It has seemed to me that the greatest of all arts is the art of living. —artist T. C. Steele
I can only imagine. Twenty-three year-old Christine Lebline stood in front of a mirror in her room at her parent’s home in Rockford, Indiana, and adjusted the broad-brimmed hat on her head. It was early morning, the last Monday of September, in 1912. She was preparing to leave for yet another week of teaching at the high school in the nearby town of Seymour. She had dressed that morning while mulling over in her mind the events of the past year. It was just slightly more than a year since she’d returned from the largest adventure of her life, an almost two-month sojourn through Europe in the summer of 1911. She recalled having recently re-read the final journal entry she had made after returning from her trip in which she had written that it was “…the accomplishment of the one thing I had dreamed of for so many years.” Yet despite her feat, she had felt a strange mix of emotions. She sensed that something was still missing in her life, and described it as “…the great blank…that big something looming ahead for me to do next.” Now Christine could smile as she reflected back over the time since then. She looked one final time into the mirror, tilted her head to one side and whispered:
“Thank goodness for Kate Andrews!”
Kate Andrews was the principal of Seymour High School and the person who had hired Christine at the end of the summer in 1910. There had been a last-minute vacancy on the school’s faculty to teach German, and Kate knew Christine had just completed her Bachelor’s degree in German at Indiana University that previous spring. Christine had also graduated as the valedictorian of her class at the high school four years before. Kate’s decision to hire Christine for the position was an easy one.
During the initial year of her faculty appointment (1910-11), Christine had developed a deep respect and fondness for Kate as her administrator and colleague. Although Kate was nineteen years older than Christine, the two had developed a strong friendship. During that first year, Christine had also confided to Kate about her longstanding “dream” to travel to Europe for the purpose of strengthening her language skills and experiencing the artistic and cultural treasures there.
Kate Andrews had graduated from Wellesley College in the East, and appreciated Christine’s sense of adventure. She understood Christine’s dream of traveling to Europe, and she may have helped arrange some of the finances Christine needed to support her venture. Kate’s sister was married to a wealthy businessman, and she was also acquainted with other affluent and influential women in the community. It would have been easy for Kate to raise money to help support Christine in her travels. Kate herself went to Europe the summer after Christine’s trip, and I think it’s probable that Christine’s positive experiences there helped inspire Kate to undertake her own adventure.
Within Christine’s family, however, her adventurous spirit was not always so appreciated. Christine was an enigma to her mother, and although her father adored her, he also found her to be a puzzle. Her boyfriend, John Rapp, had stopped his formal education after his eighth grade year and was working on his family’s farm in Rockford. During Christine’s travels in Europe, it became evident from her journal writings that she sometimes wondered whether she could be truly happy marrying John and living the rest of her life as a farm wife. Women who married in that time were expected to quit whatever work they had been doing to devote themselves to their husbands and families. Christine had seen some of the finest art and cultural treasures in the world during her time in Europe, yet she knew that if she married John and lived her life at the Rapp farm in Rockford, there would be few opportunities to experience art galleries and other cultural amenities. This tension was evident when she wrote in her journal entry in September of 1911 after returning home from Europe:
All my interests are intensely alive and every little picture or work or book has taken on infinite meaning. It is all still coursing through my veins and I’m happy as one of the gods in spirit. But what will I do next? Another trip? Another field? New things, new work? Heaven only knows, I don’t, but I can’t, I won’t go back.
Christine descended the stairway from the second floor to the first, and whisked through the dining room and towards the front door. Her mind was thinking of her first class period, which began in about an hour. She bid farewell to her father who sat eating his breakfast at the dining room table. As was their custom, John Rapp stood waiting beside his Studebaker automobile alongside the road in front of her house. He usually drove her to school so she wouldn’t be late. It was a new day.
