Let’s say it was 1956. I don’t recall the year for sure, but it might have been then. What I do remember was that it was just my Grandmother Christine and me. She’d been visiting my family at our home in Terre Haute, Indiana. For some reason it had been decided that I would ride back to her farm in southern Indiana with her. My mother and brother would follow a few days later and bring me back home. I was nine years old and adored my grandmother; I enthusiastically welcomed any opportunity I had to share her company.
I don’t remember much about our trip that day—except for the part when we passed through Brown County. My grandmother and Brown County were synonymous for me then; I seldom went there without her. Her own connection with that scenic area of the state extended back to the early 1900s. She made visits to Brown County and to its principal town Nashville while she was still an Indiana University student in nearby Bloomington. During that time several of the best-known Brown County artists were beginning to settle there. Her interest in art was surely heightened by such excursions, as well as by her ambitious journey to Europe during the summer of 1911. This latter venture gave her opportunity to experience some of the continent’s most famous art museums and masterpieces first-hand.
Later as a young woman living in her hometown of Seymour, Indiana, she became involved with the Seymour Art League. She helped guide acquisition of several notable Brown County artworks for the League’s art gallery in the local library. She also helped organize special art exhibits and other programs.
Upon graduating from the university in 1910, Christine acquired her initial teaching position at Seymour High School. She joined several other teachers at the school in purchasing a rustic log cabin near Nashville to use for their holidays. Within a few years she came to eventually own the cabin outright. She soon became acquainted with several of the early Brown County artists including Will and Mary Vawter, Ada and Adolph Shulz, Gustave Baumann, L. O. Griffith, Marie Goth and V. J. Cariani. Some of these artists had spent time in Europe and they offered Christine a valued connection to the broader artistic world. Through the years she also obtained original works by each of these artists—all except for Cariani. Accounts of her acquisition of three of these artworks have been told in my previous essays titled Your Sincere Friend, Still Life and Biography of a Portrait.
My grandmother drove a large black Buick during the 1950s—bench seats, no seat belts. She was short in stature and sat on a couple of cushions to enable her to see over the dashboard as she was driving. During our trip from Terre Haute to Brown County that day, I sat right beside her in the front seat. It was an exciting journey for me because my grandmother liked to drive fast and the highway was more winding then. Yet I knew that the road would eventually lead to Brown County and into another adventure with my grandmother.
This essay explores Christine’s relationship with two early Brown County artists about whom I have not yet written, Marie Goth and V. J. Cariani. It tells of my effort to get closer to these significant figures in the history of southern Indiana art. And in the process I hoped to also know—again—my grandmother.
Those we love and have passed from mystery into mystery are not gone…they live in our hearts and memory. —Carrie Newcomer
In spring of 1956, my Aunt Matilda (Christine’s sister) gave me my first camera. It was Kodak “Brownie Holiday” and it became one of my most-prized possessions. It went with me on every excursion I took as a boy after receiving it. It might even have been with me on that same journey with my grandmother from Terre Haute to her farm.
I do know the camera accompanied me to Nashville in Brown County on at least one occasion, and I used it to snap a picture of the Old Log Jail there. That jail was a wonder to me in those days—because it had once been an actual jail! I’d seen jails portrayed in the old-time cowboy westerns of that time, but I’d never seen an actual jail except this one in Nashville. By the time I visited it during the 1950s it had been converted into a museum and I went there once with my Uncle John (Christine’s son). What I remember best about the museum that day was its display of a stuffed two-headed calf! That alone was worth the price of admission.
My Grandmother Christine and I arrived at Nashville via the road from the west. There was no by-passing the village in those days so the state highway simply became a street leading directly into the heart of the village to the Brown County courthouse. On this day, rather than turning right at the intersection in front of the courthouse and continuing our trip towards Seymour, my grandmother went straight ahead and followed another state road that led out-of-town to the north. She soon pulled off the road at a small church. It was the Nashville Christian Science church where she sometimes attended when she was staying in Brown County. Perhaps she was acquiring some materials there as we sometimes did when we passed other Christian Science churches and reading rooms. I stayed in the car and she disappeared into the church. When she returned she said nothing; she seldom told me about her business when I went on errands with her. Neither did she usually inform me where we were going next. I suspect now that she might have been making it up as we went along. As we made our rounds, it was also customary for her to sometimes “just stop in” when passing a friend’s home—no appointment necessary. And that is what we did on this particular day. My grandmother turned to me and said, “Steve, we’re close by the houses of my artist friends Marie Goth and Cariani. We’ll just stop in for a minute and see if they’re at home.”
V. J. Cariani was born in Italy in 1891. His family immigrated to the United States when he was three years old and settled in New England. Cariani later studied art in New York City where he became acquainted with another student who had come to the art school from Indiana. Her name was Marie Goth.
