Biography of a Portrait

Portrait of Margaret – 1921

We all have them—keepsakes or heirlooms that grow in significance for us with each passing year.  Maybe it’s as simple as a rabbit’s foot your Dad always carried when you were young.  Or perhaps it’s the precious set of china given to your great-grandmother at the time of her wedding in 1885.  Whatever their value to others, such things become priceless for us.

One such heirloom in our family is a 12 by 14 inch oil portrait of my mother, Margaret Rapp Simmons, which was painted by southern Indiana artist Ada Shulz in 1921 when Margaret was just three years old.  This picture has been in our family ever since, and although it may now have value for art collectors, its worth in our family cannot be calculated.  This is its story.

Ada Shulz first began coming to Brown County, Indiana, during the summer of 1908.  She came with her husband, Adolph, to paint scenes and people and to experience the simple, natural lifestyle that existed there then.  That same summer of 1908, Christine Lebline lived with her family on a farm in nearby Jackson County. She had just finished her sophomore year at Indiana University from which she subsequently graduated in 1910.  She then began teaching German at the high school in her hometown of Seymour, the same school from which she had graduated as valedictorian in 1906.

Christine Lebline in 1906 at the time she entered Indiana University

During the summer following her first year of teaching, twenty-two year old Christine undertook an unaccompanied journey to Europe to study languages and experience its art and cultures.  In a journal she kept during that time, Christine described her trip as “an education.”  Towards the end of her travels abroad, she pondered in her writings what it would be like to return to the small town life she had known before experiencing her time in Europe.  She wrote: “…exceedingly restless after the accomplishment of the one thing I had dreamed for so many many years.”  She also spoke of feeling “…the great blank of something missing, of that big something looming ahead for me to do next, spurring me on and at the bottom of every action.”

The Brown County cabin (c1920)

Sometime in 1912, Christine began what was perhaps for her the next “big something.”  She accepted an invitation to join several other women teachers from Seymour in purchasing a small log cabin south of Nashville in Brown County.  The women called themselves the “Brown County Cabin Club” and they purposed to use their cabin for weekend retreats and summer vacations.    As good fortune would have it, their cabin was located just up the hill from early Brown County artists Will and Mary Vawter.  In short order, Christine had formed a friendship with the Vawters.   In a 1917 journal entry, Christine described one memorable social encounter with Will.  She wrote:

Everybody down here [in Brown County] is studying somebody else—I’m studying Mr. Vawter.  I find him very amusing…After supper we drew up to the fireplace and it’s funny what all we talked about.  He likes our cabin so well—its simple completeness seems always to start him off on his philosophy…Then he talked of icebergs and their forming and glaciers and the Alps…

Christine must have also been interesting to Will and Mary, and perhaps to others of the early artists, because she had a university education (which was not yet common for women) plus she had experienced such things as icebergs and glaciers and the Alps during her earlier trip to Europe.  Christine’s friendship with Will and Mary prospered and continued throughout the remainder of their lives.

Christine (right) speaks to other women of the Brown County Cabin Club – c1912

Perhaps it was through her association with the Vawters that Christine first became acquainted with Ada Shulz.  They possibly met and interacted whenever Christine made her regular visits to the Brown County cabin, and especially after Ada and Adolph moved permanently to Brown County in 1917.  In addition to their common affinity for Brown County, they also shared a strong interest in the Christian Science faith.  Although Christine had been reared Methodist, she had committed herself to Christian Science sometime around World War I.  It’s possible that Christine even attended some of the Christian Science meetings held at Ada’s home in Nashville during that time.

Christine had married John Rapp, a Jackson County farmer, in 1913.  She also eventually bought out the interests of the other members of the Cabin Club and became the sole owner of the cabin.  She would go there whenever her tasks on the home farm in Jackson County were slower and she could get away.  She sometimes stayed at the cabin for days on end and John would join her there on weekends.  During these times, Christine had a number of opportunities to socialize with the Vawters and probably with other early Brown County artists such as Ada Shulz.

In June 1918, Christine gave birth to her first child, Margaret.  Knowing Ada’s fondness for children who might serve as subjects for her paintings, it’s possible that Margaret’s presence in Brown County fostered Ada’s relationship with Christine even more.  Sometime, probably early in 1921, Christine asked Ada to do an oil portrait of her daughter—or perhaps it was Ada who expressed an interest in doing a portrait of Margaret.  However it came to be, the summer of 1921 was when three-year-old Margaret Rapp posed outdoors for Ada in the backyard of her house in Nashville.  Being so young then, Margaret does not remember actually sitting for the portrait, but she does recollect the shady arbor and small seats that were in the yard at the Shulz house then.  She recalls that they were just right for a small girl to play “pretend.”  She also has memories of Adolph Shulz, and especially his “glasses pitched upon his nose like a scholar.”

