The Woodstock Art Colony
June 26, 1999 through October 17, 1999
The Bruce Museum presents the exhibition The Woodstock Art Colony from June 26, 1999 through October 17, 1999. The exhibition presents the work of over 25 of the leading artists who were active in Woodstock, New York from 1900 to 1950. The core of the exhibition will be works generously lent from the collection of the Woodstock Artists Association, with supplemental loans from the Whitney Museum of American Art and private collections. The exhibition is curated by Hollister Sturges, Executive Director of the Bruce Museum, and includes such artists as Leonard Ochtman, later to become a Cos Cob Impressionist, Birge Harrison, George Bellows, Eugene Speicher, precisionist George Ault, Bradley Walker Tomlin, Doris Lee, and Milton Avery.
Since the rock festival of 1969, Woodstock has been renowned as an icon of counter culture. But its history as a flourishing art colony dates back to the beginning of the century. The founding of the arts colony is marked by a specific date, 1902, when Ralph Radcliffe Whitehead and Hervey White selected the town of Woodstock to foster a settlement, school and community of artists and craftspeople.
Whitehead, a student of John Ruskin and an advocate of the ideas of William Morris' Arts and Crafts movement, partnered with White, a novelist and social worker, and Bolton Brown, a printmaker, to plan a utopian community for artists. They chose Woodstock because of the beauty of its landscape in the Catskill Mountains and its proximity to New York City. Whitehead bought fifteen hundred acres of land below the face of Mount Overlook. He constructed houses and studios for artists and artisans and facilities for furniture making, pottery, weaving and painting. He called the community Byrdcliffe, a derivative from his middle name "Radcliffe" and that of his wife, Jane Byrd McCall.
Woodstock soon attracted artists throughout the year, some making the scenic hamlet their permanent home, others spending summers there. The famous Art Students League in New York City established a summer school there from 1906 to 1922 and opened its doors again after World War II, from 1947 to 1970. Democratic, free-spirited and bohemian in character, Woodstock became a center of artistic activity, reaching particular prominence in the 1920s and 1930s.
Unlike most colonies where artists band together and work in one prevailing style, Woodstock is noted for its diversity of expression, strong personalities, and ideological clashes. In 1919, traditionalists and modernists united to found the Woodstock Artists Association, established for the purpose of organizing exhibitions. Held during the summer, when the New York galleries were relatively inactive, the shows presented work by many prominent artists residing part time in Woodstock. The exhibitions were widely reviewed and added immeasurably to Woodstock's national reputation.
The Woodstock Art Colony opens with the poetic landscape of Birge Harrison, Leonard Ochtman and John Carlson, all prominent teachers in the neophyte colony in its first decade. Harrison, who had studied in Paris in the company of John Singer Sargent, came to Woodstock in 1904 at the invitation of Ralph Whitehead as the first painting instructor in the Arts and Crafts Colony in Byrdcliffe. Working in a refined, Tonalist style, he excelled at rendering the subtle moods of nature. He was the first painting instructor at the summer Art Students League, a position he held until 1911 when he was succeeded by Carlson, best known for his broad brushed forest scenes.
By World War I, a new generation of artists challenged the standards of beauty set by Harrison and Carlson. The young rebels experimented with a range of styles, from the exuberant expressionist canvases of Andrew Dasburg and George Bellows to the hybrid modernist experiments of Konrad Cramer and Yasuo Kuniyoshi.
One of the most radical modernists to make Woodstock his home was German-born Konrad Cramer. Familiar with avant-garde currents in Europe, like the Munich Blaue Reiter group, he worked in many media - photography, lithography, etching and painting - and pioneered abstract work. He adopted the stylistic innovations of cubism to the landscape motifs of Woodstock in such works in the exhibition as Barns and Corner Porch and Country Store.
After teaching at the summer school of the Art Students League, the Pennsylvania Impressionist Charles Rosen made Woodstock his permanent home in 1920. He, too, favored local subjects, like the now destroyed Fireman's Hall in Woodstock, executed in a simplified cubist realist style, strongly influenced by Cezanne.
The best known artist to settle in Woodstock was George Bellows. In 1920, and every year until his untimely death in January 1925, he spent the summer and early fall months there. He purchased property next to the lot of his close friend, Eugene Speicher, and designed and built a home in only four months. He depicted many local sites, including a famous picnic scene showing friends and family at nearby Cooper Lake. He is represented in the exhibition by Mountain Farm, singular for its brash color and vigorous brushwork. His glorious career was cut short when he died of an emergency appendectomy in California.
In the Depression decade of the 1930s, the artistic pendulum swung away from modernism toward representational painting. Artists of different stylistic persuasions practiced varying modes of realism to depict typically American subjects and themes addressing social concerns. This turn toward a realism in celebration of America was reinforced by patronage programs of the New Deal. Woodstock artists received considerable support from such government commissions. In this exhibition, images of a cement quarry, coal mine, and reservoir dam represent the wave of industrial American subjects that became so popular in the 1930s.
The high reputation Woodstock achieved in mainstream American art is underscored by the awards given at the prestigious Carnegie Institution exhibition in 1944. Woodstock artists Yasuo Kuniyoshi, Marion Greenwood, and Doris Lee won first, second and third prize respectively, edging out honorable mention winners like Stuart Davis. Greenwood's career was divided between her study of Mexican mural painting, her public commissions for the United States government and her figurative work in the 1940s in Woodstock. In the exhibition, she is represented by Summertime, the image of a pensive young black woman leaning out a window, a painting similar to her award-winning Mississippi Girl exhibited at the Carnegie.
One of the most original artistic personalities to settle in Woodstock was Doris Lee. She achieved national celebrity in 1935, when her painting, Thanksgiving - a view of a farm interior - won the Logan Purchase Prize at the Art Institute of Chicago. Mrs. Frank Logan, the sponsor of the prize, was so outraged by the critic's choice that she launched a protest campaign calling for "sanity in art". Many of Lee's works are realistic, capturing the unpretentious charm of rural life with wit and humor, such as Spillway in the exhibition. Other works, such as Young Harpist, adopt the flat shapes and rhythmic patterns of "folk" or "primitive" art to yield sophisticated compositions. Her reductive forms have a kinship with the simplifications of other Woodstock paintings in this exhibition, The Bridal Watch by Rollin Crampton, Early Morning by Kuniyoshi, and Dark Birds, Dark See by Milton Avery.
Emphasizing diversity, the preamble of the Woodstock Artists Association's first constitution stated that its purpose was "to give free and equal expression to the 'Conservative' and 'Radical' elements because it believes a strong difference of opinion is a sign of health and an omen of long life for the colony."
Although of many different stripes, Woodstock artists are united in responding to the strong sense of place that marks the local landscape. The boulder strewn face of Overlook Mountain, the area lakes and streams, the red barns and farms and the seasonal changes are the repeated motifs of painters practicing in very different styles.
Images from top to bottom (click on thumbnail images to enlarge them): George Bellows (1882-1925), Mountain Farm, 1922, oil on canvas, 20 1/2 x 24 1/2 inches, , courtesy Berry-Hill Galeries,Inc.; Doris Lee (1905-1983), Spillway, c. 1940, oil on canvas, 18 x 28 inches, gift of Doris Lee Estate.
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For further biographical information on selected artists cited in this article please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists.
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