Historical Treasure: William Turman Painting

Friday, June 11, 2021 - 11:58

This week’s historical treasure is a painting by William Thomas Turman, who was born in 1867 at Graysville, Indiana. He attended United Christian College in Merom, Indiana, and then trained in art in Pennsylvania and Chicago. In 1894 he began teaching art at Indiana State Normal School. He taught there for 40 years. In 1939 he became the first president of the board of trustees of the Swope Art Gallery and served in that capacity for 18 years.

Turman was a prolific painter specializing in landscapes. In 1924, when he held what the Terre Haute Saturday Spectator claimed was his first exhibition in the Fairbanks library, he had 45 paintings to display. Although he included portraits of his wife and children, most of his work depicted rural scenes around Terre Haute. He could be found sketching the landscape around the city whenever he had free time. In the 1920s Turman also started painting scenes from the area around Bakersfield, California, including Kern River Canyon.

As an educator Turman had a deep influence on the art and artists of Terre Haute. The art gallery at Indiana State University is named for him, and the murals in Woodrow Wilson School include a striking image of Professor Turman in the center of the south wall, an homage by the mural’s painter, Gilbert Wilson, who had studied under Turman. Turman also took an active interest in Indiana painter Walter Sies, the artist behind a painting of Fort Harrison in the museum’s collection, and he tracked down the history of the work and left an account of it. Throughout his career he was one of the most prominent figures in the Terre Haute art world, serving as a host for visiting artists, teaching, judging and working with the Heminway Art Studio in town.


The Turman landscape in the museum is dated 1925. With a mountain in the background and the top of a stucco building among some trees, it does not seem to be an Indiana scene and may have been one of Turman’s California works. After Turman retired, he moved to California permanently. In 1958, he donated 34 of his paintings to the Swope, shipping them back to Terre Haute with instructions that the museum put them up for sale and use the proceeds for the foundation. Signed Turman works were a popular item in the city, and it may have been from this sale that the museum eventually acquired their Turman. There are also several Turman works in the collection at the Swope, where a major exhibition of his work was held in 2012. In 1964, Turman devoted 23 paintings to the Graysville School which has acquired more since then, a lasting legacy to one of Terre Haute’s most prolific painters.

The Vigo County History Museum is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. Visit https://www.vchsmuseum.org/ or call 812-235-9717 for information on admission tickets, upcoming events and museum membership.

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