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Eugene Speicher: Leading Portrait, Figure and Landscape Painter of the Woodstock Art Colony

Updated: Apr 26

By Bruce Weber

Eugene Speicher (1883-1962)

Self-Portrait, 1913

National Academy of Design


Eugene Speicher (1883-1962) was one of the most successful and accomplished artists of the historic Woodstock art colony. His portraits and figure paintings were widely admired, and resulted in his being considered to be among the country’s leading artists by art writers and critics of the time. The American quality of Speicher’s brand of realism was at the heart of the praise that he was accorded, and was seamlessly combined with the style and sassiness he gleaned from the work of the French Impressionist Pierre-Auguste Renoir. The art critic Helen Appleton Read remarked that “Speicher’s style is American in its restrained realism as Renoir is Gallic in its sensuous exuberance. Like Renoir, Speicher prefers to paint women, and like him he delights to paint the bloom of flesh and the details and textures of women’s dress.”(1)

Eugene Speicher (1883-1962)

Portrait of Georgia O’Keeffe,

1907-1908

Art Students League of New York

Annual Course Catalogue,

Art Students League, 1908-1909


Speicher was born in Buffalo, New York, the same city as the landscape painter and teacher Walter Goltz, one of his longtime Woodstock colleagues. Another local colleague, John F. Carlson, resided in Buffalo after coming to AmerIca as a young boy from Sweden and first settling with his family in Brooklyn. Speicher studied at Buffalo’s Albright Art School, and moved to New York City upon receiving a scholarship to attend the Art Students League. He studied there with Frank Vincent Dumond and William Merritt Chase, and in 1908 he won the Kelly prize for the best portrait of a fellow student for his engaging likeness of his classmate Georgia O’Keeffe (then known as Patsy), who went on to become one of America’s leading modernist painters. On winning the prize, Spiecher playfully taunted O’Keeffe, telling her he would be a big success and she would end up teaching in a girl’s school.(2)


During the course of his first day in the city Speicher met George Bellows at the WMCA gym on 57th street. Bellows was playing in a basketball game, and when it was over Speicher congratulated Bellows on his excellent play. Speicher was a excellent basketball player himself - he played on the Buffalo YMCA team that won the Pan-American championship in 1901. After finishing supper they went up to Bellows flat, where Speicher noticed that the place had a skylight and remarked to his new friend that the place looked like an artist’s studio, and Bellows remarked that it was, and that he was an artist. Speicher said, “So am I,” and a lifelong friendship was born.(3)

Eugene Speicher (1883-1962)

Portrait of Clarence J. McCarthy,

c. 1907

Memorial Art Gallery

Eugene Speicher (1883-1962)

Untitled (Portrait of the Artist’s Mother), 1909

Charcoal with white and

black chalk on paper

New York State Museum,

The Historic Woodstock Art Colony:

Arthur A. Anderson Collection


Bellows persuaded Speicher to join him at Robert Henri’s class at the Lincoln Arcade. In later life Speicher referred to Henri as “the man who gave [me] the greatest incentive to continue.”(4) Under Henri’s influence he studied the work of Velasquez, Hals, Gainsborough, Holbein, El Greco and Titian. Among Speicher’s earliest portraits is his likeness of Clarence J. McCarthy. The two originally met at the Albright Art School in Buffalo, and became reacquainted in Henri’s class. Their friendship developed further in Woodstock where McCarthy studied with Birge Harrison at the Woodstock School of Landscape Painting, and was a frequent visitor before settling in town in the early 1930s.


McCarthy established a successful career as an illustrator, working for Collier’s, Cosmopolitan, the Saturday Evening Post, and other leading magazines. He was also active as a portrait and landscape painter, and organized art exhibitions on Rock City Rpad at the S. S. Seahorse (now the restaurant Good Night), a favorite gathering and drinking place for artists and others on the lower part of Rock City Road, close to the center of the village. Speicher’s portrait of McCarthy resembles the likenesses that Bellows’ painted under Henri’s watchful eye - sharing their informality, painterlyness, palette, warmth and intimacy. Another early work is Speicher’s exquisite charcoal and chalk drawing of his mother, dating from 1909.