In her excellent account of the lives of several prominent early artists of Brown County, Lyn Letsinger-Miller describes how Cariani, known as “Cari” to his friends, spent much time in the company of Marie during their student days. They explored the city together and encouraged each other in their respective art projects.
After the U.S. entered World War I, Cariani enlisted and spent the subsequent eighteen months as a soldier during which time he saw action in some of the most intense battles of the war. After his discharge, he returned to his home in Massachusetts. He was suffering from what today would be termed post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), but in his day was simply called “shell shock.” His desire to create art had been quenched by his horrendous experiences at war.
Marie, with whom Cari remained connected via letter during his time at war, wrote and insisted that he come to Brown County, Indiana, to join her there. She and her sister Genevieve had moved to Nashville and were hopeful that Cariani’s living in an unrushed, rural environment within the newly-formed artistic community in Nashville might revive his creative spirit.
In 1923 Cariani did move to Brown County and he remained there the rest of his life. At first he lived in the same house as Marie and Genevieve. Some in the community frowned upon this arrangement so he eventually built his own house and studio on the same property facing Marie’s place. This offered better respectability in that time, yet there was little doubt that Cari and Marie were still a couple. It’s not known why they never married—perhaps it was simply a matter of Marie’s intense independence. They remained close and devoted to each other through more than forty years.
That’s the way I remember my Grandmother Christine referring to these longtime friends; she was always “Marie Goth”—both names—and he was simply “Cariani.” She started the car and drove a short distance farther along the state road before turning to the right down a lane that led back to a small house. As we got closer I could see an older man working in a garden near the house; I guessed he must be Cariani. My grandmother informed me beforehand that Cariani was an avid gardener and that he cultivated flowers for Marie and him to use as subjects for their still life paintings. She also told me that he built the frames used to hold most of their pictures.
After stopping, we got out of the car and walked a short distance to the garden; Cariani came towards us. He greeted my grandmother with a warm smile; he referred to her as “Mrs. Rapp.” I don’t recall if they shook hands; I’m sure they did not hug or embrace. I don’t remember how my grandmother addressed Cariani, although I doubt that she called him “Cari” as did many of his friends in town. Even with Brown County artist Will Vawter, with whom she shared a longer and deeper friendship, it was always “Mr. Vawter” when she spoke of him. It was the proper way for a single woman in that time. My grandmother probably introduced me to “Mr. Cariani” at some point. I don’t recall he spoke much to me or asked me anything about myself.
Cariani and my grandmother must have talked some about his garden—she was a farmer after all. And I expect she asked about his latest painting projects. In fact, I like to think that she might have even inquired about purchasing one of them since she did not yet own any of his paintings. Fifteen years earlier, she’d commissioned Marie Goth to paint a portrait of her daughter Ingleby; that painting is still in the hands of my cousin. Yet if my grandmother was considering purchasing a Cariani painting that day, he must not have had anything of interest to her. We didn’t even go into his studio.
Cariani informed my grandmother that Marie was away for the day, so after their brief conversation we said goodbye and went back to our car. We were with Cariani for only ten minutes or so, yet it was my only in-person encounter with any of the original artists of Brown County. I’ve never forgotten it.
My grandmother wasn’t my only connection to Cari and Marie; there was also my mother. Born in 1918, Margaret Rapp was a child and adolescent during the period when my grandmother made many of her sojourns to the Brown County cabin and befriended the various artists there. She especially remembered times spent with Will and Mary Vawter, and she also recalled sitting for a 1921 painting by portrait artist Ada Shulz. She had fond memories of being with Cari and Marie too, and expressed an especially high regard for their artwork.
My brother Phil died at age 63 in 2014. Afterwards it occurred to me that one way I might honor my brother’s memory would be to acquire an original Cariani painting—the “missing piece”of my grandmother’s Brown County art collection so to speak. Since she never got around to acquiring a Cariani artwork, I would do it. The more I thought about the idea, the more I liked it.
So I began looking for the right piece. And because I remembered encountering Cariani in that flower garden many years ago, I thought that a floral still life might be appropriate. Plus my grandmother appreciated flowers and might also have been drawn to one of his still life paintings. I would acquire the painting with the intent of hanging the original in my house and then create a replica of it as a remembrance of Phil for my mother to place in her room at her residence in Seattle. When I contacted an art collector friend of mine in Indiana, I learned that most of Cariani’s still life paintings are large format—much too big for my purposes.
