A Catskill Catalog: June 23, 2010

Woodstock, the famous Catskill Mountain artist colony, became famous all over again as a music scene several years before the 1969 Woodstock Concert. After all, concert producers benefitted from the hip vibe of Bob Dylan’s town in the very name of the Bethel, Sullivan County, festival, originally planned for Warwick. Woodstock was hip.
But when Dylan and The Band and the other young musicians moved to Woodstock, the village at the foot of Overlook Mountain was already widely known as an artists’ town. Woodstock artists made the village famous. Musicians merely kept it that way.
Okay, so here’s a quiz. Name five musicians associated, in your mind, with Woodstock. Now, name five painters.
I tried this quiz on a painter friend. The musicians were easy. He named Dylan, and Jimi Hendrix, Robby Robertson, John Hall, and Janis Joplin. He could have named more.
But after Philip Guston, the celebrated abstract-expressionist painter of the 1950s, and a present-day friend or two, naming Woodstock artists stumped my artist friend. You too?
Woodstock as an artist colony began in 1902. That’s when Jane and Ralph Whitehead founded Byrdcliffe on 1,500 acres on a hillside just outside the village. The Arts and Crafts Movement of the last years of the 19th century sought an alternative to the dehumanizing industrialization and standardization of modern life. Very much like the kids who came to Woodstock in the wake of the ’69 concert, the Whiteheads and their friends sought, in the first years of a new century, an experiment in utopian living, a place where all the arts would come together to allow for simple, handmade lives.
The Whiteheads put Hervey White, Eric Carl Linden, and Bolton Brown in charge of Byrdcliffe. White was an idealistic writer and social reformer. Lindin was a Swedish born landscape painter, who had studied in Paris. Brown was a lithographer who had just been fired from the art department at Stanford University for using nude models.
In 1905, White split with the Whiteheads and founded the Maverick Colony on the south slope of Ohayo Mountain. A year later, New York City’s Art Student League founded a summer school in landscape painting in Woodstock. With three separate organizations devoted to the arts, Woodstock became, quickly, an artist-filled town.
Birge Harrison was a name artist in 1904 when he came to the Catskills to serve as the first painting instructor at Byrdcliffe. “Technique should always hide itself modestly behind the thing expressed,” Harrison taught. His luminous landscapes sought to evoke an emotional response in the viewer. Scenes were presented to suggest the poetic and spiritual in nature.
Harrison literally wrote the book on landscape painting, a 1909 publication by that very name that was the standard teaching text in studio art instruction for decades.
John F. Carlson came to study with Harrison and stayed to teach painting in Woodstock, founding there the John F. Carlson School of Landscape Painting. Carlson’s dramatic landscapes contrast light and shadow to evoke nature’s moody variety.
Another who came to study was Buffalo native Lousie Mary Wahl, who married Saugerties dentist John Kamp, and embarked on a long painting career that emphasized the play of light and appearance of texture in domestic and outdoor scenes. Louise Mary Kamp died in 1956.
The Woodstock Artist Association was founded in 1919 by Carlson and Linden, Henry Lee McFee, Andrew Dasburg, and Frank Swift Chase. Today, the association operates a museum on Tinker Street.
Dasburg, born in Paris, was headstrong and difficult. He left in 1921 to help found the artist colony at Taos, New Mexico. The great British novelist, D.H. Lawrence, and his wife Frieda, soon moved to Taos.
Henry Lee McFee soon broke with the Woodstock landscape tradition to paint still life subjects in a modernist, cubist-influenced style.
Frank Swift Chase carried the Woodstock style forward, teaching and working in Woodstock for years. His paintings are much in demand today. Born in St. Louis in 1886, Chase helped start artist colonies and schools in Nantucket and Sarasota, Florida, as well as in Woodstock. He is considered an important post-impressionist who had a profound effect on many landscape painters who came after him.
Chase encouraged painting outside, from direct observation. His paintings feature prominent brushwork, thick applications of paint, and bright colors. He died at Benedictine Hospital in Kingston in 1958 and is buried in the artists’ plot in the Woodstock Cemetery.
Perhaps the most famous painter of Woodstock was George Bellows, whose brilliant career was cut short in 1925 when he died, at age 43, during an emergency appendectomy. Known for his gritty depictions of urban life, Bellows was considered by many the premier talent of his generation, a leader of the small group of painters, known as the Ashcan School, that sought to record everyday life among everyday folks. His 1924 painting of boxer Luis Angel Firpo knocking heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey out of the ring hangs in the Whitney Museum of American Art.
Bellows spent summers in Woodstock. For over 100 years artists have made Woodstock their summer, or year-round, home. They still do.