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Bolton Coit Brown: Artist & Founder of the Byrdcliffe Art Colony, Part 2 - Life and Art

Updated: Aug 17, 2023

By Bruce Weber

Eva Watson-Schütze (1867-1935)

Bolton Brown at his Easel, c. 1912

Platinum Print

Penn State University

Bolton Coit Brown was born in Dresden, New York in 1867. He attained a Masters degree in painting at Syracuse University, and then served as a drawing instructor at Cornell University, principal of the Government Art School in Akron, Ohio, and head of the department of drawing and painting at Stanford University in California. In the late 1890s, Brown spent several summers exploring the Kings River Region in Sierra Nevada. He published reports on his treks in the Sierra Club’s bulletin, which Brown authority Derin Tanyol has described as “action filled tales of personal heroism and creative problem-solving” (Derin Tanyol, “’Stone, the Most Perfect of Surfaces’ , Bolton Brown in the Sierra and Woodstock,” essay in Bolton Brown: Strength and Solitude [Woodstock, New York: Kleinert/James Center for the Arts, 2014], p. 14). He made the first major claims in the Sierra’s, and wrote articles about his exploits. In tribute, two climbers in 1922 named a 13,538 foot peak in the Sierra Nevada Mt. Bolton Coit Brown. Brown himself christened one summit “Mt. Ruskin,” after the English art critic, art patron, draughtsman, watercolorist, philosopher, and prominent social thinker and philanthropist John Ruskin. He made numerous topographical studies of the Sierras in wash and ink. The subdued tonality and heavy outlines of his early drawings influenced the subtle and exquisite style of some of his later lithographs.

Bolton Brown (1864-1936)

Mount Brewer, 1896

Ink on paper

Bolton Brown (1864-1936)

Two Peaks, 1924

Lithograph on paper

Brown was fired from Stanford in the Spring of 1902 as a result of a feud he had with Jane Stanford, the president of Stanford University. On coming to observe Brown’s drawing class she discovered a well-known lady of San Francisco modelling in the nude. The artist refused to abide by the rule that nude models could not be used in the classrooms. Eventually he reached a series of agreements with the president, but he broke every one. Brown was fired in 1902 - his legacy in initiating the art program at Stanford was expunged for decades. This freed Brown up to team up with Whitehead and Hervey White in search for a home for Whitehead’s prospective arts and crafts colony.

Bolton Brown House Today

Brown taught drawing at Byrdcliffe in the summer of 1903 and then settled in the vicinity of Meads Mountain Road and California Quarry Road (Email from Derin Tanyol, September 16, 2020) - his move helping set the stage for the development of the Woodstock art colony. Brown lived in Woodstock till the end of his life. He occasionally kept a studio in Manhattan, and spent the winters of 1931 to 1935 in Bluffton, South Carolina. Brown once asked rhetorically, “Why should I wander when scenes so rich and so dear and familiar, lay at my door?” (Bolton Brown, “My Ten Years in Lithography,” Part II, essay in Tamarind Papers 5, no. 2 [Summer 1982]: 46). After departing from Byrdcliffe, Brown reverted to his wilderness ways, living in a house without either electricity or water, and using a lantern for light and a hand-pumped well.

Bolton Brown (1864-1936)

The Lithographers House, 1924

Lithograph on paper

New York State Museum,

(Historic Woodstock Art Colony Collection:

Gift of Arthur A. Anderson)

After returning from a trip to England in 1916, Brown moved to a farm near the foot of Overlook Mountain, three miles east of Woodstock in Zena, in the current vicinity of Zena Road and John Joy Road (Email from Derin Tanyol, September 16, 2020). He remodeled the house that was on the property – adding a ten foot wide window in his second floor studio. The property is currently on the real estate market (for images go to

Bolton Brown (1864-1936)

Morning Rose Bars, 1910

Brown worked solely as a painter during the first decade and a half of the 20th century. Initially he painted in a soft and suggestive Tonalist style. Often he painted moonlight subjects that include nude female figures relaxing next to tranquil pools in a glen or grotto. He favored a limited pallete, indistinct edges and blurry atmospheric effects. Brown loved to use alliteration in the titles of his pictures– for example, Shifting Shadows, The Gray Glen, Waning Winter and Summer Shower.

