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Henry Lee McFee: Master Still Life Painter of Woodstock

By Bruce Weber

Andrew Dasburg (1887-1979)

Henry Lee McFee, c. 1920-1925

Graphite on paper

Sheldon Memorial Art Museum


Henry Lee McFee was born in 1861 and raised in St. Louis, Missouri. At 21 he received an inheritance which allowed him to devote his full attention to art. His quit his job as a surveyor, and travelled to Woodstock to study with Birge Harrison in the summers of 1909 and 1910 at the Art Students League of New York’s Woodstock School of Landscape Paintng. Delighted with country life and the companionship of fellow artists he stayed on, living in Woodstock for more than two decades. During his time there he rarely left town except for short visits to New York City, and his return to what he referred to as his “three withering apples.”(1)


Initially, McFee set up a bachelor’s hall with his fellow artists William V. Cahill and Charles Bailey Cook at a house off what is today Hickory Hollow Road. Eventually he purchased the old weathered timber house, located a short distance northeast of the intersection of the Glasco Turnpike and Rock City Road, which became a popular living area and rendezvous point for artists.(2) According to his later neighbor, the artist and chronicler of Woodstock history Anita M. Smith, the woods and the house often resounded with “the laughter of [artists] McFee, Eugene Speicher, Wilna Hervey, Carl Lindin, Ernest Fiene and others, prompted by his wife Aileen’s wit.”(3) Aileen was the sister-in-law of Woodstock painter and printmaker Bolton Coit Brown.

Former House of Henry Lee McFee, Woodstock, New York

Henry Lee McFee(1886-1953)

Houses in Valley, c. 1920s

Private Collection

Detail of Crossroads of Rock City

Road and Glasco Turnpike, with

Inclusion of McFee’s House, from Margaret

and Rudolph Wetterau Map of

Artists Houses of Woodstock, 1926


The house was well back from the road, and during the summer months it reportedly was almost hidden in a thicket of bushes. The house had an ample porch at the back that looked out onto a garden. Above we see a view of the house as it looks today, and a painting by the artist that pictures the structure.

Henry Lee McFee (1886-1953)

Winter, c. 1909-1910

Present Location Unknown

Henry Lee McFee (1886-1953)

Winter, c. 1909-1910

Present Location Unknown


During his early summers in Woodstock, McFee painted landscape after landscape, in a quick and facile manner, absorbed in learning the rudiments of painting. When Andrew Dasburg returned to Woodstock from Paris in 1910 with knowledge of the newest and most radical directions in European art, McFee related that he “gradually came to the conclusion that the mood in landscape and the emphasis on atmospheric effect were not for me. I felt the need more and more of stronger forms, and endeavored to realize them through modulation of color.”(4)


With Dasburg’s assistance McFee worked out many experiments that were of great value to him artistically. He studied reproductions of works by Renoir, Cézanne, Picasso, Braque, as well as the 19th-century French artists Corot and Delacroix. He read Roger Fry’s Essays on Aesthetics; articles on contemporary French painters; Alfred Stieglitz’s pamphlet; Camera Work; Clive Bell’s articles and translations of German writings on the moderns; and Kandinsky’s book Concerning the Spiritual in Art. According to the writer and Byrdcliffe and Maverick art colony founder Hervey White, McFee “burned all [his] lovely [early] landscapes and began to see barrels and funnels. The hills were all molded into cylinders; the valleys became various inverted cones.”(5)


From 1910-1912, McFee worked independently in his studio in Woodstock, simplifying the color scheme of his pictures to two or three color tones. He was displeased with what he called their “barren look,” and understood that he did not adequately realize the conception that was behind them.(6) Looking back in later life he felt that “in spite of experiment and search I accomplished little.”(7) He recognized, however, that his paintings “were plastic, and the more I simplified, the more did I achieve a unit, or the promise of one. Space I began to see, could be as important as the thing itself, if it was shaped, modeled, realized as thoroughly as the object. This very naturally led to an interest in Cubism . . . .”(8)

Henry Lee McFee (1886-1953)

Still Life, 1916

Columbus Museum of Art

Henry Lee McFee (1886-1953)

Glass Jar with Summer Squash

(Glass Jar with Squashes

and Still Life), 1919

Woodstock Artists Association and Museum

Henry Lee McFee (1886-1953)

Still Life with Playing Cards,1922

Formerly owned by Woodstock Artist

Henry Mattson


The earliest Cubist paintings by McFee that have surfaced date from 1915. Over the next decade he placed faceted glass bowls and vases on tables at the center of his still life compositions, where their edges appear to dissolve into the surrounding space and the other assorted objects around them; he applied pigment thinly and with great care, while augmenting the neutral colors of Analytic Cubism with hues of gold, rose, and pale blue.

