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William Forsyth: A Hoosier 'artist's artist'

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William J. Forsyth: The Life and Work of an Indiana Artist - By Rachel Berenson Perry - Indiana University Press, February 2014
  • William J. Forsyth: The Life and Work of an Indiana Artist
    By Rachel Berenson Perry
    Indiana University Press, February 2014

Rachel Berenson Perry's sunny personality shines through in her richly illustrated and effectively balanced book on William J. Forsyth (1854-1935). The biography finally brings Forsyth the notice he deserves as an artist, teacher and advocate of other artists.

We truly come to know Forsyth as a person who never wavered from an early passion for making art and who persevered in getting the training he believed he needed to gain recognition.

Forsyth was part of the renowned "Hoosier Group" of Indiana artists along with J. Otis Adams, Otto Stark, Richard Gruelle and T.C. Steele, who over-shadowed them all then as now. It was a group striving, as Perry puts it, "to establish a distinctly American school of painting." An historical marker denotes Forsyth's Irvington home at 15 S. Emerson Ave.

NUVO: What especially drew you to share Forsyth's story?

Rachel Berenson Perry: I always admired Forsyth's willingness to be experimental with his paintings. He roared against modern art, yet several of his prizewinning pieces ("The Red City," "The Last Gleam," and "Moonrise and Twilight") expressed a personal vision rather than depicting an identifiable place, aligning them with modern sensibilities. Forsyth's fiery personality, documented by his ample collection of well-written letters housed at the Indiana Historical Society, provides an interesting take on the early 1900s art scene in Indiana.

NUVO: What surprised you as you researched and pondered the writing?

Perry: There were a lot of contradictions in Forsyth's life and character, and he wasn't afraid to express his views. When I first started reading his letters, I found them to be arrogant and off-putting. But he was fully aware of his own shortcomings and, like all of us, went through periods of self-doubt and remorse. He was ambitious and competitive with other artists (especially T. C. Steele), severe with his students, and judgmental of his acquaintances. But his loyalty and warmth for his family and close friends was exemplary. By the end of the project, I really liked the guy.

NUVO: What especially do you want to happen as a result of your book?

Perry: William J. Forsyth has never gotten the recognition he deserves as a ground-breaking visual artist in his own time and as a champion of Indiana art in his writing, lectures and teaching of the next generation of artists. I'm hoping that renewed attention to his life and work may change that.

NUVO: Where should we go to view Forsyth on exhibit?

Perry: An exhibition of Forsyth's work will take place at the Indiana State Museum from Nov. 8, 2014 to March 29, 2015. Adding to most of the images from the book will be important paintings discovered post-publication. The variety and versatility of the work will speak for itself.

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