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GEORGE AULT AND THE OLD AGRARIAN CATSKILLS: A MOVE TO WOODSTOCK AND ALL BARNS-FOREVER, PART 2

Updated: Mar 26, 2023

By Bruce Weber


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PLEASE TUNE IN TO THE ZOOM PRESENTATION "WOODSTOCK ART COLONY KIDS: WITH BARBARA CARLSON, SARAH MECKLEM

AND MEED WETTERAU BARNETT"

HISTORICAL SOCIETY OF WOODSTOCK

TUESDAY FEBRUARY 28TH AT 7 P.M.

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Unknown Photographer

Louise Jonas and George Ault, Woodstock, Autumn 1937

Archives of American Art


George Ault’s mental health deteriorated in the summer of 1935. A friend came to see how he was faring in Woodstock, and found him in bed talking incoherently.(1) His girlfriend Louise Jonas joined him in Woodstock the following summer. Her presence lifted his spirits, and they enjoyed their time there together. Ault met Louise in 1935 on the rooftop of 50 Commerce Street in Greenwich Village, where both had studios. Upon finishing college in her native Iowa Louise did reporting and feature work for newspapers in St. Louis and Chicago. In 1935 she moved to New York, and was employed on the editorial staff of one of a string of trade journals published by the R. H. Donnelly Corporation. George and Louise married in 1941 in New Canaan, Connecticut. The artist's wife, Beatrice, finally granted him a divorce, after many years of separation, and following her own decision to remarry.


In October 1937, George and Louise moved to Woodstock. The decision to move upstate was made virtually overnight. The artist’s physician urged him to undertake psychoanalysis, and curtail his heavy drinking.(2) Rather then follow his doctor’s advice Ault settled in Woodstock, where he felt he would “get things right for painting.”(3) The move was also precipitated by a wish for “a better life and emotional relationship.”(4)


George and Louise rented a small one-room house for $10 a month a mile from the center of town, about a half mile west of where the Glasco Turnpike and Lower Byrdcliffe Road intersect, and separated from the turnpike by a meadow. The room served as his studio and principal living space. It had pinewood floors, and stairs which led to a loft with a bed, desk and window, which had a view overlooking the Woodstock valley and Ohayo Mountain.


The couple lived without electricity or indoor plumbing. A well pump was located at the foot of the back porch steps, and weather permitting on Sunday mornings Louise and George took turns bathing outside in a galvanized washtub that was filled with water from the well. Some people he met at one of the bars in town informed him that one hundred years previously, the building had been a harness shop in the center of Woodstock, and that the structure had been moved to the Glasco Turnpike and converted into a studio dwelling.(5) Louise reported that the house was small but “excellent in its proportions.”(6) Similar sized spaces, with north-facing window and interior walls composed of rows of long horizontal boards, remain in Woodstock.

George Ault (1891-1948)

Studio Interior, 1938

Watercolor and pencil on paper

Smithsonian American Art Museum,

Transfer from General Services Administration, 1971

George Ault (1898-1948)

Studio Interior, 1940

Whitney Museum of American Art

Interior of House of Alison Kofler and Dayl Wise on Orchard Lane North

Unknown Artist

Roses, c. 1850

Watercolor on paper

Collection of the Ault Family


In 1938, Ault painted a watercolor of the interior for the Easel Project of the Works Progress Administration. He utilized the general composition of the picture for his oil Artist at Work, in which he portrays himself seated at his easel with his facial features cropped by the edge of the canvas – a darkly humorous touch.(7) He moved objects around or changed them, including adding a window, and substituting different works on the walls. Included in both the watercolor and oil is the folk art still life of roses mentioned in part 1. The interior is illuminated by the gently pervading light of afternoon, and a sunny landscape is visible through the north-facing windows. The design of the interior resembles that of surviving artist studios of the period, such as is found in the current home of poets Alison Kofler and Dayl Wise.