Unknown Photographer,

Birge Harrison Class, Woodstock, 1909

Woodstock Artists Association Archives

Including Harrison, Eugene Speicher, Grace Mott Johnson, Walter Goltz,

Allen Dean Cochran, George Macrum


Speicher attended Birge Harrison’s outdoor landscape painting classes in Woodstock in the summers of 1908 and 1909. During his first period in the town he made extra money by pitching hay for $2 a day – a common way for art students to make extra cash during the summer months In what was then a farm-laden community. He initially resided at one of the local boarding houses and informed his future wife Elsie that he and fellow students had been having great fun at the dinner table, that he had not eaten a full meal since he arrived, and that he had been laughing his head off, and singing in a quartet with his mates. Speicher also lived for a period in the barn across the road from the boarding and dining house of Rosie Magee at the junction of Rock City Road and the Glasco Turnpike. He dined regularly at Magee’s house, and following his marriage in 1910 he and his bride Elsie boarded there for a period. Bellows frequently visited the couple there.(5)

Eugene Speicher (1883-1962)

Morning Light, c. 1908-1910

Metropolitan Museum of Art


In 1912, the influential art critic Forbes Watson announced Speicher’s arrival on the American art scene with the purchase by the Metropolitan Museum of Art of his early Woodstock landscape Morning Light.(6) The same year he became one of the youngest associate members of the National Academy of Design. He was avidly sought after as a portrait painter, accepting commissions but also painting portraits of friends and loved ones.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1919)

Portrait of Monsieur and Madame Bernheim de Villers, 1910

Musée d’Orsay


Speicher traveled to Paris in 1910, and while there became aware of the art of Cézanne and Matisse on visits to the salon of Gertrude and Leo Stein. He sought now to learn how the Impressionists used color, and “from the plasticity of Cézanne, the drawings of Picasso, [and] the vitality of Renoir.”(7) Following the Armory Show he immersed himself in the study of Renoir and Cézanne. Speicher equated modernism above all with Renoir’s late figure style, an attitude that he shared closely with the Ash Can School painter William Glackens. The art writer Harry Saltpeter noted that “in Woodstock one could not escape the rays of influence sent out by the Armory show of 1913. . . . That show, [Speicher] reports, made him feel that certain qualities were lacking in his own work.”(8)

Unknown Photographer

Home of Eugene and Elsie Speicher, Lower Byrdcliffe,

c. 1930

Gelatin silver print

Woodstock Artists Association Archives

Unknown Photographer

Eugene and Elsie Speicher in their Home on Lower Byrdcliffe, c. 1925

Gelatin silver print

Woodstock Artists Association Archive

John H. Striebel (1891-1961)

Speicher House, n.d.

Historical Society of Woodstock

Speicher House Today

Eugene Speicher (1883-1962)

Kitchen Garden, n.d.

New York State Museum,

The Historic Woodstock Art Colony:

Arthur A. Anderson Collection


Following their move from Rosie Magee’s boarding house, the Speichers lived in a shack on Lower Byrdcliffe Road, which they rented from a local farmer for $85 a year. They used kerosene lamps and candles for light, and wood for cooking and heat. They eventually purchased the shack, and the surrounding land, and transformed the spot into one of the most beautiful and elegant in town. Their house and garden were close to the crossroads of Rock City Road and the Glasco Turnpike, and only a few minutes walk from the village, which made it easy for models to travel to.


Speicher had many close friends among the citizens of town, and his home was a longtime center for local art activity. In the course of the 1920s, for example, Elsie and he threw welcoming parties on the visits to Woodstock of the Pennsylvania art collector Albert Barnes, and Bulgarian artist Jules Pascin. Speicher was a force in the artistic community. In 1940, for instance, he stirred up the operation of the Woodstock Artists Association by complaining about what he regarded as the lowering of artistic standards at the association’s summer exhibitions (see part one of my blog on Anna Carolan), and set in motion a healthy revaluation of the organization.

Rehn Galleries, New York

Advertisement In Creative Art

Eugene and Elsie Speicher at Opening of Eugene Speicher Retrospective,

Albright Art Gallery, 1950


Spiecher went on to achieve great acclaim and financial success. He was represented in New York by Rehn Galleries, whose stable included Edward Hopper, and fellow Woodstockers Andrew Dasburg, John Carroll, Henry Mattson, and Henry Lee McFee.

Elsie Speicher, Arts & Decoration,

May 1939

Eugene Speicher (1883-1962)

Woman (Elsie Speicher) Seated at Table,

n.d.