After a number of months, I’d just about given up the idea of getting a Cariani still life painting in my brother’s memory. Then I had another thought: Maybe I should take another look at the Eckert and Ross Fine Art gallery website in Indianapolis—and this time review what is available by Marie Goth. Even though my grandmother had commissioned that portrait by Marie in the 1940s, it was now owned by my cousin in Arizona. And acquiring a still life would be an entirely different genre of art. So I went to the website—and I was not disappointed this time.
There was what I was seeking, and I knew in an instant. It was a smaller still life painting showing a blue vase of roses. Although I had not yet seen the actual painting, it was for me like being reunited with a longtime friend. Yes, it was Marie’s work—not Cari’s—yet both were equally well-known for their still lifes. Then there was the fact that the most prominent flower in the painting is a yellow rose. My mother’s favorite flower of all was the yellow rose; she chose it as the dominant flower for her wedding in 1941. And lastly there was the frame into which the painting was set. It had been expressly made for this painting by Cari. I reasoned: “I’ve gotten ‘a Cariani’ for my grandmother’s collection after all.”
The “Rose Still Life” painting was shipped by the gallery to my home, and when it arrived I was quite excited. The painting, seen in person, exceeded my expectations! After receiving the work, I immediately set about figuring out how to replicate it for my mother. We expected to be with her for her 97th birthday in June and I wanted to present her with the picture as a surprise on that occasion.
I contacted my brother-in-law Jim Wiggins. He worked for a copy store and had previously transferred some family photographs onto canvas for us. I asked if he could do the same thing with a high-quality photo of my Marie Goth painting? He agreed to give it a try; the result was stellar. He put the replica painting into a frame that was sympathetic to the original Cariani one. I presented the replica painting to my mother on her birthday and she was speechless at first. I explained to her that the picture was not an actual Marie Goth painting and that I was keeping the original at my home in Minnesota. I don’t think she believed me. Thereafter, on a number of occasions she said to me: “Steve, I can’t believe I have a Marie Goth painting hanging in my own room!” I just let it go.
My mother died of a stroke less than a year after I gave her the replica of Marie Goth’s “Rose Still Life.” She passed in her room within just a few feet of the picture. I can’t know if she drew any comfort from its presence at that point in her journey, but I sure did. The day she died, our family gathered along the shore of Puget Sound for a time of memorial. Of all the symbolic gestures we undertook that evening to commemorate her life, the most meaningful for me was our scattering of yellow rose petals upon the waters of the Sound, and then watching them drift out—into forever.
Within a few weeks after my mother died, I began thinking again of the “missing piece” in my Grandmother Christine’s Brown County art collection that she had acquired from her artist friends almost one-hundred years ago. I thought of Cariani and the fact that there still was not a piece of his artwork represented. I committed myself anew to seeking to rectify this situation—as a tribute to my mother. And something told me to specifically look for one of Cari’s plein air landscape paintings this time.
Plein air painting was a favored technique for most of the early artists of Brown County. Following the lead of the best-known artist in their ranks, T. C. Steele, they favored doing their work outdoors (in open air) where they could experience the light and environment first-hand. It also meant, of course, that they had to work quickly because the qualities of light, the clouds and other aspects of the scene being painted were changing. Plein air artists, like Cari and Marie, used quick brush strokes that often gave their work a feel of impressionist art. They would take their paints, brushes and easel to the scene they wished to paint and they usually finished within just a couple of hours. There was no returning to complete the work on another day because conditions would never be the same again. Plein air painting was “one and done.”
Even after I’d obtained Marie’s “Rose Still Life” painting, I occasionally looked at gallery websites to see what newly-acquired Cariani paintings might be available. As I had found with his still life paintings, most of Cari’s landscapes were large format too. And when I occasionally encountered one that seemed promising, it was already taken.
For example, in May 2015 I was notified by the Eckert & Ross Fine Art gallery of a smaller Cariani landscape painting that had just arrived. It was titled “The Wheat Field” and it seemed like just what I was seeking. I contacted the gallery representative with whom I had worked to obtain the Marie Goth piece with full intention of acquiring the painting. However, I learned that this particular work had sold quickly and was no longer available.
I was very disappointed at missing out on this one—but I wasn’t discouraged. I realized that what had especially appealed to me about “The Wheat Field” was Cariani’s depiction of a typical Indiana sky in summertime. It was the sky and clouds I recalled from childhood. I came out of this “near miss” experience with renewed energy to keep searching for a Cariani landscape painting to complete my grandmother’s Brown County collection. And now I also knew that it had to depict an Indiana summer sky!
Lord, but this is a funny world when you get to studying! Looks like things didn’t all come by accident. Looks as if there was a plan back of it, and somebody driving that knows the road, and how to handle the lines. —Gene Stratton-Porter from A Girl of the Limberlost (1909)
The second half of 2016 ended with no other prospective Cariani paintings crossing my path. I had other matters on my mind then too, so I didn’t even look at the gallery’s collection during the final months of the year. Still I had a sense that a larger force was at play here and that just the right Cariani landscape painting was awaiting me somewhere down the path. I thought: Perhaps my Grandmother Christine and my mother are doing the driving here—and they certainly will know the road and how to handle the lines.
