It would seem that the artist must have felt color so strongly that he could not keep from putting an occasional touch of green and orange on the valley fields, whose knolls and depressions are forcefully sketched with the black charcoal.

Because it is an imaginative composition, it makes unusual appeal to my own imagination.  If I were to have told Mr. Forsyth that, in the tree masses, there is suggested, in very clear outlines, the faces of each artist whose portrait appears in the “Big Four” group by Wayman Adams – Steele, J. Otis Adams, Stark and Forsyth – it is likely that his face would have broken into the crinkly smile and he would have disavowed any attempt at suggesting imaginary portraits when he painted an imaginary landscape whose motive had been suggested by rough fields in Morgan County.

I had almost forgotten to tell you that the picture was a gift from the artist.  From my review of his retrospective exhibition, in The Star, he knew that I admired this picture.  I was alone in the gallery.  On my way I had passed Mr. Forsyth and T. C. Steele, who were conversing in the corridor.  Soon Mr. Forsyth entered in a flash, and, in staccato-like words said: “As soon as the exhibition is over and the pictures are down, that one is yours” – placing emphasis on the word “that,” and pointing to the imaginative landscape – then he rushed out the gallery door as rapidly as he had entered.

Only the other day I said to myself, “It has been a long time since I let Mr. Forsyth know how much pleasure his picture brings me.  I must tell him again.”  And now – now – “he is not dead; he is just away.”

Pall Bearers Named

Pallbearers for William Forsyth, 80 years old, leader in the older group of Indiana artists, who died Friday in his home, 15 South Emerson Avenue, were announced yesterday, they are Robert Daggett, Clifton Wheeler, Carl Graff, Walter Montgomery, Donald Trone, David Konold, Kurt Vonnegut and Howard Foltz.

Funeral services will be held in the home at 2:30 o’clock tomorrow afternoon, conducted by Dr. Lewis Brown, rector emeritus, and the Rev. William Burrows, rector, of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church.  Burial will be in Crown Hill Cemetery.

William Forsyth, 1854-1935.  Crown Hill Cemetery, Indianapolis, Marion County, Indiana.

As Alice was almost twenty years younger than her husband it was to be expected that she would outlive him.  She did by almost thirty years.  Alice Atkinson Forsyth lived to be 91 years, passing away June 8, 1963.  She was buried beside him in Crown Hill.  Alice was a member of the Irvington Tuesday Club, Portfolio Club, Irvington Dramatic Club, Coterie Club, St. Paul’s Episcopal Church and its women’s auxiliary.  She kept busy.

Of the three daughters of William and Alice, it was Constance that truly followed in her father’s footsteps.  She was exhibiting her art in Indianapolis before she moved to Austin, Texas.  There she was a member of the University of Texas faculty in the art department.  Beginning her position there in 1940, she worked until retirement in 1973.  She was a watercolorist and lithographer and had been included in traveling exhibits in several countries.  Constance died in 1987.

Dorothy Forsyth taught English in Indianapolis until her death in December 1965.  She loved to travel and took summers throughout the United States and in Europe.  She got her love of gardening from her father.

Evelyn Forsyth studied art, and married Robert H. Selby, an artist.  They lived in New Jersey until moving to Austin to be with sister Constance.  The Selby’s had one daughter, Susan Forsyth Selby Sklar, who had two children.  Evelyn died in 1996 and Robert died a year later.

William Forsyth’s parents, wife and two unmarried daughters are buried beside him.

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