John F. Carlson (1875-1947): Leader of the Woodstock School of Landscape Painting, Part 1
Updated: Feb 5
By Bruce Weber
Eugene Speicher (1883-1962)
John Fabian Carlson, 1911
Oil on canvas
National Academy of Design
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 Fabian Carlson were the school’s primary and most influential leaders. Carlson was born in 1875 in the hamlet of Kolsboro, in the province of Smaland, in Sweden. In 1883 he moved with his family to New York, first living in Brooklyn and then residing in Buffalo, where as a teenager he began to sketch the sea, mountains and trees of his homeland from memory. He studied outdoor sketching and painting with the amateur actor and artist John Mayer and apprenticed as an engraver with the firm of Cosack and Company. Carlson attended night classes at the Albright Art Gallery, where he studied life drawing under illustrator and painter Lucius Hitchcock. In 1902 he was awarded a scholarship to attend the Art Students League in New York, where he studied with Frank Vincent DuMond and worked part time as a commercial artist and illustrator and as a bass-baritone soloist at the Baptist Church of the Epiphany. Carlson had a fine robust baritone, and would often break into song, such as is pictured in John H. Striebel’s Bohemians at Big Deep.(1) In addition to singing, Carlson played the harmonium.
John H. Striebel (1891-1962)
Bohemians at Big Deep, n.d.
Oil on canvas
In 1904, Carlson received a scholarship to study landscape painting at Byrdcliffe with Birge Harrison. Up to this time he wavered as to his preference between the figure and landscape, but the scholarship eventually led him to fully pursue the latter.
John F.Carlson (1875-1947)
The Pink Kimono, 1906
Art Students League of New York
As noted in part one of my piece on Harrison, Carlson played an important role in the Art Students League’s anchoring in Woodstock, and the hiring of Harrison to be the instructor in outdoor landscape painting. Harrison then hired Carlson to be his assistant, and upon his retirement he recommended Carlson to be his successor.
Margaret Goddard Carlson (1882-1964)
John F. Carlson’s Art Class, 1911
Gelatin silver print
Woodstock Artists Association and Museum
Carlson went on to serve as the head of the Woodstock School of Landscape Painting from 1911-1917. Harrison was proud of his former student, informing him in the summer of 1912 that he felt “more and more as time goes on that about the cleverest thing I did in conjunction with the Woodstock school was to urge the board to appoint you as my successor . . . . I am sure that as time goes on, the accumulated evidence that you have helped many a poor kid along the thorny way will seem to you ample reward for the hard work that teaching is and always must be.”(2)
Carlson’s appointment led to a surge of growth and interest in the school. The school had a small group of students in 1906 (recalled by different individuals as numbering between 7 and 20), and 200 students by 1912. Carlson gave crits and lectures on Saturday morning, and developed a rigorous summer concours, where prizes were awarded to the most deserving students. In the winter an exhibition of the students' summer work was held at the Art Students League’s building in New York City. A prize of $50 was awarded to the most meritorious painting, and a scholarship to the summer school was offered as the second prize. Among the first generation of artists to live and work in Woodstock, Carlson had great impact on students and younger artists. The New York Times raved about the school in July of 1914, noting the wealth of subjects for painters in the area, and that 65 studios were now occupied by artists, and that one sees “artists everywhere along the roads or in the fields busily engaged in painting outdoor life.”(3)
John F. Carlson [Detail from Group Photograph], c. 1903
Gelatin silver print
Historical Society of Woodstock
Konrad Cramer (1888-1963)
Rosie Magee of Rock City, n.d
Gelatin silver print
Anita M. Smith Collection
During his early years in Woodstock, Carlson resided in a barn close by Rosie Magee’s boarding house at the intersection of Rock City Road and the Glasco Turnpike. The barn still stands, located back from the road, and behind and to the left of the former home of Henry Mattson, on the southeast corner of Rock City Road and Meads Mountain Road. It is now attached to a separate structure, which was the former home of the artist Gwen Davies. Many artists resided or went for meals at Magee’s boarding house, which is pictured below in a photograph dating from the early 20th century, located in the Konrad and Florence Ballin Cramer Papers at the Archives of American Art. Magee encouraged local artists to use her dining room as a gallery for their work. This space and that of the Art Students League, located in the vicinity of what is today the Center for Photography at Woodstock, and later in what is currently the Christian Science building on Tinker Street, were the earliest display spaces for art in the town.