Bolton Brown (1864-1936)

The Bather, c. 1910

National Arts Club

The Bather was one of the first oils to enter the collection of the National Arts Club in New York. The painting is suffused with a vague, softly dappled light. The critic J. M. Bowles wrote that in his lower toned canvases there is the . . . feeling of pervading light which unifies all subordinate colorings and makes the work of Mr. Bolton Brown an interpretation of the rarer and more sublime moods of nature” (J. M. Bowles, “The Color Harmonies of Bolton Brown,” Arts and Decoration 1 [September 1911]: 441). He further remarked that The Bather is a “wonder of delicate sentiment. The yellow-green shimmering water seems to laugh with golden laughter as it meets the nymph’s feet . . . the deep woods, the lovely shadows-everything tends to make the picture one of gladness tempered with the quiet sentiment of solitude.”

Bolton Brown (1864-1936)

Shifting Shadows, c. 1914

Brooklyn Museum of Art

Bolton Brown (1864-1936)

Valley and Sky, c. 1915

New York State Museum

(Historic Woodstock Art Colony Collection,

Gift of Arthur A. Anderson)

By 1913, Brown’s palette had expanded and his brushwork became freer. He sometimes utilized a pointillist technique, and his work was included in the International Exhibition of Modern Art, better known as the Armory Show. He expounded on his color theories in his book Painters Palette and How to Master It of about 1913. His scientific analysis of the palette and the color spectrum evolved from studies that he carried out in his studio for his personal education and use.

Bolton Brown (1864-1936)

Summer Shower, 1921

Lithograph on paper

Art Institute of Chicago

In 1915, Brown abandoned painting and turned his full attention to lithography, a decision which the art historian and curator Patricia Phagan credits to his receiving little recognition for his paintings. and desire to move in a fresh and hopefully more critically successful direction (Patricia Phagan, Made in Woodstock: Printmaking from 1903 to 1945 [Poughkeepsie, New York: The Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center, Vassar College, 2002], p. 18). The artist is often referred to as “the father of American lithography.” He became famous for the lithographs he printed for George Bellows, who summered in Woodstock from 1920-1924.

Initially Brown became interested in lithography after viewing an exhibition of Albert Sterner’s lithographs in New York in the winter of 1914-1915. He journeyed to London in 1915 to study lithography with Francis Earnest Jackson, and also spent time looking at lithographs in the print room of the British Museum. Brown objected strongly to the technique of transfer lithography that was popular at the time (where the design is drawn on paper and then applied to the stone for printing – a la Joseph Pennell). Brown called for lithographers to draw directly on stone, a process he called “crayonstone.” He admonished lithographers who did not adopt this approach. On one occasion he fought a duel over this issue - it was of such unshakeable importance to him.

Bolton Brown (1864-1936)

Sylvia, 1924

Lithograph on paper

Art Institute of Chicago

Brown was widely admired as a printmaker, and in 1929 served as the Scammon Lecturer at the Art Institute of Chicago, and the following year was the school’s instructor of lithography. He succeeded in elevating lithography to a fine art medium. He personally experimented with different papers and printing techniques, and created new chemical and crayon formulas for lithographic production. Over the course of his career he created over 400 prints, and documented his experiments in 12 volumes of elaborate notes, in which he classified and tabulated the thickness, texture, sizing and color of each individual print, and noted how each took dampening, inking and drying. He considered himself to be a master craftsman - in the handmade Ruskinian sense of the term, craftsman. Brown read Ruskin’s Modern Painters as a boy, and referenced Ruskin throughout his life and career, and, as noted he christened one summit in the Sierra Nevada Mt. Ruskin.

