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Birge Harrison and the Woodstock Art Colony, Part 2

Updated: Mar 17, 2022

By Bruce Weber

Eva Watson-Schutze (1867-1935)

Birge Harrison, c. 1905

Platinum print

The major American Tonalist painter and key figure in the development of the Woodstock art colony, Birge Harrison, was born in Philadelphia in 1854. His brothers Alexander and Butler and cousin Elizabeth R. Finley also were painters. Alexander established a major international reputation for his marines and figure paintings. Following study at private schools in nearby Germantown, Harrison worked for several years as a farmer and for a brief period was in business with his father. In 1876, he met the expatriate artist John Singer Sargent during the course of Sargent’s visit to view the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition. He was persuaded by him to study abroad, and spent two years in the atelier of Carolus-Duran and four years at the École des Beaux Arts in Paris.

Birge Harrison (1854-1929)

November, 1888

Museum of Fines Arts, Rennes

Harrison first attained recognition with his painting November. It is one of a series of paintings by the artist dating from the late 1880s which feature peasants at rest in a rural landscape, and recalls subjects treated by the French Barbizon painter Jean Francois Millais. Stylistically the painting recalls contemporary works by Jules Bastien Lepage, who is best known today for his painting of Joan of Arc (1878) in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. November received a medal at the Universal Exposition of 1889, and was acquired by the French government. It was painted in the art colony in Normandy. Harrison spent time at a number of art colonies in France, and was familiar with the style of life and interchange that was common there.

Birge Harrison (1854-1929, drawing

T. H. Heard (?-?), engraving

Herd of Sheep and KangarooThe Plains in 1840

Scribner’s Magazine, April 1891

In the early 1890s, Harrison set out on a tour around the world, painting, writing and illustrating as he traveled. His illustrated travel articles appeared in such popular magazines as Scribner’s Magazine, Harper’s and the Atlantic Monthly. He also spent time living among the Hopi and Navajo people in Arizona and New Mexico, and painted scenes of the life of these nomadic people of the southwest.

Birge Harrison (1854-1929)

Serenity on the Pacific, 1896

Woodstock Artists Association and Museum

In 1893, Harrison returned from his travels to America, and settled in Santa Barbara, California for a few years. There he became friends with Ralph and Jane Whitehead, who studied with Harrison in California and Woodstock, and acquired his nocturnal seascape Serenity on the Pacific, with its subtle mother-of-pearl color scheme, as a birthday surprise for her husband. The painting hung in a prominent spot on the first floor of the Whitehead's home in the art colony in Byrdcliffe. By the early 1890s, Harrison was working in the soft, ethereal atmospheric style for which he became well-known.

Birge Harrison (1854-1929)

Sunset from Quebec, 1895

Following the death of his first wife in 1895, Harrison moved to Plymouth, Massachusetts, where he met and married Jenny Seaton. In Plymouth he became mesmerized by the beauty of the region, especially in winter, when, as one writer of the time noted “all nature was glorified and transfigured by the white beauty of snow. To Harrison the snow was not white only, but took on the wonderful tones of azure, of mauve and of pale and ethereal rose and amber. He painted it as he saw it, in the opulent radiance of dawn, in the golden glow of sunset, or under the pale mystery of twilight skies.”(1) Harrison’s passion for painting snow led him to the far north. Beginning in the mid-1890s, Harrison frequently traveled to Quebec, where he often painted scenes along the St. Lawrence River.

Byrdcliffe Today

In 1904, Birge Harrison accepted his friend Ralph Radcliffe Whitehead’s offer to come to Byrdcliffe and take over Hermann Dudley Murphy’s position as the painting instructor and head of the school. Byrdcliffe’s first year proved to be a rocky one, and conflicts with Whitehead had led to the departure of key colony founders Hervey White and Bolton Coit Brown. White related that upon his arrival Harrison took charge for a year “with a calm order that was his nature; an experienced teacher, acknowledged artist, and polished gentleman, a friend and neighbor of the Whiteheads of long standing – there was calm and control all around.”(2) The artist settled in Woodstock for the remainder of his life, but spent extensive time away, working in Quebec; Charleston, South Carolina; Cos Cob, Connecticut; New York City; New Hope, Pennsylvania; and on the coast of Massachusetts.

