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John F. Carlson (1875-1945): Leader of the Woodstock School of Landscape Painting, Part 2

Updated: Nov 4, 2023

By Bruce Weber



Eugene Speicher (1883-1962)

John Fabian Carlson, 1911

Oil on canvas

National Academy of Design

John F. Carlson (1875-1947)

Winter Idyl, c. 1906-1908

Oil on canvas

Private Collection

John F, Carlson (1875-1947)

Open Skies, c. 1910

Oil on canvas

Private Collection

John F. Carlson’s early paintings of Woodstock are reminiscent of the soft, suggestive Tonalist landscapes of his mentor Birge Harrison. By about 1910 the artist began to paint with broad, thick strokes and to favor a brighter palette. By 1915 he found his own way and aimed to represent nature in an ideal state of beauty, regardless of its imperfections. He applied pure tones in juxtaposed color masses, and consistently sought to ground his paintings in a solid pictorial structure.

John F. Carlson (1875-1947)

Autumn Beeches, by 1915

Oil on canvas

Dallas Museum of Art

Following the closing of the Art Student League's summer school in Woodstock each year Carlson took hiking trips into the woods as a way to “freshen” himself physically and mentally. On his hikes he created small outdoor sketches in which he strove to render the color relations of large masses of form.

John F. Carlson (1875-1947)

High Fields, n.d.

Oil on board

John F. Carlson (1875-1947)

Russell War Garden (Study), 1918

Oil on board

The sketches sometimes served as the impetus for larger paintings that he would undertake back in the studio. After deciding on which sketch to use as the basis for a larger picture Carlson made a pencil layout of the scene, noting details of color and desired lighting effects. Then he drew the scene on canvas and got to work with his brushes and palette knife.

John F. Carlson (1875-1947)

Drawing for Landscape

Image from American Artist, December 1942

Catskill Vista (Landscape with Grazing Cattle) was executed in about 1918, and was created to hang over a mantel in the Woodstock home of Kate and Edgar Newton Eames. This beautiful and decorative example of Carlson’s work currently hangs in the Woodstock Town Offices on Comeau Drive.

John F. Carlson (1875-1947)

Catskill Vista (Landscape with Grazing Cattle), c. 1918

Oil on canvas

Town Offices, Comeau Drive, Woodstock

In 1909, the Eames met and became close friends with Margaret Goddard (later Carlson’s wife), and her love of Woodstock led them to visit, buy land and build a summer home. Upon the Eames’ death the property was bequeathed to Christian Science. In 1979 the town purchased the Comeau property for recreational use.

Stowall Studios

John F. Carlson as the Devil

and Margaret Goddard

Carlson as a Canterbury Pilgrim, 1916

Gelatin silver print on paper

Center for Photography at Woodstock

Margaret Goddard Carlson was intermittently active as a landscape painter. She studied at the Art Students League in New York City from 1898-1899, and early in her career taught art for a period at the Plainfield Seminary in her native town of Plainfield, New Jersey, designed textiles, and illustrated children’s books, including The Making of Meenie, which was published in 1903 when she was in her early 20s.

Margaret Goddard Carlson (1882-1964)

Landscape, n.d.

Oil on canvas

Private Collection

Margaret Goddard Carlson (1882-1964)

Shadow Cove, Gloucester, n.d.

Oil on canvas

Private Collection

In 1907, Margaret studied with Birge Harrison in Woodstock, and first met her future husband. She was most active as an artist between 1910 and 1925, first creating small Tonalist paintings on board in Woodstock and then working in an Impressionist style locally as well as in Colorado Springs and Gloucester. Massachusetts.

John F. Carlson (1875-1947)

Windy Headlands, Colorado, 1920

In 1918, John F. Carlson resigned as the head of the Woodstock School of Landscape Painting, following the League’s insistence on adding a class in painting the figure in an outdoor setting without requiring students to have any training in depicting the human form. Carlson refused to have any involvement with what he considered to be an absurd idea. His departure opened the door to the League’s hiring of the modernist Andrew Dasburg as instructor of outdoor figure painting, and the aspiring modernist Charles Rosen as the landscape instructor. Two years after his resignation, Carlson founded the Broadmoor Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado, where he taught summers until 1922. In 1923, following the closing of the Art Students League’s summer school in Woodstock he returned to the town and established the John F. Carlson School of Landscape Painting, which was in operation until 1938.

Carlson was one of the five founding artist members of the Woodstock Art Association (others were Carl Eric Lindin, Andrew Dasburg, Henry Lee McFee, and Frank Swift Chase). During its early years he was involved intermittently with the organization. He resigned from membership in the association for a period in the early 1920s, as a result of his antagonism toward the modernist work that came to dominate exhibitions at the association. He returned to the association’s board on the eve of Birge Harrison’s takeover as president in 1924, which served to calm down the contentious situation. In 1923, the artist and art writer Alexander Brook related that “Carlson admits that when he thinks of modern art he foams at the mouth.”(1) Carlson also strongly disagreed with the Woodstock Art Association’s policy of charging a rental fee for wall space to exhibiting artists. The artist resigned again from the association in the early 1930s when tempers flared up once more among artists following Harrison’s death In 1929.

