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Celebration of nature

The art of Lorado Taft's Illinois

By Jeanne Townsend Handy
Photographs by Tom Handy

In 1911, high on the bluffs near Oregon, Ill., a 48-foot concrete statue known as Black Hawk was unveiled — a massive, robed figure with arms crossed, gaze fixed upon the Rock River. As the unveiling ceremony progressed, the statue’s sculptor, Lorado Taft, was called upon to speak. He told the gathering that he and the other artists who spent their summers at this site would often pause on the bluff and involuntarily fold their arms in the “restful, reverent” pose of the sculpture he referred to merely as “my Indian.” “It came over me,” he added, “that generations of men have done the same thing right here.”

It was Taft’s 14th summer at the site, the camp area that he and 10 other members of the artists’ colony had dubbed the Eagle’s Nest. The group, which included future Pulitzer Prize winner Hamlin Garland and painter Ralph Clarkson, had come together in Chicago, meeting weekly under the moniker “Little Room” in Clarkson’s 10th floor studio in Chicago’s Fine Arts building. In 1898, at the invitation of the land’s owner, attorney Wallace Heckman, they also began gathering each summer in Oregon to seek inspiration from the landscape for their various forms of art: sculpture, painting, architecture, music and writing. For Taft, an Illinois native, this inspiration would additionally fuel his greater goal of proving to the state’s citizens and to others beyond its borders that the art, history and landscape of Illinois were as significant as any other.

Taft was born in Elmwood and was a graduate of the University of Illinois. After a three-year stint in Paris, where he studied sculpture at the École des Beaux-Arts, he would return in 1886 to what was then called the Middle West, making Chicago and its Art Institute the base from which he would strive to arouse appreciation of his native home, to draw attention to it, to augment its culture through art.

Taft was an excellent lecturer, and he used his oratorical skill to promote beautification of communities through art and through enhanced appreciation of native habitat. Art and nature were inextricably tied, one to the other. In an early lecture given in Champaign, he spoke of the realism of French art, which “takes one out of doors when he paints a landscape and keeps him there until it is done.” He continued: “We can have no characteristic American art until we have learned that same fidelity to nature. Why, if our prairies could only be painted as they really are, what wonder and admiration they would excite among those trained to appreciate transcripts of nature!”

Likewise, the area surrounding the Eagle’s Nest site, with its stunning views of the Rock River and its Native American history — the Black Hawk War had concluded a mere 66 years before the colony came into existence — excited Taft’s vision. His wife, Ada Bartlett Taft, described their first view of the area’s landscape: “The Rock River at that point is a picturesque, winding stream. Mr. Heckman drew us on to a commanding position where the bluff jutted forward with fine views up toward the bend and down to the twinkling lights of Oregon, a most fitting site for a gathering place.” Heckman would offer to lease 15 acres of his land to the artists for a dollar a year plus two art lectures.

Today, Taft’s cabin, with its exterior of stone quarried from the nearby bluffs and its rich wood interior, rises almost organically from the environs of the former Eagle’s Nest site. It is one of only three Eagle’s Nest structures remaining, the rest having been lost to time and the elements. The dwelling of painter Charles Francis Browne and a communal dining and recreation center referred to by the Eagle’s Nest group as the Camp House also remain. “They never really intended them to be permanent,” says Dale Hoppe, director of Northern Illinois University’s Lorado Taft Field Campus, which currently resides upon the former campsite. “The art colony could exist only for the founding members. When Ralph Clarkson died, the art colony by definition had to cease to exist.”

Upon Clarkson’s death in 1942, the 15 acres of land leased to the artists reverted to the Heckman estate. The following year, the state of Illinois purchased the entire 273-acre site and established Lowden State Park. Eight years later, the state transferred 66 acres of the park, including the 15 acres that had been the summer home of the artists’ colony, to Northern Illinois University, where it has served as the site of the school’s master’s degree program in outdoor education and, currently, as a children’s outdoor education facility and a conference center, utilizing Taft’s cabin as a meeting space.

The Camp House, now known as Poley House, has transitioned from the gathering space for an eclectic group of artists to classroom space for youngsters. Yet the spirit of the artists lingers in the Eagle’s Nest motto that is still found inscribed above the fireplace. In a paraphrase from Edward Lear’s The Story of the Four Little Children Who Went Round the World it states, “… And here all interesting animals lived together in the most copious and rural harmony.” In addition, the artists’ spirit remains in the existence of the building itself, which was designed by two of the colony members, architects Allen and Irving Pond — not the only Pond brothers structure still to be found in Oregon.

“The Pond brothers were commissioned to design the [Oregon] library, a Carnegie library,” says Hoppe. “They were instructed by the other art colonists to include a gallery, with the promise that the artists would fill it. So the gallery was included in the original plan.” The artists used the second-floor gallery space of the library, which opened in 1908, for public art exhibitions and lectures, and they donated more than 50 works to a permanent collection. Those pieces are on display yet today, including Taft’s working model of the Black Hawk statue and a Rock River landscape by Charles Francis Browne.

It is an unfortunate fact, however, that one must seek the times and perceptions of the artists beyond the boundaries of the Eagle’s Nest site itself, which is currently off limits to the public. Hoppe explains that because it is used as a children’s outdoor education facility, it warrants the consideration afforded the grounds of an elementary school, where children’s safety must come first. But it was not the dwellings, after all, that were of importance to the artists but rather the surrounding land. And the inspirations of the artists can still be accessed in the adjacent Lowden State Park — the bluffs, the Black Hawk statue, the winding Rock River, the natural spring that bubbles forth from the base of Eagle's Nest Bluff, named Ganymede Spring during an 1843 visit by Margaret Fuller, then literary editor of the New York Tribune. Among the trees, alongside the river, at the edge of the bluff, one can imagine the comings and goings of the gifted colony members and their visitors.