Harrison’s hiring fit in with the Whiteheads' recognition of the affinities that existed between the Tonalist painting aesthetic and developments in the Arts and Crafts Movement. The Tonalists were in agreement with the importance that the Arts and Crafts movement placed on craftsmanship, handiwork and truth in materials.

Cast by Ralph Radcliffe Whitehead


Designed by Jane Byrd Whitehead


Eucalyptus Vase, c. 1914

C matte glaze on slip-cast earthenware

Furthering the Tonalist connections or links at Byrdcliffe was the presence of Eva Watson-Schütze, who photographed Harrison and worked in the soft focus, atmospheric, poetic mode of Pictorialist photography, which had strong links to Tonalist painting. American ceramics authority Ellen Paul Denker has pointed out that Tonalist paintings and the decorative art produced by the American Arts and Crafts Movement both “share a subdued palette and simplified compositions and motifs.”(3)

After a summer of teaching at Byrdcliffe, Harrison took a year’s sabbatical so that he could devote himself fully to painting. In 1905 the Art Students League in New York decided to move their summer school from Old Lyme, Connecticut, where it had been in operation for four years under the leadership of Frank Vincent DuMond. The school attracted forty to fifty students from around the country.

Frank Vincent DuMond Outdoor Painting Class at Old Lyme, Connecticut, c. 1900

Florence Griswold Museum

DuMond lectured outdoors about landscape and figure painting twice a week, and gave crits on Saturday afternoons. His teaching stressed the essential elements of a landscape (light, movement, tone, etc.) so that it could be recreated later from memory. Students found lodgings in local homes and at the Old Lyme Inn or rented studio space in barns owned by local farmers. The influx of students displeased some of the artists who previously had enjoyed quiet summers in Old Lyme and this, plus the rising cost of lodging, played a role in the summer school’s move in 1906 to Woodstock.

It was John F. Carlson, Harrison’s student at Byrdcliffe, who made the suggestion about moving the summer school from Old Lyme to Woodstock, and helped recruit Harrison for the job. Upon settling in Woodstock, the Harrisons built a house at the far west of the 1200-acre property that originally encompassed the Whiteheads' Byrdcliffe land. The three-story house, which had nine rooms and a huge studio on the top floor, sat on the edge of ten acres of woodland on a high plateau off the Glasco Turnpike to the east of Bearsville. It had a breathtaking view that faced across a wide and tangled meadow down into the valley and upwards “to the well-timbered slopes of high and still higher mountains farther away.”(4) The location of the house is pictured on the map created in 1926 by Margaret and Rudolph Wetterau featuring the homes of Woodstock artists. By this time the Harrisons had sold the house to the British-born poet, journalist and author Richard Le Gallienne and his wife Irma. The house burned down in October 1947 when it was owned by the New York Times Book Review editor and columnist J. Donald Adams and his wife Jacqueline.

The Harrison house was a center of artistic activity. The couple had an open house every Sunday where Harrison was known to have an open ear to the voices of his students. His student Harry Leith-Ross recalled that the home “with its lovely old furniture, its fine Botticelli decoration (a copy from the work of the Italian master made by Mr. Harrison in his student days), and its beautiful garden, [was where everyone] received a warm welcome.”(5) After selling the house on the high plateau in late 1924 to the Le Galliennes, the Harrison’s remodeled the old Lasher farm house at the eastern end of the village along the turn of the Sawkill off of route 212. at the beginning of Chestnut Hill Road.

The Harrison house on Chestnut Hill Road is marked on the Wetterau map. It is pictured below in a recently taken photograph. The property was close by the houses of artists Carl Eric Lindin, Zulma Steele, Robert Winthrop Chanler (which he bought and shared with Clemence Randolph), and Alice Wardwell, who was a major patron of the arts in Woodstock.

Former House of Birge and Jenny Harrison, Chestnut Hill Road, Woodstock

Among the earliest attendees of Harrison’s landscape painting class were Andrew Dasburg and Florence Ballin (later the wife of artist Konrad Cramer). Among the slightly later students were John W. Bentley, Walter Goltz, Allen Dean Cochran and George Macrum.

