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John W. Bentley: Landscape Painter & Adventurer of Woodstock Part 3 -- Artistic Maturity

Updated: Jun 9, 2023

By Bruce Weber

Unknown Photographer

John W. Bentley, by 1922

Private Collection

In the mid-1920s, John W. Bentley embraced new artistic ideas and concepts. He briefly studied with Andrew Dasburg, probably joining his painting class In the early summer of 1923 at the newly formed Woodstock School of Painting and Allied Arts.(1) Dasburg had a major impact on the Woodstock art colony over the course of the first decades of the 20th century. His friend and patron Mabel Dodge remarked that “from the early years of his career he had a curious power over other artists. It almost seemed he had a magic wand that drew from the student potential creativeness that so often is unawakened and lies dormant a whole life through. He was able to communicate his own gift of seeing and stimulate in others the faculty so strongly developed in himself.”(2) The Woodstock artist and chronicler of the art colony Anita M. Smith spoke of Dasburg as being “by nature a revolutionary and hacking away at conservative painting, while showing the way to fresh viewpoints through the intense focus of his conversations.”(3)

Andrew Dasburg (1887-1979)

Hudson River, c. 1923-1927

Francis Lehman Loeb Center, Vassar College

Dasburg grappled with the French Post-Impressionist Paul Cézanne’s artistic legacy from the late teens through the end of his career, and In his finest works achieved a successful synthesis of personal observation and formal order, transforming the natural world before him into a harmonious pattern of angular geometric forms where warm colors advance and cool colors recede in space. Under Dasburg’s impact Bentley began to paint landscapes under the modified influence of Cézanne, and develop a deeper understanding of form, space and color. Over the course of the mid-1920s, he gradually began to build “his forms with the spectrum,” and follow Cézanne, whom he considered to be the first to apply “in painting the splitting up of white light into the spectrum.” (4) This was the furthest extent Bentley would go in a more modern direction. In 1940, he admitted that he wasn’t “too modern . . . . I don’t go beyond Cézanne . . . .”(5)

John W. Bentley (1880-1951)

Woodstock Landscape, c. 1925

Woodstock Byrdcliffe Guiild

From the mid-1920s to the early 1930s. Bentley took greater liberties with color, displayed an increased willingness to experiment with abstract design, and occasionally utilized thick and blocky brushwork. Dating from the mid to late 1920s is Woodstock Landscape, which depicts the area to the north and west of the Woodstock Reformed Church on Tinker Street. It is one of a group of boldly and colorfully composed works dating from this time that feature local landmarks. Also dating from around this time is his canvas Ye Old Woodstock Inn, and his painting of the Twin Gables Hotel, which opened on Tinker Street in 1926, and ranks as among his most beautiful and freely painted outdoor sketches.

John W. Bentely (1880-1951)

Ye Old Woodstock Inn, c. 1925

Private Collection

John W. Bentley (1880-1951)

Twin Gables, c. 1926

Collection of Henry T. Ford

In 1924, Bentley spent the summer teaching at the Midwest Summer School of Art, located on the shores of Paw Paw Lake in southwestern Michigan, about ten miles from Benton Harbor. The school was directed by Bentley’s old studio mate from Woodstock, Audubon Tyler, who in recent years had established a reputation as a painter and teacher in Chicago, where he ran the Audubon School of Art. The Midwest Summer School of Art opened in the summer of 1923, and was based along the lines of Birge Harrison’s teaching methods.

John W, Bentley with Students of Midwest Summer School of Art, 1924

Reproduction in the pamphlet Midwest Summer School of Art, 1924,

Bentley Family Archives, p. 6.

At the end of the summer of 1924, Bentley had a showing at the gallery of the Midwest Summer School of Art. The exhibition review in the local newspaper noted that the canvases “portrayed the palpitating pageantry of nature colorfully arrayed in her refreshing summer greens. Cool depths of woods, golden pasture lands, vineyards arching o’er gentle hills, sunlit roads, winding brooks, bridged streams, and many other delights for the sensitive and artistic eye”(6) On his way home to Woodstock, Bentley had an exhibition at the gallery of the Korner and Wood Bookstore in Cleveland, Ohio. He proclaimed to a local reporter that Woodstock’s Sawkill Valley was “the artist’s mecca in tones of unmistakable conviction – a good place to return to as one's anchorage . . . .”(7)