The clean and orderly studio space is beautifully decorated with rugs, curtains, paintings, sculpture, and antiques, some of which the artist brought back from early travels with his family, or that he inherited or acquired in later years. Louise remarked that “the interior angles of his Woodstock studio, its stair that led to the loft, the stair head, stove, and jutting line of stovepipe, appealed to him as a ‘composition.’”(8) Louise explained that a “home was important to [Ault]; his own home gave him a sense of independence, privacy, and a permanent base from which to work, all necessary to his sense of dignity.”(9)


Ault was required by the Easel Division of the Works Progress Administration's Federal Art Project (for which he began working in 1933 when the program was under the auspices of the Public Works of Art Project) to visit its headquarters in New York City on a weekly basis. He found the one day a week trip discouraging and debilitating.(10) After his move to Woodstock he reported in sick for weeks at a time. After the Federal Art Project officially expired in August 1939, Ault had uninterrupted time to produce for himself, and created some of the most important works of his career.

George Ault (1898-1948)

The Wharf, Provincetown, 1921

Watercolor on paper


From the beginning of his move to Woodstock, Ault eschewed taking part in the social activities of the art colony. He had had “enough art colony nonsense [earlier during summers in] Provincetown [from 1921-1923].”(11) His favorite diversions were reading or taking walks with Louise, often in the evening. They loved to walk on the Glasco Turnpike and through the surrounding countryside, usually in the northwesterly direction of the neighboring hamlet of Shady. Sometimes they went on all-day outings in which they walked to high plateaus, and returned “exquisitely soothed.”(12) The couple loved the cold winter months, and enjoyed listening to the night sounds and animal cries they heard from their house.


During his first few years in Woodstock, Ault relied financially on the stipend he received from the Works Progress Administration, Louise’s modest salary as a journalist for a newspaper in Kingston, and the occasional sale of a picture for a small sum. After he was discharged from the Works Progress Administration in 1939, the couple’s financial situation became ever more precarious. On one occasion, Louise pawned her typewriter so they would have enough money to buy groceries.(13)

George Ault (1898-1948)

Sawkill Creek, c. 1939

Watercolor on paper

Post Graduate Hospital

(Created for Works Progress Administration)


Following their marriage in 1941, George and Louise borrowed $150 from one of Ault’s relatives and purchased a small parcel of land in Shady, in hope and dream that one day they could build a house there. The couple often walked the five miles to the property, and on their travels talked with farmers they encountered on the road. Ault made pictures of Shady’s Methodist church, and local views along the Sawkill. Following their failure to get a mortgage to build a house on the property, the Aults sold the land in the winter of 1943 in order to purchase shoes, coal and art supplies.(14)


During his early years in Woodstock, Ault scarcely had contact with anyone in the area except for Louise, his sister Esther, a few neighbors and shopkeepers, and older natives of the area, whom he enjoyed talking to on his walks as well as at local bars. Ault believed drinking made life bearable—that it takes “up the slack in the unwholesomeness of so-called civilization, relieves the ordeal, the strait jacket of modern life; it has saved many a man’s sanity.”(15) He had frequent quarrels in the bars. Louise explained that “it was easy for him to have quarrels, he provoked quarrels.”(16)

Carl Van Vechten (1880-1964)

Louise Hellstrom, 1933

Gelatin silver print

Philadelphia Museum of Art


Interior decorator, fashion designer, socialite, restauranteur, and art collector Louise Hellstrom was one of Ault’s drinking partners. The two reminisced over Woodstock parties and bohemian good times in Greenwich Village in the 1920s.(17) Louise, who reportedly enjoyed a cocktail for breakfast, had been married to the author Gustaf Hellström.(18) They wed in France in 1915, and lived there for a while until Louise went on her own back to the United States. Gustaf followed her home in 1918, and they maintained a residence in Manhattan as well as a cottage on the Maverick until separating in about 1920. Louise noted that by the late 1930s Hellstrom’s “flamboyance had diminished,” and she was “no longer likely to arrive at [the Woodstock writer] J. P. McEvoy’s party after first falling in the [Olympic-sized] swimming pool [and] making an entrance in a gossamer gown wet and clinging.”(19)