Unknown Photographer

Bolton Brown Inking Stone, c. 1923

From Bolton Brown,

”The Process of Lithography"

Pencil Points 4 (March 1923): 24

Brown drew most of his lithographs outdoors through he based many upon earlier drawings and etchings. In Woodstock he regularly carried his stones around in a wheelbarrow that doubled as his easel. His lithographs are distinguished by their remarkable range of tone, from a pencil-like gray to the deepest, richest blacks. He created textures as soft as velvet, and his prints stand out for their suggestive and atmospheric quality. Like his paintings, many of his prints feature a female nude resting beside a stream in a secluded forest landscape, sometimes including a shimmering waterfall. Brown frequently allowed the white of the paper to peek through, even in the darkest areas.

George Bellows (1882-1925)

Dempsy and Firpo, 1923 or 1924

Lithograph on paper

Library of Congress

Printed by Bolton Brown

Upon returning from England to the United States in 1916, Brown began printing for himself and others under the imprimatur Artist’s Press. He set up shop on Greene Street in Lower Manhattan, where in addition to Bellows his clients included Rockwell Kent, John Taylor Arms, Arthur B. Davies, Alfred Hutty and Albert W. Barker. Brown referred to Bellows as “The most lithographic lithographer in the country . . . except [for] me” (Brown is quoted in Ronald Netsky, “Bolton Brown: Rennaisance Man,” essay in Bolton Brown: A Retrospective [New Paltz, New York: Samuel Dorsky Museum, 2003], p. 27). He convinced Bellows to permit him to use less porous stones and less absorbent paper, and to suit Bellows’ drawing habits he made him crayons that were silkier and less sticky, with which he was able to achieve highly subtle gradations and tonalities.

Ceramics by Bolton Brown

Collection of Jean Young

During the course of the 1920s and 1930s, Brown taught printmaking at his home and studio in Zena, and his pupils included Konrad Cramer and Theodore Roszak as well as the lesser known Theodore “Ted” Wahl, John C. Menihan, and Emma and Mary Bonnet. Following Bellows death in 1925 at the age of 42, Brown’s reputation declined. In turn, he was no longer physically able to lift the heavy stones or crank his hand press. He eventually almost completely abandoned lithography and suffered from poverty during the last years of his life. The important later Woodstock printer and print maker Grant Arnold sought him out in 1933. He expected to meet a cranky old man, but to his surprise, as he remarked, he found “a warm and remarkable man” (Grant Arnold, “Woodstock in the 1930s,” essay in David Tatham, ed., Prints and Printmakers of New York State, 1825–1930 [Syracuse, New York: Syracuse University Press, 1986], p. 260). During his last years Brown turned to ceramics, built a large kiln, and utilized blow torches to fire his cups and bowls.

Bolton Brown Gravestone

Woodstock Artist's Cemetery

Brown was buried in the Woodstock Artists Cemetery at sundown on September 16, 1936. He body was wrapped in a cloak, and carried on a palette made of white birches by his son-in-law Lloyd Woods to his burial spot between two trees. Ill with terminal cancer he had chosen to carve his own gravestone out of a natural boulder that he found in a dry stream bed. He hired a crew to excavate the rock with a small crane, and transport it to his backyard, where he engraved it with his name and the details regarding the year of his birth and death, leaving only the last digit to be carved by someone else. At Brown’s memorial exhibition at the Woodstock Artists Association the printmaker John Taylor Arms was the principal speaker. Arms noted that the artist “fought always against weakness, ineptitude, and insincerity. He gave his friendship not easily but only to those he believed would value it and give him of their best in return” (“John Taylor Arms is Speaker at Opening of Memorial Exhibition of Works of Late Bolton Brown,” The Overlook, Septemer 24, 1937, p. 5).

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