John W. Bentley (1880-1951)

Catskill Landscape, c. 1925

Private Collection

In November of 1926, Bentley returned to California. During his nearly nine month stay, he wandered up and down the Pacific Coast painting lushly colored views of the ocean at sunset, eucalyptus groves, courtyard gardens, Spanish missions, and other local subjects. The reviewer for the Kingston Daily Freeman lauded the California paintings Bentley exhibited at the Old Woodstock Inn in the summer of 1927, which featured the “gorgeous colors of sunset over the ocean, mission bells hanging in Spanish buildings [and] courtyards speaking of drowsy Southern heat . . . .”(8)

John W. Bentley

Santa Barbara Shore, 1926

Bentley’s painting of the Mission of San Juan Capistrano, a structure dating from California’s early Colonial period, features a colorful garden in the foreground. His treatment of the garden brings to mind his painting of the garden of the home of Hollister Sturges, Sr. and Jeanne Franks Sturges on Leggett Road in Stone Ridge, New York, which dates from about 1931, and also features a speckled patch of bright and colorful flowers. Hollister and Jeanne Sturges were the grandparents of Abigail Sturges, author of the Learning Woodstock Art Colony blog Remembrances of Carniola 1951-1964.

John W. Bentley (1880-1951)

Mission San Juan Capistrano in the Moonlight, California, c. 1928

John W. Bentley (1880-1951)

Garden of Hollister and Jeanne Sturges,

Stone Ridge, New York, c. 1931-1935

In 1928, Bentley returned to the South Seas for a brief stay. The Kingston Daily Freeman reported that he made the journey alone, and related that Bentley “finds few men willing or ready to journey so far afield in search of romance and adventure in the quest of material for painting.”(9) Upon returning home, Bentley had an exhibition at the Pandora’s Box Gallery, which mostly consisted of pictures from his later trips to California and the South Seas. A reviewer noted the artist’s high coloring and vigorous handling of paint, and remarked that the giant mountain in South Sea Peaks was “wreathed in pink clouds, “ and that in Tahitian Coconuts he achieved “true tropical coloring.”(10) The writer concluded that Bentley was “a bit of an adventurer, and the rest artist.”(11) The exhibition also included a group of Woodstock landscapes, among them his unlocated picture Birge Harrison’s Garden.

John W. Bentley (1880-1951) Mauga, The Sacred Mountain Range, Samoa, c 1921-1927

John W. Bentley (1880-1951)

Malifa Swimming Pool, Upolu Island, Samoa, c 1921-1927

In the years immediately following his second trip to the South Seas, Bentley seems to have made minor painting excursions outside Woodstock. During the Great Depression of the 1930s his movements were limited due to financial difficulties. From about 1934 to 1937, Bentley was a member of the Ulster County Federal Art Project. For the project he depicted mostly bridges, churches, houses, and rural landscapes. On two occasions in the mid-1930s he painted the Bearsville Bridge in brilliant hues of blue, green and red. He became interested in painting local bridges in about 1930, when he pictured the Saugerties Bridge.

John W. Bentley (1880-1951)

Bridge at Bearsville, c. 1935

New York State Museum

(Historic Woodstock Collection,

Gift of Arthur A. Anderson)

Among other places, Bentley’s works were dispersed by the government to Federal Post Offices in Shady and Troy, New York, and the New York State Employment Service Building in Kingston, New York. His painting Winter in the Catskill Mountains was transferred by the General Services Administration to the collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

John W. Bentley (1880-1951)

Winter in the Catskill Mountains, 1934

Smithsonian American Art Museum,

Transfer from the General Services Administration

Bentley painted the Woodstock Reformed Church on a number of occasions. Founded by Dutch settlers in the late 1700s, the church was officially designated as a congregation in 1805. The current building dates from 1844. It was built under the auspices of John Van Etten after the congregation outgrew the original building built by his father Jacobus Van Etten. Little is known about the design and construction of the church. In 1956, the Reverend Harvey I. Todd remarked that “the present edifice, which I have come to call the ‘most painted church in the world' [because of the interest of local artists], is a glorious monument to the taste and skill of those who designed and built it, whoever they may have been.”(12)

John W, Bentley (1880-1951)