Henry Lee McFee (1886-1953)

Ornamental Poppies, 1925

Salisbury House

Henry Lee McFee (1886-1953)

Still Life with Yellow Flowers, 1925-1928

Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden


In or around 1925, McFee came to the conclusion “that it was not the well realized objects that made the picture compelling, but rather the significant way the canvas was put together. I sensed a life of the forms that was not always the result of vision but rather a clearer understanding of the motif.”(9) Now he sought to create a living plastic unit of design; he gave space as important a role as the objects themselves, realized plasticity by the right placing of color and line, emphasized volume and utilized cast shadows, slowly and patiently related shape to shape, gave values to retinal impressions to provide viewers with the sense or belief they can reach out and touch an object, imbuing inanimate objects with the feeling or sensation of life, while fitting them seamlessly into the organic rhythm of the arrangement.

Henry Lee McFee (1886-1953)

Still Life with Crow and Peaches, 1928

Whitney Museum of American Art

Henry Lee McFee (1886-1953)

Still Life with Carafe, before 1931

Los Angeles County Museum of Art

Henry Lee McFee (1886-1953)

Fruit and Leaves, 1938

Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art


From the mid-1920s to the mid-1930s, McFee introduced more and more into his compositions. By the late 1930s he began to pare down his compositions and to create more complex spatial and volumetric relationships. He had a simple and pragmatic attitude toward his still life’s: “I am more interested in still life because it does not bother me. It does not have to rest every so often as models do, nor do I have to keep up a pretended gossip as I work. I like to work with objects that are in themselves commonplace. I like the very simple thing; a bouquet of wild flowers and field grasses in a common pitcher interests me more than the most perfect peonies in a precious vase set against elegant drapery.”(10) In 1931, the Whitney Museum of American Art honored McFee’s achievement in still life painting by publishing a book on his art.

Henry Lee McFee (1886-1953)

Woodstock Landscape, 1918

Sheldon Memorial Art Museum

Henry Lee McFee (1886-1953)

View from a Window, Woodstock,

c. 1928-1930

Graphite on paper

Henry Lee McFee (1886-1953)

Landscape, n.d.

Woodstock Artists Association and Museum


McFee continued to paint an occasional landscape, sometimes choosing to paint or draw the view from one of the windows of his Hickory Hollow house, following Cézanne's example in rendering spatial relationships, relating shape to shape, and in attempting to achieve a unified whole.

Henry Lee McFee (1886-1953)

View from My Window, 1927

Ruth Chandler Williamson College Gallery,

Scripps College


Henry Lee McFee (1886-1953)

Interior with Still Life, 1916

Ruth Chandler Williamson College Gallery, Scripps College


Sometimes McFee would set up a still life on a windowsill and focus his attention both on the interior of the room and the outdoors, as in View from My Window which was created in 1927, when he appears to have briefly resided in Manhattan. The artist also enjoyed investigating the interesting, unusual and provocative angles and geometry of the interior space of his own house in drawings as well as paintings.

In the mid-1920s McFee went to New Mexico, where he undoubtedly associated with his old friend from Woodstock Andrew Dasburg, and painted landscapes featuring picturesque adobes.

Henry Lee McFee (1886-1953)

Adobe Landscape, Sante Fe, c, 1925-1926.