Photograph of three-year-old Margaret Rapp, her mother Christine and the newborn twins – early 1922

How long it took for Ada to complete the portrait of Margaret isn’t known, but that following January, Christine gave birth to twins (a boy and a girl) and her capability to travel to her Brown County cabin was greatly curtailed.  She did go to Nashville on occasion thereafter, but it’s unlikely that she saw Ada very often at that time.  Ada was going through her separation and divorce from Adolph then too.   Ironically, Christine also encountered difficulties in her marriage in the mid-1920s and divorced her husband in 1928.

The last contact Christine had with Ada Shulz was in early 1928 when she sent a letter inviting her to attend a lecture of some kind.  She received the following note in reply (dated May 7, 1928):

…I feel it my duty to tell you that she [Ada] passed away last Wednesday at 1 P.M. … Sally enjoyed knowing you & your family very much.  She will be missed very much for she made many friends & was always active in affairs about her.  I hope that everything is well with you all.

With Best Wishes,

Adolph R Shulz

Letter to Christine from Adolph Shulz (1928)

Ada’s portrait of Margaret was displayed atop a bookcase in the living room of Christine’s Jackson County home for many years.  She later gave the picture to Margaret and it still hangs in her home in New Jersey.

Rachel Berenson Perry[1] has written that Ada Shulz often chose to “idealize” her subjects and to project, especially in her portraits of children, “an endless happy childhood.”  Maybe that is part of why I am so attracted to this picture, which I have now titled “Portrait of Margaret.”  It represents my mother in an idealized time of her childhood before her mother and father’s divorce and the onset of later hardships during The Great Depression.  It was created in a time, and perhaps through a friendship, that was special but brief.  Most importantly for me, Ada Shulz’s portrait of Margaret as a child captures the same wide-eyed curiosity and vitality I’ve known in her as my mother all of my life.  It does represent for me an endless happy childhood.

Margaret Rapp Simmons – 2010

______________

This personal essay was written by Steve Robert Simmons in 2011.  It was published in the event brochure of the 2011 “Collector’s Showcase” at the Brown County Art Gallery in Nashville, Indiana.  All rights reserved.


[1] Rachel Berenson Perry.  2001.  Children from the Hills: The Life and Work of Ada Walter Shulz.  Artists Colony Inn & Press, Nashville, Indiana.

10 Responses to Biography of a Portrait

  1. Don Coon says:

    Another great one. I am fascinated by the research that you do to make these stories come to life. This one really makes me stop and think about what it is that I value from my past. Thanks for causing me to think.

  2. Maggie says:

    It is ironic that even before we became acquainted with you as Ernie’s long lost cousin, Margaret’s painting had found it’s way into my life. Peggy Rapp and I annually have a Children’s Doll Tea Party at the Hoosier Salon in New Harmony. We invite children to come to the Salon for a tea party and to bring their favorite doll or stuffed animal. Peggy usually tries to find a painting of a child with a doll to show the children. At one time she came across this same painting of Margaret done by Ada Schulz (I believe it was on the internet). Peggy and George have always been interested in the Brown County Artists and I believe they own other paintings by Ada Schulz. So it was a pleasant surprise when I read you essay and saw the same painting we had once used to show the children at our Tea Party.

    • steverobert says:

      In most of Ada Shulz’s portraits, the children are holding something–a doll, an animal, etc. My mother says that the doll in her picture was actually one she owned at the time so it may have been Ada’s way of keeping the children still while they posed for her. I may have sent Peggy a picture of my mother’s portrait as a jpg after we first connected back in ’09, which could explain how she would have had it. Until I put it up this week along with this essay, I don’t think it has ever been on the internet before. We’re hoping to have it shown at the Brown County Art Gallery “Showcase” in October, which would be it’s first “public appearance.” 🙂 Trust that all is well with you and Ernie.

  3. Mary Beth Schneider says:

    You bring Grandmother to life. I so enjoyed the story and research. Thank you for sharing this Mary Beth

    • steverobert says:

      Always good to get your response to my stories, Mary Beth, and especially the ones regarding our grandmother. It’s nice to know there’s someone out there who will keep me honest. 🙂

  4. Kami Polzin says:

    Steve, this is an incredibly inspiring story! What a great tribute to some amazingly strong willed woman! Thank you for sharing this.

    • steverobert says:

      Coming from you, Kami, this is such a wonderful affirmation. You, more than anyone, can resonate with Ada and her creative life through painting. Thank you!

  5. Lovely portrait of Margaret by Ada Shultz. I am a member of the brown county art guild, and Hoosier Salon. I lived in Indiana for several years before moving to Tucson AZ where I live now. I have an interest in the artists of Brown County. I am a portrait painter and came across this article. I actually bought several paintings (portraits) painted by the Indiana Brown County artists. Marie Goth in particular. I am a believer in heirloom portraits. It’s a gift for the generations. My website is http://www.russrecchion.com.

    • steverobert says:

      Thanks for your comment, Russell. I’m very familiar with the portraits by Marie Goth. In fact, my cousin (who lives in Tucson by the way) owns a Marie Goth portrait of his mother from the 1940s. Perhaps you and he should meet sometime and share notes. I’ll take a look at your website soon. 🙂

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s