Woodstock Reformed Church, Woodstock,

c. 1937

Bentley was no stranger to the Woodstock Reformed Church. The historian Alf Evers recounted a story of Bentley attempting to attend a pancake supper there in the early 1920s. The artist arrived late for supper (and a bit drunk on hard cider), and discovered that the meal had been followed by a lecture with slides on Chinese missionary work. Evers explained that when Bentley arrived he “found the basement darkened for the lecture and burst into the room shouting ‘Where the hell are those damned pancakes!’”(13)

In the late 1930s Bentley was an active member of the Ulster County Artists Union. A number of Woodstock artists belonged to the organization, including Paul Fiene, Austin Mecklem, John Nichols and Karl Fortess. In 1937, Bentley was the secretary of the union, which late the previous year held a brief sit down strike protesting projected lay-offs by the Federal Art Project. Bentley informed a writer for The Saugerties Telegraph that the artists who participated in the strike felt that the proposed cutbacks were “’a serious blow to American culture’ and pointed out that ‘reabsorption in industry is a meaningless phrase in regard to workers of this type.’” (14)

John W. Bentley (1880-1951)

House of Maud and Walter L. Van Riper, Monroe, New York, 1933

Private Collection

John W. Bentley (1880-1951)

Goshen Emergency Hospital (The Seven Columns), August 3, 1951

Private Collection

The building had once been the home of Luella Morris Van Leuven,

and currently is home to various businesses.

From 1940-1945, Bentley lived on Sheridan Avenue in Ridgewood, New Jersey with his sister Maud and her husband Walter L. Van Riper. During these years he spent summers with the Van Riper’s at their second home in Monroe, New York in Orange County. While visiting in 1933 he executed a painting of the Van Riper’s house. That same year he painted a picture of the hospital in Goshen, New York, as a celebration of the birth in August of his nephew Walter Russell Van Riper. Bentley had a solo exhibition at the public library in Patterson, New Jersey in 1940, featuring 65 landscapes, among them views of New York State and New England at all seasons of the year, and a number of studies of the Samoan islands. The Kingston Daily Freeman reported that his “earliest dreams of becoming a painter were bound up with the idea of exhibiting his work in his native city.”(15)

John W. Bentley (1880-1951)

Key West, 1940s

Upon returning to Woodstock in 1946, Bentley operated a taxi business in which he was the sole driver.(16) He operated the business intermittently through the years, including in the 1920s, when the money he made helped finance his trips away from town. The business also helped cover the cost of wintering in Key West, Florida in his later years.(17) In the fall of 1950, Bentley moved to nearby Kingston where he resided at the corner of Fair Street and Maiden Lane in the oldest part of the city. In April of 1951 an exhibition of his oils and watercolors opened at the Village Kitchen in Woodstock. The show was the final hurrah for one of Woodstock’s most beloved artists. Among those attending the opening were artists Henry Mattson, Edna Thurber, William Arlt, Clarence McCarthy and Edward Emmett, frame maker Vasco Pini, and locals Morris Riseley, Bruce Herrick and Mrs. Adolph Heckeroth.(18) Bentley’s later landscapes are very freely and lushly painted, and feature vivid browns, oranges, pinks, reds and yellows.

John W. Bentley (1880-1951)

Back of the Village Green, 1943

Private Collection

Bentley passed away on August 25th, 1951, and his ashes were interred at the Woodstock Cemetery. During the course of his recent exhibition in Woodstock, the artist, art administrator and curator Mollie Higgins asked Bentley to supply notes about his life and career for an article she planned to write for the Ulster County News and Kingston Leader. Higgins was so pleased with his response that she chose to publish the piece he had prepared, which was written in third person. Bentley poignantly summed up his later life and interests: “Now that Bentley is old, less [energetic], and has to favor his impaired heart, he has chosen to live quietly in the delightful city of Kingston, where quaint old stone houses fairly reek with romantic history. He is solitary, rather esoterically withdrawn from social life. He still likes to paint, and is a voracious reader, so when tubes of paint are scarce, he amuses his solitude with books. He finds the public library a great comfort – his taste running to travel, biographies, history, and all the philosophers from Heraclitus (540 B.C.) up to contemporary Will Durant. He calls his single room his ‘ivory tower,’ and from its lofty windows he looks down contentedly upon the ‘best of all possible worlds.’”(19)

John W. Bentley (1880-1951)