Former Barn Home of John F. Carlson
Rosie Magee’s Boarding House, n.d.
Konrad and Florence Ballin Cramer Papers, Archives of American Art
Following Carlson’s marriage in 1913 to his former student Margaret Goddard, the couple settled in a house on a 26-acre property located close to the Glasco Turnpike and the entrance to Upper Byrdcliffe Road, which at the time had an extensive view of distant mountain ranges and valleys. In 1931, Carlson’s student Alfred O. Elzner related that the artist was “domiciled on the lower slope of Overlook Mountain, from which point, as the name implies, he enjoys a fine view over the village and up and down a lovely valley with mountains in all directions – an ideal place surely for such an artist. There he lives the year round, away back from the road, out of sight of curious passersby, with his charming family, an adorable and adoring wife and three . . . boys still in their teens. The central feature of the house is a spacious studio hall with a great fireplace and a number of the choicest canvases hung about. He . . . has his studio in a separate structure built especially for this purpose. It is quite a little ways back of the house and completely removed from sight, sound and intrusion. . . . Here he works undisturbed among surroundings that can only inspire him to create those beautiful canvases that have made him famous.”(4)
Carlson Main House with First Studio,
Carlson loved Woodstock, and formed close bonds with the townspeople. He enjoyed its “freedom from social conventions, from commercial obsessions, dress and manners.”(5) The illustrator and painter Edward Leigh Chase, brother of Carlson’s teaching assistant, Frank Swift Chase, remarked that Carlson was “naively, passionately affirmative—about paintings, about the arts in general, about the mountain air, the seasons, sports, the wilderness and the mystical pleasures of simple husbandry . . . .”(6) Carlson found Woodstock to be physically reminiscent of his home town in Sweden, and that the oaks and maples around town resembled trees in the hilly region of Kolsehhvro and Almvik.
——End Part 1 ——
(1) In response to the reproduction of Striebel’s painting of Carlson singing that appeared in a recent email campaign for Learning Woodstock Art Colony, Matthew Leaycraft correctly identified the spot pictured in Striebel’s painting as Apple Rock. The swimming hole was located off of Du Vall Road and route 212 in the Bearsville Flats. It was not far from the monument to the Jonathan Apple. Matthew relates that Apple Rock “was a fabulous place and you knew everyone there, or at least my Dad [Edgar C. Leaycraft] would know everyone there. You’d drive in about as far back as the Jeffries house. We parked on the right hand side, though it was private property, no one seemed to mind. From there you walked south until you arrived at the stream. At some point in the 1970s or 1980s the town of Woodstock made modifications at the municipal water supply in the Bearsville Flats, and caused the stream to fill in at Apple Rock so that the giant boulder where people loved to sun themselves is entirely buried.” In an email Jeanie Douglas, niece of artist, art dealer, local art museum founder and important supporter of the arts, Anna Carolan, responded to an inquiry about Apple Rock with a mention that the swimming hole had "lots of snakes." The artist Edward Leigh Chase referred to the spot as the "Sycamores," and recalled Carlson singing there: “My earliest memory of John Carlson was of an evening in the late twenties, one of those two or three generation family picnics we used to have at the 'Sycamores,' on the banks of the Sawkill near Bearsville, a marvelous boulder-strewn place of pools and rapids lined by tall trees, and what I remember was John's singing. He had a fine baritone." Edward Leigh (Ned) Chase, "John F. Carlson” typescript copy, Woodstock Artists Association Archives, n.p. In a recent phone conversation Meed Wetterau Barnett, granddaughter of artists Rudolph and Margaret Wetterau, recalled her visits to the spot.
(2)) Harrison’s remark is from a letter to John F. Carlson of August 6, 1912, which is cited in an unidentified typed sheet titled “Quotes,” in the John F. Carlson research files in the Woodstock Artists Association Archives.
(3) “Artists at Woodstock,” The New York Times, July 19, 1914, Summer Section, p. 2
(4) Elzner is quoted in “The Week in Art Circles,” The Cincinnati Enquirer, September 13, 1931, p. 77.
(5) Chase, pp. 3-4.
(6) Ibid., p. 4.