Harrison was a great admirer of the nocturnes and night scenes of Whistler, the pastoral landscapes of John Constable and the muted tonalities in works by the Norwich painter John Chrome. After completing a careful drawing of his subject from nature, Harrison would paint entirely from memory, believing that an artist “must see through the mind as well as the eye,” and that art “should stimulate the imagination and suggest more than it expresses.”(6) Harrison believed that only by following this process “can the soul, the essential beauty of any subject be realized by the able artist and fused upon canvas.”(7) He also believed that an artist should “Treat nature with respect and affection, but don’t let her rule you,” and that the poetic moods of nature should serve both as the medium and inspiration of artistic expression.”(8) “It is no belittlement of Mr. Harrison’s present work,” one critic remarked,” to say that had he not become a painter he would have been a poet.”(9)

Birge Harrison (1854-1929)

Hauling Firewood, c. 1910-1920

Pastel on paper

In Woodstock the artist favored painting winter scenes in the lowering light of day or the rising moon. In his pastel Hauling Firewood he pictures a snow-covered, low-lying rural landscape at dusk, whose ground is covered with purple blue shadow. He accentuates the vast emptiness of the setting, and includes a lone figure in a carriage who moves forward in space.

Birge Harrison (1854-1929)

Delaware and Hudson Canal (in Winter), Rosendale, New York, c. 1904

The Francis Lehman Loeb Art Center

One of Harrison’s earliest pictures of the region is Delaware and Hudson Canal (in Winter), Rosendale, New York. The Delaware & Hudson Canal was in operation from 1828 to 1898, and solved the logistical problem of transporting anthrasite coal from northwestern Pennsylvania to coastal markets, It flowed to the Hudson River at the Rondout in Kingston and from there the coal was carried on barges south on the Hudson River to New York City, and north to Albany and the Erie Canal.

Birge Harrison (1854-1929) Woodstock Meadows in Winter, 1909

Toledo Museum of Art

Birge Harrison (1854-1929)

Dusk, Woodstock, 1910

Slightly later examples of Harrison’s Woodstock landscape paintings include Woodstock Meadows in Winter and Dusk, Woodstock. Harrison typically liked to include a stream or waterway running back into the distance, where forms are vaguely defined. He utilized warm colors to enliven cooler hues, and favored asymmetrical compositions - an outgrowth of his study and admiration of Japanese prints.

In 1909 Harrison published a collection of his Woodstock student lectures in a book titled Landscape Painting. In this volume Harrison describes specific painting techniques and expresses his thoughts on topics such as “The Importance of Fearlessness in Painting” and “The Future of American Art.” He writes to students of painting: “Be courageous. Always dare to the limit of your knowledge and just a little beyond . . . Aim to tell the truth; but if you have to lie, lie courageously. A courageous lie has often more virtue than a timid truth.”(10)

Birge Harrison (1854-1929)

The Old Sawmill at Shady, c. 1905

Wichita Art Museum

Birge Harrison (1854-1929

Woodstock Farm, c. 1905-1910

In 1912, a year after retiring from teaching at the League’s school, Harrison authored the article “Painting at Woodstock: The Work of a Group of American Landscape Painters,” which appeared in the May issue of the periodical Arts and Decoration. In the article he praised the ambitions and accomplishments of the school, which he believed had “become the most important and successful institution of its kind in the world.”(11) He went on to laud the subjects “within half a mile of the white steeple of the old Dutch Reformed Church, which marks the center of the village community. First, there is the winding Sawkill, with its mills, its falls and its long reaches of quiet water, overhung with branching trees; then the gleaming white houses of the little village itself, seen from the flat meadows, which are intersected everywhere with gently flowing streams and still pools; then the farms, the fields, the forests and the eternal soaring mountains. The picture material . . . is infinitely varied . . . This is partly due to the fact that Woodstock Valley is a valley only in name; for while to the west the view is hedged in by the twin peaks of Tonshe and Tystoneyck, and north and south rise the heights of Overlook and Ohayo mountains, to the east the horizon lies far and open as the plains of Holland, and the view stretches away across fifteen miles of wood and meadow to the valley of the Hudson River, whose vapors rise roseate in the early morning sunlight or shroud in pale mystery the rising moon. . . .”(12)

