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John W. Bentley: Landscape Painter & Adventurer of Woodstock Part 1 - The Early Years

Updated: Nov 19, 2022

By Bruce Weber

Unknown Photographer

John W. Bentley in Costume at Maverick Festival (Detail), c. 1927

Woodstock Public Library District

John W. Bentley (1880-1951) created hundreds of landscapes featuring the picturesque hills, mountains, farms, bridges, streams. homes and churches of Woodstock. For decades he lived in the center of the village in a small, low-hung barn studio on Tannery Brook Road. His habit of living in this cloister-like space led one local newspaper writer to refer to Bentley as “Woodstock’s own hermit painter.”(1) Bentley was a popular figure in town. The Kingston Daily Freeman reported in 1927 there was “no one in Woodstock more popular than Jack Bentley . . . . coming as a young man . . . his creative ability . . . constantly increased . . . .”(2) Newspaper reports inform us of marriages to Belle Azelle Withers in 1910, and Julia Olive Felgemaker in 1927, but Bentley lived alone for almost all his years in the art colony.(3)

In quest of new subjects, Bentley made painting excursions around the country and abroad, including to California, Florida, New Jersey, Michigan, Pennsylvania, parts of New England, and to Hawaii, Mexico, Canada, and various places in the South Seas. The artist exhibited mostly in Woodstock and the immediately surrounding area, but his work also was shown in Buffalo, New York City, the states of Pennsylvania, Ohio, and California, and venues around the world, including in the Philippines, England, Ireland, France, Scotland, Spain, and Canada. It was reported that “probably more people in Ulster County know and own his work than that of any other artist.”(4)

In 1951, Bentley wrote that his art “stems from the French Impressionists and refuses to be distracted by the many radical isms. [I am] fanatically insistent on the four fundamental values of sky, flat plane[,] middle distance, and background, creating them with . . . accuracy. [I build my] forms with the spectrum [and believe] in the eternal verities – this world is sufficiently beautiful for the full realization of man’s aesthetic needs, and after eons of time will be a real utopia . . . .”(5). In the course of the 1920s, Bentley regularly began to employ broken brushwork and to juxtapose two or more distinct colors, which mingle and create the impression of a single tone when viewed from a slight distance. He frequently favored a palette dominated by blue, azure, mauve or purple. One writer noted that Bentley felt “color intensely, and does not hesitate to express his pleasure on canvas [in] pure and harmonious masses of color, form and rhythm.”(6).

Post Card of Paterson, New Jersey, c. 1910

John William Bentley was born in Paterson, New Jersey on January 3, 1880. He was the eldest son of Sophia and Samuel Bentley. His father emigrated to America in 1872, and shortly after began a career in the silk business. Paterson was a manufacturing powerhouse in the late 19th and early 20th century; the Great Falls of the Passaic River provided energy for mills that produced nearly half the nation’s silk. The city’s skilled dyers and weavers created fabrics in profusion for New York City's burgeoning garment industry. In 1902, Bentley’s father established the Victory Silk Company, and mapped out a career in the silk trade for his sons John, Joseph, Samuel and Thomas.

At school in Paterson, Bentley fared poorly in all his subjects save for drawing, and was known for decorating blackboards with his efforts. He attended business college for a brief period, but failed for lack of aptitude in bookkeeping and banking. He then worked for several years at the Victory Silk Company as a silk twister and loom fixer. Eventually he grew bored with the prospect of a career in the silk trade, and, in his spite of his father’s wishes for him, decided to throw up “his job, his home, and his home town, and flung himself into New York City to study art . . . .”(7) In response to his father’s warnings about the potential difficulties in succeeding as an artist, Bentley responded that he “lived for beauty, wished to create beauty, and did not care about money.”(8)

Bentley attended the Art Students League in New York from about 1906-1908, where his teachers included Frank Vincent DuMond, George Bridgman and Edward Duffner. From there he studied with Robert Henri at the Henri School of Art. The school opened in January of 1909, and offered classes in drawing, painting and composition. Bentley may have been among the school’s first group of students, which included Andrew Dasburg, Yasuo Kuniyoshi, Paul Rohland, and Carl Walters, all of whom went on to develop a long involvement with the Woodstock art colony. The artist and art writer Helen Appleton Read was among the students at the Henri School, and later explained that Henri “taught us to paint from the inside out so to speak, to try to find that inner thing that made one particular man or woman. He tried to wean us away from the idea that we were art students, a state which immediately causes scales to grow over one’s eyes, and to see things again as ordinary human beings. There was much talk of personalities and composition and less of planes and brushwork.”(9).