Graphite and charcoal on paper

New York State Museum,

The Historic Woodstock Art Colony: Arthur A. Anderson Collection


The Speichers entertained regularly, and Elsie was praised as one of the finest chefs in town. Elsie developed the habit of sitting alone at a separate table during dinner parties, so she could dash back and forth without disturbing the guests. The couple took trips regularly to Europe.

Detail of Wetterau Map with

Homes off Lower Byrdcliffe

Road of Speicher, Bellows and Rosen, 1926

Homes of Speicher, Bellows and Rosen

Woodstock Artists Association Archives


In the early 1920s the Speichers' artist friends George Bellows, Charles Rosen, and their families, lived so close they could talk to one another across the small field that separated them.(9) Harry Salpeter humorously referred to Speicher as “one of the most substantial citizens [of Woodstock] falling next to the undertaker and the butcher.”(10)

Eugene Speicher (1883-1962)

John Blackwell Cobb, 1921-1922

Claude Moore Health Services Library,

University of Virginia

Eugene Speicher (1883-1962)

Colonel Charles Clifton, 1923

Albright-Knox Art Gallery

Eugene Speicher

Colonel Charles Clifton, 1923

Albright-Knox Art Gallery

Eugene Speicher (1883-1962)

Katharine Cornell as “Candida,” 1925-1926

Albright-Knox Art Gallery


Early in his career, Speicher made the bulk of his living through portrait commissions, among them the seated likenesses of John Blackwell Cobb and Colonel Charles Clifton. The actress Katherine Cornell is the subject of one Speicher's finest commissioned portraits. Cornell, who also hailed from Buffalo, is attired in the red dress she wore in her defining role as Candida in George Bernard Shaw’s 1894 play of the same title. This large likeness is a major departure from the artist’s usual three-quarter seated likenesses. The painter and art writer Guy Pene du Bois astutely referred to Speicher as the “master of the seated figure.”(11)

Katherine Cornell Supervising Hanging

of Her Portrait, Empire Theatre, London,

The New York Times, March 8, 1931

“A Portrait of Katharine Cornell by Eugene Speicher,”

Life Magazine, April 29, 1940


In the 1930s and 1940s the portrait of Cornell achieved great popularity. In 1931 it was displayed in the Empire Theatre in London, where Cornell was performing. In 1940 the painting was the subject of a feature article in Life Magazine. The portrait was commissioned by two citizens of Buffalo and intended to be a gift to the Albright Gallery. The museum turned down the gift. Eventually it was bequeathed to the Museum of Modern Art, which then deaccessioned the painting. It was finally accepted as a gift in 1950 by the Albright Gallery (now the Albright-Knox Art Gallery) from the Julia R. and Estelle L. Foundation, established by John R. Oishei, developer of the automobile windshield wiper.


In 1926 Speicher came to the realization that “there are too many ifs, buts and ands to it,” and that he only wanted to paint the people “I want to paint.”(12) Perhaps Speicher remembered his teacher Henri’s call for students to paint what they knew, and what inspired them. He immediately wrote Henri and told him about his decision to change his pattern of working.(13) He now developed a pattern of painting portraits and figures in the winter and summer, landscapes in the spring and fall, and still lifes in three of the four seasons.

Eugene Speicher (1883-1962)

Anna, 1934

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Eugene Speicher (1883-1962)

Martha, 1947

New York State Museum,

The Historic Woodstock Art Colony:

Arthur A. Anderson Collection


For his figure paintings, Speicher preferred painting women to men, and among women he generally preferred to paint professional models. In 1936 he remarked that the models he had recently found to be his happiest sitters were among the modern dancer and choreographer Martha Graham’s dancing pupils, because “they have rhythm, rhythm even in repose.”(14)


Speicher would start out a figure or portrait painting by devoting the first several days to making a drawing from the model, then progress to a color sketch (often in pastel), followed by his laying out the composition in broad geometric lines, initially painting in the large forms in thin color washes, and then proceeding till he was finished, all the while never permitting the pigment to dry until the work was completed. In his later years he mixed colors with zinc white, which resulted in the surface of his paintings having a milky white tonality.