Woodstock Artists Association and Museum


From the late 1920s and for some eight or ten years, McFee wintered at Bellevue, a former plantation in Bedford County, Virginia. He devoted most of his energy to painting African-American people he encountered working in the community. He empathized with them and felt he “came close to painting something of their life and my life with understanding.”(11)

Henry Lee McFee (1886-1953)

Buildings with Watertank

(Bellevue Plantation, Virginia), c. 1930-1931

University of Michigan Museum of Art

Henry Lee McFee (1886-1953)

Sleeping Black Girl, 1934

Los Angeles County Museum of Art


One of his favorite models was a maid at Bellevue named Gertrude. In the painting Sleeping Black Girl she appears totally exhausted. McFee masterfully renders the stress and sagging weight of her figure. McFee was praised for the “grave dignity and unity of effect” of his paintings of black Virginians.(12) In 1950, the art writer Arthur Miller referred to Sleeping Black Girl as the finest American painting of the 1930s.(13)

Henry Lee McFee (1886-1953)

Portrait of Gertrude, 1933

Westmoreland Museum of American Art

Graphite on paper

Henry Lee McFee (1886-1953)

Hands with Pencil, c. 1936

Graphite on paper

Woodstock Artists Association and Museum


McFee also created graphite drawings of Gertrude. HIs graphite drawings rank among his finest efforts, including his drawing of a pair of hands in the collection of the Woodstock Artists Association and Museum.

Unknown Photographer

Henry Lee McFee Teaching

at Chouinard Foundation,

c. 1941-1943

Henry Lee McFee (1886-1953)

Underpass (San Antonio, Texas), 1939

Sheldon Memorial Art Museum

Eva Watson-Schultze (1867-1935)

Eleanor Fletcher Gutsell, c. 1905-1910

Platinum print

Private Collection


In the mid-1930s McFee taught courses at the Woodstock School of Painting. In 1937, he moved away from Woodstock after he eloped with his 39 year old niece through marriage, Eleanor Fletcher Gutsell, the daughter of artist Bolton Brown and his wife Lucy Fletcher Brown The two married in 1940, the same year that McFee became director of the Witte Museum School of Art in San Antonio. He later served in California on the faculty of the Claremont Graduate School at Scripps College, which owns more than 20 examples of his art, and at the Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles. McFee died in Pasadena in 1953. In his later years he created a stunning group of vanitas still lifes, symbolic of the fleeting nature of life.

Henry Lee McFee (1886-1953)

The Skull, 1944

Laguna Art Musuem

_____________________________________________________________


I especially would like to thank Sam Freed for inviting me to visit the artist's former house, studio and grounds in Woodstock, and introducing me to pictures by McFee in his personal collection. I would also like to thank Ilene Fort, Curator of American Art, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Barbara Jones, Chief Curator, Westmoreland Museum of American Art, and Mikhail Horowitz for their assistance.


1-McFee is quoted in Alexander Brook, “Henry Lee McFee,” The Arts 4 (November 1923): 257. The most important study of McFee’s life and art remains John Baker, Henry Lee McFee and Formalist Realism in American Still Life Painting, 1923-1936 (Lewisburg, Pennsylvania: Bucknell University Press; London and Toronto: Associated University Presses, 1987).

2-See my blog “Rosie ‘Mother’ Magee: Ministering Angel of the Early Woodstock Art Colony.” For further information relating to McFee’s early living arrangements in Woodstock see Laura A. Smith, “What Former Indiana People are Doing in New York,” The Indianapolis Star, June 11, 1911, p. 53.

3- Smith, p. 53.

4. Henry Lee McFee, “Painting,” essay in Arthur Miller and Henry Lee McFee, Henry Lee McFee (Claremont, California: The Fine Arts Foundation of Scripps College, 1950), n.p.

5- Hervey White, “Autobiography,” manuscript in the Papers of Hervey White, Special Collections Department, University of Iowa Libraries, Iowa City, p. 191.

6-Henry Lee McFee, “My Painting and its Development,” Creative Art 4 (March 1929): xxix.

7-Ibid., p xxix.

8-Ibid., p. xxxix.

9-McFee, “Painting,” n.p.

10-McFee is quoted in Warren Wheelock, "Henry Lee McFee: Comments on the Man and his Painting," Art Instruction 2 (November 1938): 9.

11-McFee is quoted in Ernest W. Watson, “Still Life Paintings By Henry Lee McFee,” American Artist 12 (February 1948): 20.

12-New York Sun, January 7, 1933, p. 10. This reference was partially noted in the entry for Sleeping Black Girl that appears on the website for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. See https://collections.lacma.org/node/230849.

13-Arthur Miller, “Henry Lee McFee,” essay in Henry Lee McFee, n.p.





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