Ault usually turned to his art every day after finishing chores and cleaning his studio. He produced slowly, and required a sense of outward order to get underway with his paintings, which he preferred to call “compositions.”(20) Attentive to pigments and mediums, he tacked up dated swatches of canvas on his porch and woodshed, and dabbled with different zinc-whites or undertook other experiments.(21) He usually initiated a work by drawing or sketching in the composition on the spot, and then painting back in his studio. He revisited the scene as many times as necessary so that he could make mental notes.(22)

George Ault (1898-1948)

Mrs. Parks Barn, Woodstock, 1933

Graphite on paper

Whitney Museum of American Art


In addition to picturing houses and churches of the Woodstock area, Ault focused on rural barns, which he prized for their unadorned, high-ceilinged, weather-beaten architectural form. He painted barns as a labor of love, and as symbolic of the rural farming families who had long settled in the area. He admired the simple architectural design of barns, and stated that if he were an architect he’d “design nothing but barns. I like their simplicity.”(23) Ault felt that to “see the old barns is to see the old agrarian Catskill life.”(24) In Woodstock, the artist also still occasionally pictured New York City subjects, including after being cut from the Federal Art Project.


Ironically, the arrival of the large contingent of artists in Woodstock in the early 20th century resulted in many barns and other related structures being converted into studios by enterprising natives—including the studio Ault rented from Cambridge Lasher, and the house he rented off of the Glasco Turnpike. Half a century before Ault’s move to Woodstock there were nearly 150 farms in Woodstock, mostly from 50 to 100 acres in size, and located high on hills or mountainsides. The most popular crops were rye, wheat, corn, oats, and apples. With the arrival of so many artists, and the ensuing shifts in the local economy, many farms were sold, or went into disrepair. Most staggering of all was Ralph Radcliffe Whitehead’s acquisition in 1902 of seven farms totaling approximately 1200 acres, to spur the start of the Byrdcliffe arts and crafts colony on the south-facing side of Mt. Guardian above the village.

Andrew Dasburg (1987-1979)

Landscape with Barns, 1914

Gerald Peters Gallery

George Bellows (1892-1925)

Old Farmyard, Toodleums, August 1922

Clarence Bolton (1893-1962)

Red Barn, 1931

Collection of Sam Freed


Barns ranked among the most popular subjects for artists of the historic Woodstock art colony. In 1951, historian Alf Evers pointed out that paintings of “Woodstock barns are in many collections and hang on the walls of many museums. No barns in any place in the world have sat for their portraits more often, or more capably, than those of Woodstock. At one time the painting of barns threatened to become the major local industry. Critics referred to the ‘Woodstock or Red Barn school of painting’ and everyone knew what was meant.”(25) Evers mentioned that on the floor of the old barns of Cyrus Russell, which garnered Ault’s attention from the mid to late 1940s, the “older farmers threshed their grain with old-fashioned flails. It was to barns like this that they brought their corn for shucking in late fall, after the pressure of other businesses had eased.”(26)

Former Ricks Barn Looking West,

2592 Glasco Turnpike, 2022

Detail of Harry Ricks Property from

Map of the Byrdcliffe Estate of Ralph Radcliffe Whitehead, c. 1931-1932 Historical Society of Woodstock


Ault depicted the barn of Harry Ricks on the south side of the Glasco Turnpike on four occasions between 1938 and 1941. George and Louise reached the Ricks barn by walking west up the undulating rise on the turnpike that was near their home till it leveled off approximately a ¼ mile away. The large structure was set slightly back from the turnpike. The barn and extensive surrounding property was originally deeded to a man named Newkirk for his services in the French and Indian War. It later came into the possession of a Newkirk descendant named Harry Ricks, who in 1902 sold the farm property north of the Glasco Turnpike to Byrdcliffe founder Ralph Radcliffe Whitehead, with the promise that he could remain living on it during his lifetime. Historian, artist and herbalist Anita M. Smith remarked that as a result Ricks was not “interested in keeping the house and barn in good repair, [and] allowed them to decay around him, keeping pace with his own disintegration; consequently he was always known to the art students as ‘Rickety Ricks.’”(27)

