If it hadn’t been for a man called Bolton Brown, the legend that became Woodstock might well have been located in the Carolinas instead of the Catskills. Bolton Brown was a highly respected artist and teacher; a devotee of the English painter, art theorist and social thinker, John Ruskin (1819 – 1900); and an expert mountaineer. This combination of skill sets brought him to the attention of Ralph Radcliffe Whitehead, a wealthy Englishman in search of a place to create an arts community based on the ideals of John Ruskin and the English Arts & Crafts movement. It was prescribed by Whitehead, based on Ruskin’s theories, that the ideal location for an arts colony would be at an elevation of at least 1,500 feet. From Dresden, New York, Brown studied art at Syracuse University, and in 1891 started the art department at Stanford University in California. In 1900, his tenure at Stanford came to an abrupt end over his refusal to separate female and male students in life-drawing class. It was serendipitous that he met Whitehead who quickly enlisted him to find the location for his Utopian dream. Despite Whitehead being advised that North Carolina was the likeliest place for such an adventure, Brown began his search in his native state of New York, starting in Windham. He trekked up hill and down dale to eventually arrive at Overlook Mountain from where he espied Woodstock with its idyllic mountains, meadows and streams, and recognized it as a contender for Whitehead’s community. Whitehead agreed. He immediately began to buy up property there and set Brown to designing buildings for accommodations, studios, and workshops. And so it was that between 1902 and 1903, one hundred and ten years ago, the foundation for the Byrdcliffe Art Colony, and all that came after, was put in place.
Although Brown was instrumental in the founding of the Byrdcliffe Arts Colony, he and Whitehead had a disagreement over Brown’s role in the Colony and soon parted ways. Brown stayed in the area teaching classes at the soon-to-be-established Art Students League summer school, and worked as a master lithographer. Attracted by the new current of artistic innovation at the Colony for which Woodstock was gaining a reputation, and by those very landscapes discovered by Bolton Brown on his reconnoiter for Ralph Whitehead, the Art Students League brought a new crop of artists and their students to the area. The new exhibition at the Robert Angeloch Gallery at the Woodstock School of Art (WSA) celebrates those artists. As nothing exists in a vacuum, the exhibition also includes the “Now.” Among the works from the early to mid-20th century are a scattering of pieces from the present generation of Woodstock landscape painters; the exhibition is aptly named “The Woodstock Landscape: Then and Now.”
The Exhibition, which runs through November 2, is curated by WSA President, teacher, and landscape painter, Kate McGloughlin. And if anybody is the present incarnation of Bolton Brown, it is surely McGloughlin. She has herself travelled the hills and dales of the region in search of the optimum viewpoint for plein-air painting and, famously, conducts her classes from these outposts. In the catalogue essay, she notes that the main difference between then and now is the presence of trees. These first “art colonists” came to the Catskills at a time when farming was still the way of life, and now most of that farmland has returned to woodland.
The majority of the work on show is from a time when the center of the art universe was still in Paris – some of the painters on exhibit, teaching artist Birge Harrison for example, had studied in Paris, and the younger set, his students, were influenced by their exposure to European art in New York City at the landmark “International Exhibition of Modern Art” of 1913 (aka the Armory Show). For many American artists, this was their first encounter with the experimental styles of the European vanguard: Fauvism, Cubism, and Futurism. But in the earlier works in the WSA exhibition, the art is still very much influenced by Impressionism.
In the WSA exhibition, a delightful example of a teacher and his students working together in the impressionist style is a trio of paintings from 1915. The teacher is, in fact, Bolton Brown, and the students are Edna Thurber and John Bentley.
At first glance, all three paintings appear to have been produced by the same artist with the same palette, but from slightly different positions. But on closer inspection, you see they are quite distinctly the work of three different painters. The subtleties of accomplishment become clear in Brown’s virtuosity as a draftsman and a painter. In Brown’s painting, the brush marks that describe the hill beyond the path resolve themselves into clearly discernible and receding fields, a perspective his students fail to bring off as convincingly. The difference is akin to medieval versus renaissance perspectives.
Another popular and influential teacher in those early years was Birge Harrison. He was invited to Byrdcliffe to teach painting based on his Tonalist theories. Tonalism was about working with a very limited palette, often the tones of just one color. The goal was to emphasize atmosphere and mood; James McNeill Whistler was probably the most famous proponent of the method. In 1906 Harrison became the first director of the Art Students League of New York’s Woodstock School of Landscape Painting.
Harrison’s influence can be seen in the works of his students John F. Carlson and Alan Cochran, and also in the contemporary rigor of Eric Angeloch’s painting Dryads.
However, even as Birge Harrison was setting down roots in Woodstock, he was already being superseded by the next generation. Chief among these was Andrew Dasburg. He was among the first students to attend the summer school on a scholarship to study under Harrison, and he soon rejected his teacher’s theories. Along with James Wardwell, he formed the “Sunflower Club” which was about turning away from the shadows of Tonalism towards the bright sunlight of bold color. The rule of the Sunflower Club was, according to a 1974 interview with Paul Cummings, “That you weren’t supposed to go out in the moonlight or on grey days.” It is a little hard to feel sorry for Harrison considering it was a summer school and in an area famous for its light.