“Students would come; other artists would come, and they might become associate members or visiting artists,” says Hoppe. Along with artists came many others, such as professor Albert A. Michelson, Nobel Prize winner for discoveries in the velocity of light, who sat for a portrait by Ralph Clarkson at Eagle’s Nest. And Elizabeth Dickerson Palmer, daughter of Eagle’s Nest member James Spencer Dickerson, who recalled the parade of the extraordinary in her memoirs: “During all those years, a procession of stimulating creative people came and went. There were students spending the summer, there were teachers and musicians, there were writers and social workers and business men; in fact, anyone interested in or connected with the arts who happened to be in or near Chicago sooner or later turned up for a week-end, often for several week-ends.”

Yet Taft was not satisfied to have found his own retreat, the riparian refuge that nourished his artistic endeavors. At the turn of the century, he was not alone in his alarm over the loss of open space, as the wealthy of the United States followed Old World custom, snatching up the least topographically common and most desirable land for themselves. Nor was he alone in his apprehension over rampant industrialization and in his aspiration to transport people — children — beyond the confines of the cities.

According to today’s National Park Service, groups such as the Chicago Playground Association sponsored outings to natural areas “as a way to expose city children and settlement house workers to nature’s regenerative powers. …These early recreational enthusiasts, including prominent Chicago scientist Henry Cowles and sculptor Lorado Taft, formed another more broadly based organization, the Prairie Club of Illinois.” Taft felt it important for everyone to have access to an escape, a place of natural beauty where, at least for a while, the trials of everyday life could be forgotten. These areas, he felt, must be appreciated — and to be appreciated and preserved, they must be known.

The March 1918 issue of The American Magazine of Art would feature an article titled “Art and Landscape Conservation,” in which Lena McCauley writes: “[N]ature lovers have realized that picturesque rivers and glens need not be spoiled by commercialized interests or become plague spots as rubbish heaps.” She continues by telling how the works of landscape painters had been known to save forests by generating enthusiasm in previously uninterested citizens. McCauley then goes on to mention the possibility of an Eagle’s Nest contribution: “Rock River in Illinois, a winding stream between bluffs at Eagle’s Nest where Lorado Taft and his associate sculptors and painter friends camp in summer, is pictured by Charles Francis Browne, N.A., who appreciates the charm of color in the woodlands and the rolling prairie farmlands reaching to the horizon as one views from beneath the colossal Black Hawk monument at Eagle’s Nest.”

In the early 1920s, Taft became the chair of the Arts Extension Committee of Illinois, which began touring natural “beauty spots” in the state to look for areas worthy of state protection while other statewide groups brought pressure upon the legislature. And the October 1922 publication of Illinois Libraries notes that during an Illinois River Valley trip, “Mr. Lorado Taft spoke of some of his plans and ideals for a more beautiful Illinois.” These endeavors were further detailed by Taft’s wife, Ada Bartlett Taft: “A caravan of perhaps twenty-five marked cars followed the leader, and our eyes were opened to the long neglected beauties of Illinois. …We grew very proud of our state, and quoted to each other in derision the oft-repeated phrase of strangers: ‘I did not know there was such scenery in Illinois.’” Many of the locations designated as significant by the committee would eventually become state parks, including Lowden. People would no longer need, as Taft had, an invitation from a wealthy landowner to gain the benefits this landscape had to offer.

Yet, today’s concern over the importance of keeping high quality natural areas available for public use, over getting people — particularly children — outdoors and into natural areas, seems a replay of the anxiety felt by Taft and his associates. The same battles, still, are being fought. “Think about the fact that we rank 48th out of 50th in terms of public lands in the United States,” says Illinois Department of Natural Resources director Marc Miller. “In fact, over 96 percent of Illinois is privately held.”

Ironically, in 2008, Lowden State Park was one of 11 state parks that fell into the ranks of the unnecessary and was shuttered by DNR because of the state’s budget constraints. No longer could one pause upon the spot on the bluff where the artists — and perhaps Native Americans — had stopped to gaze at the river with arms crossed as “generations of men have done.” However the park was almost immediately reopened in 2009 when Pat Quinn stepped into the governorship.

Miller’s words echo the precepts of Taft’s era:

“It is because of a connection to a place that we develop our ethics, our ideals of conservation, and it is that kernel that can blossom into the principled leadership or the advocacy that many community leaders, conservation leaders, will utilize in making this a better place.” Connection to place; conservation leadership—the tenets of Taft.

Today, Taft is remembered, quite naturally, for his many sculptures — the Columbus Memorial Fountain in Washington, D.C., the Statue of George Washington in Seattle; the Fountain of Time in Chicago’s Washington Park; the Fountain of the Great Lakes at Chicago’s Art Institute; and the Alma Mater icon, welcoming students to University of Illinois. Yet his towering accomplishment, Black Hawk, which was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in November 2009 and which is now celebrating its 100th anniversary, calls for us to remember the importance Taft placed on his state’s native landscape and on his fight for the “beauty spots” of Illinois. His Indian sculpture was a celebration of place, an embodiment of his goal to prove to the country — to the world, in fact — that Illinois’ history, landscape, and culture are worthy of notice.

Jeanne Townsend Handy is a Springfield-based free-lance writer. She can be contacted at

Illinois Issues, December 2010


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The art and nature of Lorado Taft’s Illinois