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Wilbur Peat and the Pioneer Painters of Indiana

Today's Guest Blogger is Alba Fernandez-Keys, the IMA's Head of Libraries and Archives

The state of Indiana owes much of the documentation of its history of art and artists to Wilbur Peat, artist, instructor, historian, and director of the IMA from 1929-1965.  Among his books are: Portraits and Painters of the Governors of Indiana, 1800-1943, (1944), Indiana Houses of the Nineteenth Century (1962), and Pioneer Painters of Indiana (1954).  This last title is well-known among those interested in early Hoosier art.  Peat spent years corresponding with people all over the country as he gathered small pieces of information about artists long dead.

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Correspondence from Eli Lilly to Wilbur D. Peat, 1940, Box 004, Folder 28, Wilbur D. Peat Papers, IMA Archives, Indianapolis Museum of Art, Indianapolis Indiana

In the book’s introduction, Peat begins by saying “This is the story of poor and simple people, who, for the most part, achieved neither fame nor riches…” Peat was concerned about documenting the state’s cultural heritage no matter the artists’ level of training.  He continues “As factors in our cultural evolution their activities should not be forgotten, and as authors of so large a bulk of our heirlooms their names should not fade completely from our memories.”  By looking through his files and notes, one can begin to understand Peat’s painstakingly detailed process of compiling information.  Below is a sample from Peat’s artist index cards:

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Richard B. Gruelle index card, n.d., Box 008, Folder 60, Wilbur D. Peat Papers, IMA Archives, Indianapolis Museum of Art, Indianapolis Indiana

Peat not only documented the lives of Hoosier natives.  He collected a vast amount of documentation about itinerant artists, as well as those who visited or passed through the region:

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Correspondence from Wilbur D. Peat to Richard E. Banta, 1951, Box 003, Folder 21, Wilbur D.Peat Papers, IMA Archives, Indianapolis Museum of Art, Indianapolis Indiana

In the introduction of Pioneer Painters of Indiana, Peat describes his research notes as a “large collection of letters, notes, transcripts of newspaper articles, and clippings deposited in the IMA’s library for researchers to consult.”  The collection is now housed and cared for by the IMA Archives and will soon be available online to researchers all over the world.   For the past year, the IMA and IUPUI Libraries have worked together to digitize this collection.   Peat’s unpublished notes are important because they provide second-person accounts and descriptions of the lives of early Hoosier artists, including how many of them earned a living.  In addition, the collection contains notes on artists that may not have been mentioned in the book due to lack of space or other considerations.

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Please join the Library & Archives department  at The Toby on May 9 for the lecture The Art of Making a Living in Indiana, 1850-1950 where Martin Krause, Curator of Prints and Drawings at the IMA, Rachel Berenson Perry, Art History Author, and Laurette McCarthy, Independent Scholar and Researcher, will speak about the lives of Hoosier artists Wilbur Peat so thoroughly documented.

Filed under: Art, IMA Staff

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