Dasburg went to Paris in 1909 and, while there, encountered the work of Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse and Paul Cézanne. Cézanne impressed him the most, and he soon adjusted his style to explore the concepts of pictorial form and space espoused in the older artist’s work in a search for a style that was entirely his own.
Dasburg returned to Woodstock in 1910 and became part of the artists’ community. He also taught in the summer school where he continued to shake up the old guard and to implement his new ideas of painting, and was among the Woodstock artists — self-named “The Rock City Radicals” — who exhibited in the 1913 Armory Show. He went on to become one of the founders of the Woodstock Artists Association (now called the Woodstock Artists Association Museum (WAAM)), one of the oldest continuing organizations of its kind in America. The other founders of WAAM included John F. Carlson, Frank Swift Chase, and Carl Eric Lindin, all of whose works are in the exhibition. Dasburg moved to New Mexico in 1918 and it was he who would bring the Taos artists, including Georgia O’Keefe, to the notice of the nation.
This is an exhibition with over fifty artists, many of whom have been very influential in surprising ways. Milton Avery, for example, gained a following among younger artists who were themselves about to bring the center of art world gravity to America. They included Adolph Gottlieb, Barnett Newman, and Mark Rothko – it was Avery who convinced Rothko that he could be a professional artist. Others went on to become better known in other genres, for example Edna Thurber became a noted portrait painter as did Eugene Speicher. In early 2014, Speicher’s work is to be the subject of a major retrospective at the Dorsky Museum and I expect that will be primarily an exhibition of portraits. Another artist to note is Anita M. Smith for her excellent and decidedly modernist piece entitled Shady Hills. Smith, a classmate of Andrew Dasburg and Speicher, arrived in Woodstock in the summer of 1912 and used the money intended for her debutante’s ball gown to study with John F. Carlson. Later in life, in the 1950s, she wrote the town of Woodstock’s first history, Woodstock History and Hearsay.
It is fascinating to compare and contrast the early generation artists with the contemporary ones, and McGloughlin has done an excellent job of identifying parallels. For example, Karen O’Neil’s 2013 treatment of stream rocks in a painting of that title is contrasted with Dudley Summers’ Big Deep circa 1920. Also Nancy Campbell’s View from Shultis Farm in 2011 and Edna Thurber’s Summer Landscape (this piece is not dated but is most likely from the teens or 1920s). The contemporary artists, with their confidence in creating landscapes from decisive geometric shapes and color planes, are swimming in waters their forebears were just testing out.
Art-making is always a risky business but, back then, it is hard not to think that the stakes must have seemed so much higher, the potential for ridicule so much greater – and there was plenty of ridicule in the newspapers at the time of the 1913 Armory Show. And, yet, how wonderful and exciting it must have been to be in the vanguard of that brave new and, compared to now, under-populated art world. Incidentally, there is a terrific catalogue with this show that I highly recommend.
As a postscript, I want to draw your attention to an unconnected but parallel exhibition recently opened in Trenton, New Jersey. The Trenton Museum Society (TMS) is hosting a show of paintings and drawings entitled “Artists Of Woodstock: Creative Collaborative,” at the City Museum, from collections of Woodstock artists belonging to longtime TMS patrons Ted Boyer, Jane Rohlf, and Bob and Alison Boyer Eriksen. The artists include some of the same names as those in the WSA show: John F. Carlson, Frank Swift Chase, Doris Lee, and Eugene Speicher. The TMS collaborated with Carl Van Brunt, Gallery Director of WAAM, to include works by contemporary Woodstock artists.
These artists, twelve in all, were chosen from the Ulster County Artists database and include Annie Loel Barr, Mercedes Cecelia, and WSA instructors Margarete de Soleil and Vince Natale. This is a great opportunity for people in the Trenton area to get a taste of Woodstock, past and present. The Trenton City Museum is located in the beautiful Ellarslie Mansion in Cadwalader Park and, by all accounts, is worth a visit for its own sake.
Bolton Brown (1864 – 1936), Woodstock Church c 1913, oil 8 x 10
Eric Angeloch Collection
For more information:
THE WOODSTOCK LANDSCAPE: THEN AND NOW
The Woodstock School of Art
September 14 — November 2.
Gallery Hours: Tuesday — Saturday, 9 AM — 3 PM.
2470 New York Route 212, Woodstock, NY 12498. Tel: 845 679 2388
For more information:
ARTISTS OF WOODSTOCK: CREATIVE COLLABORATIVE
Trenton City Museum
September 28 — November 5.
Gallery hours: Tuesday — Saturday: 11AM — 3PM, Sunday: 1 — 4 PM.
Ellarslie Mansion, Cadwalader Park, Trenton, New Jersey Phone: (609) 989‑1191
Claire Lambe is an Irish born painter whose works have been exhibited on both sides of the Atlantic; she is a graduate of the National College of Art and Design in Dublin and holds an MFA in painting from the City University of New York. In addition to her art-making, she is also the company manager and designer for The Woodstock Players Theater Company —as the company designer she is responsible for everything from the website to the set design. Writing credits include contributing author to Teen Life in Europe (part of the Teen Life Around The World series), and articles and reviews for this publication.