Eugene Speicher (1883-1962)

Quarryman, c. 1927

Eugene Speicher (1883-1962)

John Hommel (Quarryman),

c. 1927

Graphite on paper

Harvard University Museums

Eugene Speicher (1883-1962)

Red Moore, Hunter, c. 1933

Munson-Williams-Proctor Art Institute

Eugene Speicher (1883-1962)

The Farmer, c. 1933

Dallas Museum of Art

Eugene Speicher (1883-1962)

Red Moore-The Blacksmith, 1933-1934

Los Angeles County Museum of Art


Speicher commonly found his subjects among the townspeople of Woodstock. He painted portraits of some of the colorful male citizens of Woodstock. The Rock City quarryman John Hommel served as the subject of his canvas Quarryman of about 1927, and of a graphite drawing in the collection of the Harvard University Museums. Red Moore, who lived over the mountain from Woodstock in Montoma, was the subject of several major portraits, including as a hunter, farmer, and blacksmith, his chosen trade.

Eugene Speicher (1883-1962)

Jean Bellows, 1927

New York State Museum,

The Historic Woodstock Art Colony:

Arthur A. Anderson Collection

Eugene Speicher (1883-1962)

Jean Bellows, 1940

Art Institute of Chicago

Eugene Speicher (1883-1962)

Portrait of a Young Girl (Katherine Rosen), 1923

Courtesy of Wagner Fine Arts

Eugene Speicher (1883-1962)

Portrait of Polly, 1923

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston


In the 1920s, Speicher frequently painted the sons and daughters of the artists around town. He painted the daughters of George Bellows and Charles Rosen—about half a dozen portraits all told of Rosen’s daughters Katherine and Polly. By this time he had fully fallen under the stylistic sway of Renoir and favored depicting women with slightly tilted eyes, sharp noses, tremulous and stylized lips, and rouged cheeks. In many of his large seated portraits he included elaborate backgrounds and settings.

Eugene Speicher (1883-1962)

Portrait of a French Girl (Jeanne Balzac),

c. 1924

Woodstock Artists Association

and Museum

Eugene Speicher (1883-1962)

Jeanne Balzac, 1923

Cleveland Museum of Art


Speicher painted several portraits of Jeanne Balzac, including one in the collection of the Woodstock Artists Association and Museum, The sitter was the niece of the great French novelist Honore Balzac. She came to America in the early 1920s to seek a career in motion pictures, and originally hoped to make her debut as a motion picture actress in 1923 in the Gilbert E. Gable production The Slave of Desire, based on Balzac’s early novel The Magic Skin. Jeanne Balzac was praised in the press for her charm and vivacity. She went on to appear in five films, including Salammbo and Madame Recamier.

Eugene Speicher (1883-1962)

Drawing of Our Farm

[Wilna Hervey and Nan Mason’s Bearsville Home], 1940s

Graphite on paper

Woodstock Artists Association and Museum

Eugene Speicher (1883-1962)

Snake Hill, Port Ewen, New York, 1926

Graphite on paper

Eugene Speicher (1883-1962)

Landscape, 1920s

Los Angeles County Museum of Art

Eugene Speicher (1883-1962)

Lilacs and Tulips, c.1930

Woodstock Artists Association and Museum


Landscape painting became of growing importance to Speicher. He often went on sketching excursions to Shady, Port Ewen, Bearsville, Rondout, Yankeetown and Mink Hollow. His landscape drawings served as memory notes for paintings in oil. Both landscape and still life provided a means of relaxation from the rigors of his work as a figure and portrait painter. He developed a more spontaneous approach, and often painted his landscapes alla prima (directly without any underpainting).

Eugene Speicher (1883-1962) Passing Storm, c. 1921 Woodstock Artists Association and Museum

Robert Henri (1865-1925)

Summer Storm,1921

Francis Lehman Loeb Art Center,

Vassar College


Speicher's landscape painting Passing Storm may have followed in the wake of Robert Henri’s dramatic encounter with a storm in Woodstock while painting outdoors in the summer of 1921 (Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center, Vassar College).

