Theophilus Wylie, Political Scene in Early Bloomington (ca. 1837)
Theophilus Wylie (1810–1895), cousin to Andrew Wylie, the first president of Indiana University, was born in Philadelphia and came to Bloomington in 1836 to join the faculty as a professor of mathematics, natural philosophy, Greek, and chemistry. An inventor and amateur painter in his spare time, Wylie painted this image of a political rally near the original courthouse in Bloomington around 1837. Wylie remained on the faculty until 1886 when he was made Professor Emeritus.
To many American artists of this period, most notably George Caleb Bingham, scenes of the American political process in action provided pictorial material that was lively, informative, and patriotic. The sight of a stump speaker bringing his ideas to small-town voters affirmed the principles of President Andrew Jackson, who celebrated the "common man" and gave new power to the Western states. In scenes such as the one depicted here, a candidate or supporter might dramatically praise the candidate's humble beginnings, as well as supply onlookers with liquor and food, in order to gain the common man's vote.
This work may have been the first painting in the university's collection. This painting is even more interesting because it was not produced by a classically trained master. In examining it, one sees the technique of an American amateur painter. Painting was open to anyone with canvas, pigment, and the time and dedication to practice. Although Wylie and his politics are now nearly lost to history, this painting shares with other American artworks a concern for the genre of political discourse between ordinary men.
In American genre painting, an artist depicts ordinary incidents in the lives of anonymous people; here, Wylie, an ordinary artist, gives shape to the political life of an ordinary community. In this period of history, significantly more Americans were involved in the electoral process. Although it would be decades until suffrage would be granted without consideration of ethnicity or gender, politics excited the general population.