John W. Bentley (1880-1951)

Female Nude, c. 1906-1909

New York State Museum,

(Historic Woodstock Art Collection,

Gift of Arthur A. Anderson)

Bentley’s study at the Art Students League and the Henri School of Art centered on the human figure. He later wrote, “Painting portraits and nudes [through] pin-point, accuracy of observation, characterization and drawing was not exactly what [I] wanted [to do, which was] to paint landscapes so {I] went to Woodstock to study landscape under Birge Harrison.”(10) Bentley first boarded at the Cooper House (now Euphoria Yoga at 99 Tinker Street), where his fellow borders included Frank Swift Chase, Cecil Chichester, and Walter Goltz, who steered students to Evelyn Cooper Lasher's place, which was known to serve borders a bountiful midday dinner.

Former Cooper House, 99 Tinker Street, Woodstock, New York

In around 1910, Bentley and fellow student Audubon Tyler (grandson of the artist and naturalist John James Audubon) converted the loft of the barn next to Larry Elwyn’s house on the corner of Tinker Street and Tannery Brook Road into a studio, where they “lived under [the] tin roof through blazing summers and frigid winters.”(11) Tyler had similarly disappointed his father by seeking a career as an artist -- dropping out of Yale University, and turning his back on a potential career as a mining engineer. Bentley and Tyler reportedly “pooled their money and threw it on the floor to be used as they needed it for food or artist’s supplies. When friends came to call they naturally were inclined to pick the money up from the floor. The two artists, however, penalized them for touching it by making them return it to the floor, together with an equivalent sum from their own pockets.”(12)

Former Elwyn Barn

and Second Floor Home

of John W. Bentley,

3 Tannery Brook Road,

Woodstock, New York

Off and on for a course of nearly forty years, Bentley lived and worked on the low-hung second floor of the Elwyn barn. The structure, which survives today as a private home, was located “hard by the melodious gurgles of the Tannery Brook in which [Bentley] daily bathes, as he dips up his ‘laundry’ water in an old oaken bucket of early Victorian craftsmanship.” (13) The ground floor of the building later served as Larry Elwyn’s barber shop, which became a center for local politics, gossip and storytelling.(14)

During his early years in Woodstock, Bentley lived a lively life among his artist colleagues. He related that he and his fellow artists “were away from home, young, single, full of umph, and [we] learned much about life and art from one another [and) entertained by [our] own music, charades, and moonlight parties in the old pine grove.”(15) Along with artists Goltz, Marion Bullard, Allen Dean Cochran, and Cecil Chichester, Bentley participated in the Art Students League’s masque summer ball of 1912. The Brooklyn Eagle informed readers that for this occasion Bentley was costumed in a hobble skirt, a short-lived fashion trend which peaked between 1908 and 1914.(16) The skirt was so named because of its extremely narrow hem which “hobbled” women who tried to walk around while wearing one. Bentley also dressed up in costume for the Maverick Festivals, which were held for many summers in nearby Hurley. As shall be related, he played the lead role one year in a satirical skit relating to art life in the community.

John W. Bentley (1880-1951)

The Village Stream, by May 1912

Reproduction in Birge Harrison,

“Painting at Woodstock: Work

of A Group of Landscape Painters,”

Arts and Decoration 2 (May 1912): 247

Following Harrison’s retirement from the Woodstock School of Landscape Painting in 1910, Bentley studied for one summer with his successor John F. Carlson. Carlson’s appointment led to a surge of growth in the school, which had a small group of students when it began in 1906 (recalled by different individuals as numbering between 7 and 20), and more than 200 students by 1912. Prizes were now awarded to paintings on view at a winter showing of the students' summer work at the Art Student League’s building in New York City. A first prize of $50 was awarded to the most meritorious painting. In the winter of 1912, Bentley was awarded the top prize for his painting The Village Stream, which is known today through a reproduction in Birge Harrison’s article “Painting at Woodstock: Work of a Group of Landscape Painters,” published in the May 1912 issue of the periodical Arts & Decoration. For the artist, the prize justified that he “was in the right groove.”(17)

John W. Bentley, Instructor, at Work on Nicholson’s Hill, Erie, Pennsylvania,

May 1912

Reproduction in “Erie Art Students Are Afforded an Unusual Opportunity

in the Sketch Class Instruction,” The Erie Sunday Herald, May 26, 1912,

Second Section, p. 11.