Eugene Speicher (1883-1962)

Torso of Hilda, 1927

Detroit Institute of Arts


Speicher painted many nudes. His models sometimes took the pose of an odalisque, such as in Torso of Hildah which dates from 1927. The painting graced the cover of the catalog for the 15th annual exhibition of the Detroit Institute of Arts. Curator Bryson Burroughs acquired the work for the collection. In the late 1920s, Speicher’s career continued to climb. In 1929 his work was featured in the Museum of Modern Art’s exhibition 19 Living Americans, only the second exhibition of contemporary American art held at the museum. In 1931, his work was the subject of a monograph published by the Whitney Museum of American Art. In 1936, Harry Saltpeter referred to Eugene Speicher as “America’s most important artist.”(15) Despite all the accolades and financial success, Speicher reportedly remained modest in regard to his own thoughts and feelings about his paintings.

Yasuo Kuniyoshi (1889-1953)

Detail of Photograph of Elsie and Eugene Speicher and Dot Varian

(At Kuniyoshi Home

on Ohayo Mountain Road), c. 1937


Following his death in 1962, Speicher’s estate distributed financial gifts to many members of the community, including area artists Wilna Hervey, Nan Mason, André Ruellan, and the Woodstock Library. Their property and Elsie’s jewelry were given to Bellows’ widow Emma. Furthermore, Speicher bequeathed 2500 works to the Academy of Arts and Letters in New York with the understanding that some of the works could be sold periodically to purchase pictures by contemporary American painters and donated to museums.

Eugene Speicher (1883-1962)

Jean Bellows, 1940

Art Institute of Chicago

Eugene Speicher (1883-1962)

The Farmer, c. 1933

Dallas Museum of Art


Speicher’s teacher Robert Henri wrote the following tribute to Speicher’s art: “Serene dignity characterizes the portraits painted by Eugene Speicher. . . . . There is security, certainty and mystery in his personages, and they radiate these qualities to the spectator. It is a delightful experience to fall under their sway and to move in the measures of form and color which a fine selective vision and a masterly hand has had the power to invent. [Speicher’s works] manifest the simplicity and distinction that are evidences in American art here and there. We find it in the beautiful old houses in Annapolis, in our modern architecture, in Whitman, in Winslow Homer – in many others – something worldwise, but very American."(17)


******************************************


For their help with research and images I would like to thank the following people: JoAnn Margolis, Archivist, Historical Society of Woodstock; Randall R. Griffey, Associate Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art; Sarah Kelly Oehler, Field-McCormick Chair and Curator of American Art, Art Institute of Chicago; Eric Lapp; Arthur A. Anderson; and Emily Jones, Archivist, Woodstock Artists Association and Museum.



(1) Helen Appleton Read, “Eugene Speicher: A Representative American Painter,” Creative Art 4 (January 1929, p. 14). For a recent exhibition and accompanying catalog of Eugene Speicher's work see Along His Own Lines: A Retrospective of New York Realist Eugene Speicher (New Paltz, New York: Samuel Dorsky Museum, State University of New York at New Paltz, 2014), with essays by Valerie Leeds, Tom Wolf and Daniel Belasco.

(2) Laurie Lisle, Portrait of an Artist: A Biography of Georgia O’Keeffe (Albuguerque, New Mexico: University of New Mexico Press, 1986), p. 35.

(3) Harry Saltpeter, “Big American: Speicher,” Esquire Magazine 6 (December 1936): p. 51.

(4) Ibid, p. 195.

(5) “Autumn Shows Now Launched in Metropolitan Area,” The Morning Call (Patterson, New Jersey), October 8, 1943, p. 3.

(6) Forbes Watson, “Eugene Speicher – A New Arrival,” The International Studio 46 (March 1912): 6.

(7) Saltpeter, p. 194.

(8) Ibid., p. 194.

(9) Elsie Speicher, “Studio Home in the Foothills of the Catskills,” Arts & Decoration 50 ((May 1939):14.

(10) Saltpeter, p. 198.

(11) Guy Pene du Bois, “The Henri, Bellows, Speicher Union,” Harpers Bazaar 75 (March 1, 1941): 120.

(12) Saltpeter, p. 201.

(13) Eugene Speicher to the Henris (Fall 1926), Henri Papers, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University, New Haven.

(14) Saltpeter, p. 198.

(15) Saltpeter, p. 73.

(16) Anita Smith, Woodstock History and Hearsay (Woodstock, Nee York: Woodstock Arts, 2006), p. 133. Originally published in 1959 by the Catskill Mountain Publishing Corporation in Saugerties, New York.

(17) Robert Henri, “A Page of Portraits by Eugene Speicher,” Vanity Fair 24 (April 1925): 126.







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