Harrison further noted that the “Board of Control of the Art Students League inaugurated the school of landscape painting with a course extending over five months, from May to November, instead of the usual six weeks or two months which had been the rule in summer classes theretofore. Many of the more serious students found even this too short a limit, and Woodstock now has a considerable winter colony, consisting largely of graduates of the class who have become regular exhibitors in the great annual exhibitions of the country.”(13) The group would include John F. Carlson, Frank Swift Chase, John Folinsbee, Harry-Leith Ross, Marion Bullard, Cecil Chichester, Anita M. Smith, Edna Thurber, Neil Macdowell Ives and Jean Paul Slusser, and the aforementioned John W. Bentley, Walter Goltz, Allen Dean Cochran and George Macrum.

Gravestone of Birge Harrison,

Woodstock Cemetery,

Birge Harrison Avenue N

Harrison died in 1929. His death signaled the end of the yearly celebrations on October 28th by the artists in town of Harrison’s birthday, the subject of a great fuss by his wife Jenny, who lived at the couple's house on Chestnut Hill Road till her death in 1947. She maintained a close assocation with the art colony well after her husband’s passing. The Harrison's are buried in the Woodstock Cemetery on Rock City Road. The Woodstock Memorial Society (better known as the Woodstock Artists Cemetery), located back and across the road from the Woodstock Cemetery, was initiated in 1934, five years after Birge Harrison’s death.

Byrdcliffe and later Maverick founder Hervey White recognized that it was Harrison who firmly established the foundation of the Woodstock art colony. “Mr. Whitehead failed, [founder Bolton] Brown failed, and I failed. It was Birge who has the honor if not the glory.” (14) One art writer of the period remarked that “The establishment of [the] successful school was a [pursuit] that [Harrison] rode for a period of [six] years [including his time at Byrdcliffe] . . . . He himself holds the successful building up of this little group of . . . students to a school of over 150 serious men and women to be the most important and valuable work of his life.”(15) The Woodstock landscape painter Carl Eric Lindin remarked that for Harrison art “was beauty, refinement, and gentleness, a world full of the silver toned colors of night . . . to enjoy and dream.”(16)

(1) Charles Louis Borgmeyer, “Birge Harrison - Poet Painter,” The Fine Art Journal 29 (October 1913)): 590-591.

(2) Hervey White, "Autobiograhy," Manuscript in the Papers of Hervey White, Special Collections Department, University of Iowa Libraries, Iowa City, p. 163.

(3) Ellen Paul Denker, “Uniting the Fine and Decorative Arts: Ceramics," essay in Poetic Vision: American Tonalism (New York, Spanierman Gallery, 2005), p. 103.

(4) Richard Whittington Egan and Geoffrey Smeadon, The Quest of the Golden Boy: The Life and Letters of Richard Le Gallienne (Barre, Massachusetts: Bare Publishing Company, 1962), p. 480.

(5) Harry Leith-Ross, “Birge Harrison,” Publications of the Woodstock Historical Society, no. 1 (July 1931): 31. I would like to thank Kim Apolant, Libarian, Woodstock Public Library, for her assistance in securing a scanned copy of Leith-Ross' remembrance.

(6) Birge Harrison, Landscape Painting (New York: C. Scribner’s & Sons, 1920), pp. 21, 172.

(7) Harrison is quoted in Borgmeyer, p. 604.

(8) Ibid., p. 606.

(9) John E. D. Trask, “Birge Harrison,” Scribner’s Magazine 42 (November 1907): 579.

(10) Harrison is quoted in Borgmeyer, p. 606.

(11) Birge Harrison, “Painting at Woodstock,” Arts and Decoration 2 (May 1912): 244.

(12) Ibid., pp. 247-248.

(13) Ibid., p. 248.

(14) White, p.173.

(15) Borgmeyer, p. 605. (16) Carl Eric Lindin, “Gallery Reflections,” The Hue and Cry 7 (August 3, 1929): 6.

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