As Christine headed for the high school that September morning, artist Theodore Clement Steele was possibly eating breakfast with his wife Selma at their home in Brown County, Indiana, located about forty miles northwest of Rockford. Steele’s artwork had recently been featured at a prominent art institute in Indianapolis, which had enhanced his already high standing among Midwestern artists of the time. He and Selma had also just decided to make Brown County their year-round home so that he could paint his landscapes there during all four seasons. Although better known as a landscape and portrait artist, Steele had focused most recently on a number of floral still-life paintings. He and Selma maintained extensive flower gardens on the grounds of their “House of the Singing Winds” perched atop a hill south of the hamlet of Belmont. As subjects for his still life paintings, Steele often arranged flowers from the gardens into a vase or some other kind of container. He looked forward to exhibiting some of his still-life paintings at upcoming shows, and he aspired that these works might help revive an interest in still-life painting among the other artists who worked in Brown County and beyond.
Brown County in 1912 had become known within Indiana as a destination for tourists. During her time as a student at Indiana University, for example, Christine’s sister, Matilda, and her college friends went there for weekend excursions. They took the train from Bloomington to the nearby community of Helmsburg from where they then hired a carriage to transport them through the countryside to the quaint village of Nashville. In the hills around that town were a number of rustic back roads that lead to beautiful panoramic vistas, old log cabins and other quaint remnants of an earlier time. Brown County had also become known for its artist colony, which featured T. C. Steele and other noted “plein air” artists of the time. These artists shared an intense interest in depicting the natural beauties of the region, as well as its rural charm and culture. Their work could be described as a type of American impressionism within a realist tradition.
As women interested in the arts, Christine Lebline and Kate Andrews were aware of the emerging art colony in Brown County. Kate owned some property just west of Nashville, and sometime in 1911 or 1912, she persuaded Christine and several other teachers from Seymour to go together to purchase a small log cabin there. They called themselves the “Brown County Cabin Club” and they used their cabin for weekend getaways, as well as for more extended visits during the summers. The cabin became known as “The Teachers’ Cabin.” However, within just a few years all of the women except Kate Andrews and Christine had sold their interest in the property and moved on. Christine eventually bought out Kate’s interest and became the sole owner. She kept the cabin for another fifty years.
When Christine married John Rapp in 1913, she resigned her teaching position at the high school and became a farm wife, as she had anticipated. Her friendship with Kate Andrews continued, and the two women saw each other on a number of occasions between then and Kate’s death in the early 1950s.
Between 1912 and 1922, Christine went to her cabin whenever she could get a break from the farm work and her other commitments in Rockford and Seymour. Sometimes John would go along, but mostly she went by herself. She soon met several of the Brown County artists, and grew especially fond of Will Vawter and his wife Mary. The Vawter’s house was situated just a short distance from The Teachers’ Cabin, so it was convenient for them to socialize together. She became acquainted with Adolph and Ada Shulz, as well as others of the early Brown County artists. I think it’s also probable that she met T. C. Steele too, but she never collected any of his art. She did, however, acquire artworks by some of the others, and especially Will and Mary Vawter, L. O. Griffith, Ada Shulz and Marie Goth.
And then there was Gustave Baumann.
Gustave Baumann was one of the earliest artists to discover Brown County. He had previously studied painting at the Art Institute of Chicago and worked as an engraver and a commercial artist. He became enamored with woodblock printmaking as an art form, and at the age of twenty-eight, he began doing his art in Brown County in 1909. He mostly created multi-colored woodblock prints that were unsurpassed in quality for their time. His prints also illustrated an acclaimed book by famed Indiana poet, James Whitcomb Riley, which was published in 1912. This served as a prelude to his receiving a prestigious gold medal for his prints at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco in 1915.
Somehow during this busy time, Baumann found an opportunity to carve blocks needed to create a floral still-life print that he titled “Marigolds.” It may be that T. C. Steele’s renewed interest in floral still-life art three years before had inspired Baumann to undertake this project. Over the period from 1915 through 1919, Baumann pressed about sixty copies of his “Marigolds” print. The picture had a unique, octagonal shape and most were placed into simple, hand-painted octagonal frames with no matting. One of these prints subsequently found its way to Christine.