Top of the Hill, Kingston, c. 1950

Private Collection


Many people have helped in researching, writing and producing this three part blog on John W. Bentley. First, I would like to thank the Bentley family for generously providing valuable written material about the artist, along with photographs of him and images of his art. I’d also like to thank the following people for the assistance they provided: Janine Fallon-Mower, Jonathan Elwyn, Richard Sorenson, Virginia Mecklenburg, Deborah Harper, Alex Katlan, Eric Indursky, Sam Freed, Paul Washington, Henry T. Ford, Jean Young, Dr. Craig Moss, Dina Carlson, Barbara Carlson, Karlyn Benson, Kim Apolant, Eric Lapp, Arhur A. Anderson, Derin Tanyol, Ed Sanders, Mikhail Horowitz, Esther Norman-Rios, and Abigail Sturges.

(1) Bentley’s study with Dasburg is noted in Midwest Summer School of Art, 1924, otherwise unidentified pamphlet, Bentley Family Archives, p. 4. In this pamphlet, Bentley is also identified as studying with Hardesty Maratta. It is likely that this is a reference to Bentley’s instruction in the Maratta palette and color system during his course of study with Robert Henri, and which he may have utilized at points in his career. Maratta devised a system assigning colors to corresponding musical notes, which advocated for painters to combine colors at prescribed intervals, using “chords” and subtle ranges of color to achieve pictorial harmony. He encouraged painters to employ visual color harmonies, and to systematically plot color relationships before beginning their work on a canvas, at which point the artist would use a set palette of limited colors. This systematic approach to color was highly influential in America in the early 20th century. Henri believed the palette and system could be beneficial to students to use as a tool, and that an “artist should not be afraid of his tools. He should not be afraid to know.” Henri is quoted in Helen Farr Sloan, “Maratta Notes,” December 6, 1966, John Sloan Manuscript Collection, Helen Farr Sloan Library, Delaware Art Museum, pp. 2-3.

(2) Mabel Dodge Luhan, Taos and Its Artists (New York: Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 1947), p. 16.

(3) Anita M. Smith, Woodstock History and Hearsay (Woodstock, New York: Woodstock Arts, 2006), p. 129. Smith’s book was first published in 1959 by the Catskill Mountain Corporaton in Saugerties, New York.

(4) John W. Bentley, “Bentley Exposition,” Ulster County News and Kingston Leader, April 19, 1951, p. 8. Among other solo showings of Bentley's work was an exhibition held in February 1931 at The Nook in Woodstock.

(6) “John W. Bentley Comes to Ridgewood to Live and Continue his Painting,” February 15, 1940, otherwise unidentified article, Bentley Family Archives.

6-“Art Colony Exhibit Brings ‘Sold’ Signs,” The News-Palladium (Benton Harbor, Michigan), July 28, 1924, otherwise unidentified article, Bentley Family Archives.

*(7) “Artist Vagabond Returns from West.” Otherwise unidentified article, Bentley Family Archives.

(8) “Bentley Shows Art at Woodstock,” Kingston Daily Freeman, July 22, 1927, p. 3.

(9) “Woodstock Artist Off for South Sea Islands,” The Kingston Daily Freeman, March 21, 1928,

p. 14.

(10) “John W. Bentley Shows Paintings,” The Kingston Daily Freeman, August 9, 1928, p. 9.

(11) Ibid.

(12) “Historical Group is Told of Church,” The Kingston Daily Freeman, October 3, 1956, p. 7.

(13) Alf Evers, Woodstock: History of an American Town (Woodstock, New York: Overlook Press, 1987), p. 538.

(14) “Artists Protest Cuts by the WPA,” The Saugerties Telegraph, July 2, 1937, p. 2.

(15) “Artist Achieves Lifetime Desire,” The Kingston Daily Freeman, April 16, 1951, p. 1.

(16) Longtime Woodstock resident Jean White recalls Bentley’s working as a taxi driver in town, and in a recent conversation referred to him as working alone. Conversation with Jean White, October 10, 2020.

(17) "John W. Bentley,” August 1951, otherwise unidentified obituary, Woodstock Artists Association Archives.

(18) “Bentley Greeted by Many Friends,” Ulster Council News and Kingston Leader, April 19, 1951),

p. 8.

(19) John W. Bentley, p. 8.

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