George Ault (1891-1948)

Ricks Barn, 1938

Gouache on paper

Columbus Museum of Art

View of Former Ricks Barn Looking East, 2592 Glasco Turnpike, 2022

George Ault (1898-1948)

Ricks Barn, 1939

Gouache on paper

Brooks Memorial Art Museum

View of Former Ricks Barn, South Side, Looking North, Where Former Silo Situated, 2022

George Ault (1891-1948)

The Ricks Barn, 1940

The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston


Ault took increasing notice of the austere old barn with its brownish silver grained boards. On walking by the Ricks barn one day, a cat jumped out in front of George and Louise, and Harry Ricks, standing in the doorway, called out “You ant ‘at ‘ere cat?”(28) That’s how they found their beloved cat Dinky. Ault pictured the Ricks barn in winter and summer, and daylight and nightfall. His initial picture of the structure, painted in gouache in 1938, is a realistic portrait of the barn, similar in style to his paintings of the Overlook Methodist Church, Cambridge Lasher’s house, and the three-story house at 66 Broadview Road. The next year Ault sketched the north side of the barn in gouache on the spot, and in 1940 utilized the sketch in the studio to execute his painting of the barn and its adjacent silo. The latter painting is reminiscent of the cool and impersonal, hard-edged Precisionist paintings of barns of the period by Charles Sheeler, such as Bucks County Barn (1932, Museum of Modern Art).

George Ault (1891-1948)

January Full Moon, 1941

Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art


Ault soon started to study the Ricks barn at night, at various stages of moonrise. Inspired by his nightly contemplation he painted January Full Moon in 1941, one of his most abstract and dramatic pictures, and one of the masterpieces of the historic Woodstock art colony. Ault decided to paint the picture after walking up to the barn on a bitterly cold night, shielding his eyes with one hand, and studying the “great ‘abstract’ barn deep in snow, moonlight hard upon it . . . .”(29) During the course of one of Louise Hellstrom’s visits to his house Ault showed her the canvas and she sprung to her feet, exclaiming “’It’s not just a barn; it’s all barns’.” Henceforth, whenever speaking about January Full Moon, Ault called the work "All Barns, Forever.”(30)


In January Full Moon, the Ricks barn looms majestically and hauntingly on an icy cold night. The structure is silhouetted against a midnight blue sky. Its front and side are almost in total darkness, resulting in its doors and windows being barely perceptible. The structure’s roof is illuminated by the light of the full moon. On viewing the painting in the small exhibition devoted to Ault’s nocturnes, held at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1973, the critic James R. Mellow praised the artist for summoning “up the poetry of darkness in an unforgettable way— the implacable solitude and strangeness that night bestows upon once-familiar forms and places.”(31) Art historian Eila M. Kokkinen noted that, in kinship with Ault's later series of pictures of the Russell barns, the “dark bulk of the barn fills the canvas with a somber presence that seems to hold secrets of the night.”(32) January Full Moon was given to the Woodstock dentist Dr. Virginia Alekian in exchange for services for Louise. In 1991 the painting was acquired by the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.

George Ault (1898-1948)

Barns on Mt. Tobias, 1943-1944

Photocopied image of unlocated painting

Ault Family Archives


Barns on Mt. Tobias, which is known through a photocopied image, centers on barns in winter. In 1943, Ault remembered a group of barns he once saw on Mt. Tobias, about ten miles northwest of Woodstock, and revisited the scene to produce this peaceful evocation of Catskill barns on a snowbound mountain, a favorite subject of Woodstock painters and printmakers of the time. Ault painted a number of snow covered Catskill landscapes, including Wastelands, Winter. Printmaker, lithographer and painter Grant Arnold felt that area artists naturally created snow- filled winter pictures “because the configuration of the hills and the farms and the trees and the streams and the fences were all very good compositional material for winter scenes.”(33)