Christine probably met Gustave Baumann through her artist friend, Will Vawter. She was only eight years younger than Baumann, and since his studio was centrally located in Nashville, I think it’s possible she went there often to view his work when she was in town. I also expect they became acquainted as friends. Sometime in early 1917, Christine made a visit to Baumann’s studio for the purpose of purchasing one of his prints. She must have ordered it sight unseen, and Baumann offered to frame the print and send it to her later. What I know about this purchase I’ve learned from a short letter Christine received from him in August of that year.
He had moved earlier that year from Brown County to New York State to teach at a summer arts school there . Christine apparently wrote to him in the spring or early summer to inquire about the status of the print she had ordered. Based on the reply in his letter, it is evident that he knew something of her artistic tastes:
“…not everyone shares my fondness for marigolds—some very conservative folks resent the octagonal frame but I have a feeling you’ll like it.”
He offered to exchange the print if she was not pleased with its color scheme, but he also must not have expected her to do so since the print he sent to her was inscribed:
To Mr. and Mrs. Jno C. Rapp 1917
I can sense the excitement in late August 1917 as Christine received the package from Gustave Baumann in the mail that contained her picture. I imagine her rushing into the dining room and opening one of the drawers of the server to retrieve her scissors. She then sat down at the dining room table and cut the twine that held the package securely. When she got her first glimpse of the small, framed print, I expect she was taken by it. Baumann predicted that the print’s octagonal shape would appeal to her, and I think she was also favorably inclined towards the yellow and orange hues of the marigold blossoms. I expect she immediately hung the picture in a place where she could view it easily and often.
Wherever Christine displayed her “Marigolds” print, it was there for only a short time. Just sixteen months later, on the last night of the year 1918, a fire ignited in the chimney of her house, quickly spread, and ultimately burned it to the ground. Remarkably, most of her possessions were saved, including the Brown County art that she had acquired to that point. “Marigolds” was one of the pieces that was spared. Christine, John and their six-month-old child, Margaret, moved to another house at a nearby farm and lived there for almost three years while their home was being rebuilt. They moved into their new house sometime in 1922, and Christine’s Brown County artwork returned with her.
I don’t have any recollection of the “Marigolds” print in Christine’s house when I knew her there as my grandmother during the 1950s and ‘60s. It probably was in an inconspicuous place—perhaps in her bedroom—where I did not notice it as a boy. I do remember others of her Brown County pictures then, and especially the ones by Will Vawter, yet I remember nothing of the Baumann print. That may have as much to do with its subject matter as its artistic merits. Although I became an agronomist in my profession, my childhood botanical interest was focused on trees, not flowers. The “Marigolds” print was about flowers, and that would not have interested me then.
The picture was also a still life, which might have been another factor contributing to my apparent lack of interest in it then. Still life is an art form that depicts inanimate, commonplace objects such as flowers, fruit and vases. Within the Western tradition, still-life art is sometimes held in lower esteem than works depicting historic events, people (e.g. portraits) or landscapes. Still-life compositions are sometimes thought of as artistic exercises rather than as serious creative works. They are considered to be simply a matter of copying, and thus lacking imagination.
I don’t think I understood such critiques as a boy, but I might have agreed with them then. I certainly do not agree now. When I encounter a fine still life picture today, like Steele’s “Vase of Flowers” or Baumann’s “Marigolds,” I am initially impressed by the artistic skill needed to create it. But I also consider its capacity to affect me as a viewer—as a human being. Steele once described the transcendent property of good art as capable of:
…shifting the point of view from the detail to the general effect, from the actual things represented to their envelope of light and atmosphere, [through which] a new store of beauty has been opened…
A still-life picture causes me to examine and re-imagine meaning in the ordinary things of my life—things like a simple floral arrangement of marigolds in a decorative vase. Borrowing words from author Gunilla Norris, I understand that a still life can help me “to value and savor…to enter into deeper communion with the objects and actions of a day.” I do not actually know how Christine responded to her “Marigolds” print, but I do know she was fond of flowers, so that aspect of the composition certainly would have appealed to her. I regret that I never spoke with her about the picture while she was alive.
