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Birge Harrison and the Woodstock School of Landscape Painting, Part 1

Updated: Oct 23, 2020

By Bruce Weber

Unknown photographer

Birge Harrison, 1914

Advertisement for Woodstock Summer School, 1906

Brush and Pencil, May 1906

The Woodstock School of Landscape Painting was in operation from 1906-1922 under the auspices of the Art Students League in New York City. Birge Harrison and John Carlson were the school’s primary and most influential leaders. Previous to the early 20th century, native landscape painters expressed little enthusiasm for depicting the picturesque landscape of Woodstock and the immediate area.

Thomas Cole (1801-1848)

A View of Two Mountains and Mountain House, Morning, 1844

Brooklyn Museum of Art

Artists of the so-called Hudson River School of the early and mid-19th century were absorbed in depicting more dramatic sites, such as the Kaaterskill Clove, the Catskill Mountain House, the region further west toward Hunter Mountain, and the Hudson River and its distant mountain prospects. In addition to Thomas Cole, who settled in Catskill in 1836 and came to Woodstock in 1846 and 1847, earlier landscape painters who visited the area include Charles Lanman, Jervis McEntee (a native of the Rondout in Kingston) and Charles Herbert Moore.

James Abbott McNeil Whistler (1834-1903)

Nocturne: Blue and Silver –Battersea Reach, c. 1872

Freer Sackler Gallery

In the 1890s. Harrison came under the stylistic sway of the landscape paintings of James Abbott McNeil Whistler. Whistler’s landscapes inspired a number of other Americans of the time, among them Charles Harold Davis, Leon Dabo and Hermann Dudley Murphy (who served in the summer of 1903 as the first painting instructor at the Byrdcliffe art colony – see the blog about Murphy). Whistler’s art inspired these artists to adopt an interest in tonal painting, and employ the use of a single, dominant color. Wanda Corn has noted that the expatriate’s works provided a model for “creating intimate, evocative landscapes veiled in monochromatic mists.”(1)

James Abbott McNeil Whistler (1834-1903)

Nocturne: Blue and Silver- Chelsea, 1871

Tate Britain

Whistler translated the spirit and mood of nature through his expressive simplification of color, line, and composition and sought to create a beautiful and harmonious impression. His daringly simple compositions reflect his emulation of Japanese prints in his division of his compositions into separate areas of tone, his asymmetrical balance of form, and the abstract play of line. He utilized a high horizon to emphasize the two-dimensionality of the picture plane, and treated colors as if they were notes or tones on a musical scale.

George Inness (1825-1894)

Wood Gatherers, An Autumn Afternoon, 1891

Clark Art Institute

Whistler’s followers joined with other American landscape painters of the period, many of whom were inspired by the late works of George Inness and similarly come under the stylistic banner of Tonalism. The artists viewed nature as an agent for transporting the soul to a pure and ideal state – one where man contemplates the beauty and harmony of the natural world and the immaterial aspects of the universe. Art historian Ralph Sessions noted that the intent of Tonalists such as Harrison, Henry Ward Ranger and others “was to transport the viewer from everyday life to subtler realms, to transcend ordinary perception and engage the imagination.”(2)

Jean Francois Millet (1814-1875)

Spring at Barbizon, 1873

Musee d’Orsay

The Tonalists were drawn to the cultivated landscapes common to the French Barbizon School, which included the work of Jean Francois Millet, Charles Francois Daubigny and Theodore Rousseau. Two of the artists associated with Woodstock in the early decades of the 20th century, Leonard Ochtman and Harry Leith-Ross, were impacted by the late 19th-century landscapes of the Hague School, a Dutch variant of the Barbizon School, which included, among others, Anton Mauve and Jacob Maris.

Birge Harrison (1854-1929)

Woodstock Meadows in Winter, 1909

Toledo Museum of Art

Under the impact of Birge Harrison’s brand of Tonalism, Woodstock landscape painters from 1904 to about 1914 favored picturing fragmentary or spare bits of nature (such as the corner of a field, a glimpse of a waterway or forest interior, a simple line of trees, or an empty or near empty parcel of land). They were interested and sensitive to abstract design, and often indicated the presence of human life and settlement through the inclusion of a clearing, fence, path, vehicle, barn or house. Other concerns revolved around the evocation of mood, fluid brushwork, and a palette dominated by a single hue. The landscape painters celebrated many of the Woodstock area’s distinctive landscape features, which, as shall be related in part two, were singled out in an important essay written by Birge Harrison.

Birge Harrison (1854-1929)

Hauling Firewood, c. 1910-1920

Pastel on paper

Tonalism paralled the development of American Impressionism, but following the International Exposition of Modern Art of 1913, better known as the Armory Show, it looked very old-fashioned. Tonalism would be overtaken in Woodstock by the middle of the second decade of the 20th century by Impressionist and Post-Impressionist currents, as well as even more modern artistic developments.

Zulma Steele (1881-1979)

The Big Mountain, Ashokan Reservoir, c. 1914-1915

Collection of Jean Young

Konrad Cramer (1888-1963)

Improvisation #2, 1913

Blanton Museum of Art

Conflicts would eventually arise in the Woodstock art community between the more conservative, Tonalist and Impressionist-inspired artists of the area and the modernists, among them Andrew Dasburg, Henry Lee McFee and Konrad Cramer. The conflicts centered around the exhibitions at the Woodstock Art Association, and works on view by these artists and others.

The artist Carl Eric Lindin was reelected president of the organization at the annual meeting in 1924, but before long, possibly before the exhibition season began, he resigned because of the inflammatory situation between the conservatives and moderns. Upon his resignation, Birge Harrision stepped up to take a larger leadership role in the Art Association, of which he served as president from 1925 to his death in 1929. Because of Harrison’s leadership, skill as a peacemaker, and general popularity in the artist community (many, including the rebellious Dasburg and McFee had been his students), the situation calmed down at the association. Among the conservative artists who returned to the membership were the artists Frank Swift Chase, Allen Cochran, and Carl Walters, all of whom joined the board. In 1924, Dasburg, McFee, and Charles Rosen dropped off the association’s exhibition committee, perhaps as a gesture intended to further promote peace. Art historian Karal Ann Rose Marling has commented that as “long as Harrison remained at the helm of the Association, respected if not passively obeyed by his rebellious artistic offspring, the growing rift could be breached.”(3) Upon Harrison’s death in 1929, Lindin returned as head of the association, and the battle flared up once more.

(1) Wanda M. Corn, The Color of Mood - American Tonalism 1880-1920 (San Fransisco: M. H. De Young Memorial Museum, 1972), p. 9.

(2) Ralph Sessions, “Introduction,” Poetic Vision: American Tonalism (New York, Spanierman Gallery, 2005), p. 10.

(3) Karal Ann Rose Marling, “Federal Patronage and the Woodstock Colony,” Ph.D. dissertation, Graduate School of Bryn Mawr University, 1971. p. 25.

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