________________________________________________________________________________________


I want to offer my thanks and appreciation to the many people who have helped with my research and writing on George Ault. I wish to first thank the artist's niece Susan Ault for her generosity in discussing Ault's life and family background and sharing material in the family archives. Barbara Carlson was her amazing self, spending many hours literally combing the area with me just north of the village for links to Louise and George's life in Woodstock. The always helpful Jonathan Elwyn aided importantly in discovering various current locations, including Cambridge Lasher's former house, and, among other things, helped educate me about the Elwyn House. John Kleinhans generously helped me eye and explore the old Russell's Corners area and match up vistas. Others who have proven very helpful are Donald Lokuta; Alexander Nemerov; Karen Schleicher; Janine Mower; JoAnn Margolis; Jason King, Will Nixon; Kim Apolant, Librarian, Woodstock Public Library; Emily Jones, Archivist and Collection Manager, Woodstock Artists Association and Museum; Alexander Katlan; Fred Baker; Mikhail Horowitz,

and W. Douglas McCombs, Chief Curator, Albany Institute of History and Art.


1- Louise Ault, “Questions and Answers,” George Ault Papers, Archives of American Art, microfilm roll D247, frame 1224.

2-Louise Ault, George Ault: Artist in Woodstock, The Independent Years (Woodstock, New York: Overlook Press, 1978), p. 75.

3-Ibid., p. 75.

4-Ibid., p. 33.

6-Ibid., p. 34.

7-Ibid., p. 34.

8- The archives of the Woodstock Artists Association have a typed list of works by Ault that were featured in his memorial exhibition there in 1949. Artist at Work is listed there as being painted in 1940. It is also listed as dating from 1940 in the small brochure printed for the exhibition. After bringing these documents to the attention of the curatorial staff of the Whitney Museum of American Art, the date of the painting has been changed from 1946 to 1940. The Whitney has further discovered a letter in their files from Louise Ault to John I. H. Baur of October 1, 1969, in which she informs him that Artist at Work was produced in Woodstock in 1940.

9-Louise Ault, George Ault: Artist in Woodstock, The Independent Years, p. 38.

10-Ibid., p. 67.

11-Ibid. p. 28.

12-Ibid., p. 43.

13-Alexander Nemerov, To Make a World: George Ault and 1940s America ((Washington, D.C. and New Haven: Smithsonian American Art Museum and Yale University Press, 2011), p. 101.

14-Louise Ault, George Ault: Artist in Woodstock, The Independent Years,p. 150.

15-Ibid., p. 58.

16-Ibid., p. 58.

17-Ibid., p. 9.

18-Grant Arnold, "Woodstock: The Everlasting Hills," unpublished manuscript, p. 218. A copy of the completed typed manuscript is in the archives of the Historical Society of Woodstock. I want to thank Bill and Marsha Arnold for sharing this manuscript.

19-Ibid., p. 10.

20-Ibid., p. 172.

21-Louise Ault,” “Questions and Answers,” D247, frame 18.

22-Ibid., D247 frame 15-16.

23-Ibid., D247, frame 15.

24-Louise Ault, “Questions and Answers,” D247, frame 15.

25-Alf Evers, “Barns – Their Place in Life and Art,” pamphlets of the Historical Society of Woodstock 16 (September 1951): 22.

26-Ibid., p. 21.

27-Anita M. Smith, Woodstock History and Hearsay (Woodstock, New York: Woodstock Arts, 2006), p. 23. Smith’s book was first published in 1959 by the Catskill Mountain Corporation in Saugerties, New York.

28-Ault, George Ault: Artist in Woodstock, The Independent Years, p. 18.

29-Ibid., p. 10.

30-Ibid., p. 11.

31-James R, Mellow, “A Successful Escape into Night,” The New York Times, December 16, 1973.p. 28.

32-Kokkinen, p. 14.

33-Grant Arnold, “Interviews with Grant Arnold,” State University of New York College at Oswego, 1978, p. 79.








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