Even more intriguing for me now is wondering what Gustave Baumann saw in this print that prompted him to choose it for Christine. In his letter to her, he noted that he had “a number of new things underway.” I’m sure there must have been something about this particular print that spoke to him regarding her. The octagonal shape, of course, was part of it because he remarked in his letter that he thought she would appreciate that aspect of the print. But it’s also possible he saw other qualities of her in the picture as well. For example, one yellow blossom extends well above the rest, and is one of the most distinctive and intriguing features of the picture. Perhaps that bloom reminded him of Christine as he knew her—a woman whose intelligence, vitality and vigor exceeded most others of her day.
To my knowledge, Christine and Gustave Baumann had no further contact after he sent the print to her in August of 1917. By the end of 1918, he had relocated to New Mexico and was settling into the town of Santa Fe. The art museum there had just opened and its curator had persuaded him to live there. Baumann made that community his home for the remaining fifty years of his life. Over that time, he further enhanced his reputation as a master of woodcut printmaking. The subjects for his pictures changed from his time in Indiana, and he thereafter focused on Southwestern United States landscapes and other scenes of the West, as well as depictions of Pueblo Indian life. Yet Baumann would still create an occasional floral woodblock print; perhaps it was his way of staying connected to his former life and work in Brown County. One such time was in 1930 when he created blocks for and pressed yet another “Marigolds” print. As he executed his new work, I can imagine Baumann thinking again of his former colleague, T. C. Steele, who had died four years earlier. I also fancy that maybe—just maybe—he also recalled the spirited young woman who would come by his Nashville studio in those times and engage him in such interesting conversations about his work–and who bought one of his earlier “Marigolds” prints.
Then he might have pondered: “I wonder what ever became of her?”
When I view Christine’s print of “Marigolds” now, I think of it as symbolic. It represents to me her life during that formative decade from 1912 through 1922. She began that period as a young professional trying to define her path as an adult, as well as her goals and dreams in the aftermath of her 1911 sojourn to Europe. She ended the decade as a married mother of three rebuilding her life after the devastating destruction of her house by fire.
During those ten intervening years, she had made a fulfilling life for herself and found new goals and dreams. She had not been as free to travel the world as she had before, yet in a sense the world had come to her. The artists of Brown County offered new perspectives and ideas that were so different from those she encountered in the daily routine of her life in Rockford and Seymour. Some of the artists had lived and studied in Europe and they knew the places she had experienced during her 1911 travels there. Some were devoted naturalists, and they studied and appreciated trees and flowers just as she did. Some, like her, had deep spiritual convictions that went well beyond the orthodox beliefs of the day. When Christine was staying at her log cabin in the woods of Brown County, or in the company of her artistic friends there, she was in a different realm. It was a time and place where she felt authentic and entirely at home.
During this decade, Christine had also discovered another deep joy–one that transcended place. It was the joy of being a mother. Her first daughter, Margaret, was born in June of 1918, and the twins, Julia and John, came along about three years later. Like many mothers, I expect Christine found this new role both gratifying and mystifying. I always wondered about this time of her life, but like her response to Baumann’s “Marigolds” print, I never talked with her about it while she was still living. Then came an amazing discovery. A few years ago, I found a box of large-format photographic negatives with some things I had acquired in Rockford long ago. These negatives initially appeared, to my eye, to be images from that early-motherhood period of Christine’s life. I found a processor who could make prints from such old negatives and I awaited what they might show. A number of them offered insights into that significant time, but one rose above all the others for me–just like that lone marigold bloom rises above the others in Baumann’s print. This picture was taken within a few weeks of Margaret’s birth, and Christine is sitting on the ground just down the hillside from the original Rapp house. It is a bright summer day. Christine is holding her daughter at eye level and looking straight at her with a most radiant smile. It is a time and place where she feels authentic and entirely at home.
Besides the house fire, there were other potholes in the road of life for Christine in the years following that wondrous day captured in the photograph. Yet I have a sense she never again doubted her life’s path and purpose as she had after returning from Europe in 1911. The years since then had taught her a spectacular truth–the greatest of all arts is the art of living.
Steve Robert Simmons wrote this personal essay in 2013. All rights reserved.