As the new year of 2017 began, the prospects of finding a smaller-format Cariani landscape still seemed distant to me. My wife Mary Ann and I were planning to leave home for an extended period of time, and it really wasn’t a good time to begin searching again. Then came January 11th. I’d finished supper and was checking my e-mail messages as I usually did at that time. I noticed a new one from the Eckert & Ross Fine Art gallery and I opened it. There I read that two paintings by Cariani had just arrived at the gallery. They were both plein air paintings showing rustic Brown County scenes. The sight and description of the first painting immediately reached out to me:
I can’t describe what I felt in that moment. I wanted to be cautious as I recalled my earlier disappointment with “The Wheat Field” painting. Yet somehow I sensed now that my search for the right landscape painting by Cari was over. I immediately contacted the gallery representative and acquired the painting. The following week it arrived at my home. I asked Mary Ann to document me opening the package and my initial reaction to the piece.
I carefully lifted the frame and picture from the package; I held it at close range and looked at it. I examined the brush strokes and recalled how my grandmother had taught me as a boy that such paintings were better viewed from a distance. She explained that this allowed our eyes to merge the individual brush strokes and permit us to appreciate the full glory of the painting. Yet, despite her advice, I continued to hold the painting close for another minute or two. I tried to envision Cari painting each stroke with his brush while standing at his easel. And when he was finally satisfied with the work, I imagined him writing his name in the lower left corner of the piece.
This is a lovely plein air piece! The painter did a nice job of capturing the effect of light on a fresh, crisp, sunny day, most likely early summer with the new greens. The painting is describing the light of high noon. For instance, look at the roof line. Right under is a small shadow line equal on both sides of the roof line. Also, the foliage is evenly lit from top light. Typically a piece depicting light as so would be painted in around 2 to 3 hours, but no more. The freshness of the brush work tells me he did this piece totally on location. —Kami Mendlik (plein air artist)
To gain further insight into my “The Hidden Cabin” painting and how it was made, I asked a Minnesota-based friend and plein air artist, Kami Mendlik, to take a look at it and offer some observations. In response, she confirmed that it was painted as a plein air piece, and that it was likely completed in just two or three hours during the middle portion of an early summer’s day. She also noted the “freshness of the brush work” as indicative of Cari’s plein air approach to its creation.
The Eckert and Ross gallery estimates that Cari’s painting was made sometime during the 1940s to 1950s—about the same time frame as Marie’s “Rose Still Life.” My grandmother still owned her log cabin near Nashville then and made frequent trips there. So I’ve come to wonder whether she just might have viewed this painting at some time when it was on display in Cari’s gallery? I can’t know this, of course, but it’s certainly an intriguing possibility. And if she did see it, what might she have thought of it? I don’t know—but I can imagine. I envision my Grandmother Christine responding to this painting in much the same way as I do now. We are related after all.
The picture depicts a rural Brown County cabin, likely constructed of logs; it would not have appeared very different from the log cabin she owned. She would have liked that. I think my grandmother would have also responded enthusiastically to Cari’s portrayal of the flower blossoms along the pathway leading back towards the cabin. He didn’t paint these flowers with enough definition to allow one to positively identify what kind they are, but there are hints. As for me, I see Queen Anne’s Lace, hollyhocks, and daylilies. My grandmother, astute botanist that she was, might have recognized even more. The dense foliage around the cabin is typical of many scenes my grandmother knew on her own farm.
And the pale blue sky with its indistinct cumulus clouds blurred by heat and humidity is very typical for a southern Indiana summer’s day. It’s a sight with which both my grandmother and I were most familiar back in our times together. All in all I believe “The Hidden Cabin” is a Cariani landscape painting to which my Grandmother Christine would have been attracted—so much so that she herself might have acquired it for her personal Brown County artwork collection.
And maybe—just maybe—she, my mother and I did.
[It’s] Interesting that these pieces have become “reunited” so many years later!
—Jim Ross (Eckert & Ross Fine Art)
I’ve learned since acquiring the “Rose Still Life” and “The Hidden Cabin” Brown County paintings that they both were originally owned by Lillian Snodgrass, a longtime resident of Nashville. It’s possible that she was even an acquaintance of my grandmother’s during the years that she traveled there.
After Ms Snodgrass’ death, the two paintings were passed down through different branches of her family.
And now they—and in a sense Cari and Marie too—are reunited.
Steve Robert Simmons wrote this personal essay in 2017. All rights reserved.