John F. Carlson (1875-1947)

Sunlit Isles, 1922

Oil on canvas

American Museum of Western Art

(Anshutz Collection), Denver

By the early to mid-1920s, Carlson had developed his mature style. Now he employed crisper forms, emphasized intricately patterned shapes and webs of swirling forms, and utilized a richer palette to create a harmonious and almost symphonic interplay of color and light. In the foreword to a catalog of an exhibition in the winter of 1930 at Macbeth Gallery in New York, a critic commented that “In [Carlson’s] many years of painting, he has never sought the bizarre or the esoteric in art. He has tried not so much to express himself as to express the fundamental qualities of the nature we see about us, leading us to appreciate the more subtle beauties that so often escape the untrained eye.”(2)

John F. Carlson (1875-1947)

Sylvan Labyrinth, 1925

Oil on canvas

Virginia Museum of Fine Arts

Carlson was fascinated by trees, writing that “Trees are a lot like human beings; rooted men, possessing character, ambitions and idiosyncrasies. Those who know trees see all their whims; see their struggles too; struggles with wind and weather; struggles to adjust themselves to their society. For nature will not allow them to run amuck, heedless of their neighbors; their individual propensities must conform to the cosmic laws within their own democracy. Thus there is a certain rhythm in a wood; a flow between parts, a give and take that is rigidly observed.”(3) He further commented that “I seem to have painted a considerable number of so-called ‘wood interiors,’ and for no other reason than that I would rather be in the woods, than any other place on earth. I have gotten well acquainted with trees, and find them excellent friends.”(4)

Carlson’s Elementary Principles of Landscape Painting was published in 1928. The artist wrote the book with the hope that it would sell enough copies that he would no longer need his income from teaching. The book achieved popularity, and continued to be published until 1973, but did not accomplish that purpose. Elementary Principles of Landscape Painting consists of a series of lectures doting primarily on technical processes. A more personal article by Carlson appeared in American Artist magazine in 1942, which contains this illuminating advice to students: ‘When starting out . . . . Pretend you are a disinterested party. Relax . . . . ruminate . . . . Give nature a chance to begin singing to you. Analyze the idea, not nature. Then paint the idea. . . . Take a long time composing your canvas because the composition will either make or break the picture. . . . don’t be afraid to make drastic changes. . . . After you have decided upon the motive you wish to paint . . . turn your back to it and compose your picture in its entirety before permitting yourself another look. In that way you will be likely to conceive the picture as you feel it. . . . consult nature . . . for facts of structure, color, textures, etc.”(5)

In the late 1920s the Carlsons began renting out their Woodstock home during the winters, and settling in Plainfield, New Jersey, Margaret’s home town. There he affiliated with fellow Scandinavian-born painter Jonas Lie, who was active for many summers in Woodstock. Both were members of the Plainfield Art Club and the Plainfield Library’s art advisory committee, and had solo exhibitions at the library’s gallery. Carlson was also active in the Plainfield Choral Club. In the early 1930s the club and library acquired paintings of winter scenes. During his time in New Jersey, his home away from home in Woodstock, he also occasionally conducted autumn and spring sketching classes, and in 1940 he taught landscape painting at the town’s Van Emburgh School of Art.

Unknown Photographer

John F. Carlson, 1942

From American Artist, December 1942

In March 1945, Carlson died in New York Hospital in Manhattan after an illness of six weeks. The artist, teacher and gallerist Robert Angeloch, who taught at the postwar incarnation of the Art Students League’s summer school in Woodstock (from 1964-1979), and was a co-founder of the Woodstock School of Art (where he taught from 1968-1999), later aptly summed up Carlson’s importance and legacy in the Woodstock art colony. “Of all the earlier Woodstock artists,” Angeloch remarked, “perhaps no one had a greater impact on students and younger artists who came here than John Carlson. As director of the Woodstock School of Landscape Painting of the [Art Students League] and later of his own school, he came in contact with many hundreds of persons who were exposed to his powerful personality as well as his magnificent landscapes. He was a man of intensely personal inner vision who worked outside the changing styles and fashions of the times, creating works of monumental beauty and lasting fascination.”(6)

(1) Alexander Brook, “The Woodstock Whirl,” Arts 3 (June 1923): 418) .

(2) "Foreword," Landscapes by John F. Carlson (New York: Macbeth Gallery, 1930): n.p.

(3) John F. Carlson, “John F. Carlson,”American Artist6 (December 1942): 13.

(4) John F. Carlson, typescript of unpublished notes. Woodstock Artists AssociationArchives, p. 6 [hand numbered].

(5) Carlson, "John F. Carlson," p. 13.

(6) Angeloch’s comment is cited in an unidentified typed sheet titled "Quotes," in the John F. Carlson research files in the Woodstick Artists Association Archives.

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