Bentley spent the summer and early autumn of 1912 teaching an outdoor sketch class at the Erie Art League in Erie, Pennsylvania. He was drawn to the town by the artist and decorator Maxwell Griest, who met Bentley the previous summer while studying with Carlson in Woodstock. A contemporary article referred to the school as “a child of the Art Students League [of Woodstock]."(18) Students were free to choose their own motif to sketch, with technical direction provided by Bentley. In the manner of the Woodstock School of Landscape Painting the students set their sights on discovering picturesque “bits to paint." If deemed successful, the students were given the opportunity to develop their rough outdoor sketches further in the studio.

John W. Bentley (1880-1951)

Lasher’s Farm in Winter, c. 1912-1915

John W. Bentley (1880-1951)

Winter Hush, 1917

Private Collection

During his time in Pennsylvania, Bentley made painting excursions in and around the city, Following the end of classes an exhibition was held of Bentley’s pictures of the area, and those that he had brought with him from Woodstock. A review of the display indicates the types of subjects the artist favored around this time and for much of the decade: pictures of farm houses set against distant hillsides, country bridges, sunny snow scenes (with ice-bound streams and frozen waterfalls), and grey overcast days. The exhibition also featured a moonlight scene featuring a grove of birches with shadowy white-clad figures moving within it.(19) At this time, Bentley often favored picturing birch trees, muddy or snowy roads and watery reflections.

———-End Part 1———-

Many people have assisted 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) “Reviews Work of Local Artist, Splendid Tribute Paid John W. Bentley, Oil Painter,”

The Morning Call (Paterson, New Jersey), December 10, 1924, p. 16.

(2) “Woodstock Artist Marries Heiress,” The Kingston Daily Freeman, September 21, 1927, p. 11.

(3) The details regarding Bentley romantic relationships with Belle Azelle Withers and Julia Olive Felgemaker remains unclear. He is recorded as marrying Withers in Jersey City, New Jersey in April of 1910. Neither the date of their divorce is known, nor is the exact date of her remarriage to the tile manufacturer Ernest August Bilhuber. In 1917, an article in the Kingston Daily Freeman announced Bentley’s marriage to Felgemaker, who was the daughter and heiress of Augustus B. Flegemaker, owner of the Felgemaker Organ Company in Erie, Pennsylvania, one of the largest church organ manufacturers in the world. “Woodstock Artist Marries Heiress,” The Kingston Daily Freeman, September 21, 1927, p. 11. The two evidently met while Bentley was teaching in Erie in the summer of 1912, and according to the Kingston Daily Freeman “first became friends, and . . . have been friends ever since, the acquaintance gradually ripening into great esteem and affection.” The marriage plans presumably fell apart as later references to Olive indicate that she remained unmarried. An obituary for the artist located in the John W. Bentley file in the Woodstock Artists Association Archives states that he never married. “John W. Bentley,” August 1951, otherwise unidentified obituary, Woodstock Artists Association Archives.

(4) “Bentley Says he Preferred Art to Silk,” otherwise unidentified article, Bentley Family Archives. Copy of article below.

(5) John W. Bentley, “Bentley Exposition,” Ulster County News and Kingston Leader, April 19, 1951, p. 8.

(6) Midwest Summer School of Art, 1923, otherwise unidentified pamphlet, Bentley Family Archives, p. 5.

(7) John W. Bentley, p. 5.

(8) “Bentley Says he Preferred Art to Silk.” For information about Bentley’s early life in Paterson, relationship with his father, and first years in Woodstock see “Bentley Exhibition to Open,” Kingston Daily Freeman, March 10, 1951, p. 5.

(9) Helen Appleton Read, “’I Paint My People,’ Is Henri’s Art Key,” The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, February 12, 1916, p. 10.

(10) “Reviews Work of Local Artist, Splendid Tribute Paid John W. Bentley, Oil Painter,” p. 16.

(11) Ibid. To see the interior of the property, which has been renovated over the years, go to the link:

(12) “Bentley Says he Preferred Art to Silk.”

(13) “Reviews Work of Local Artist, Splendid Tribute Paid John W. Bentley, Oil Painter,” p. 16.

(14) Richard R. Heppner and Janine Fallon-Mower, Legendary Locals of Woodstock (Mt. Pleasant, South Carolina: Arcadia Publishing Company, 2013), p. 79.

(15) John W. Bentley, p. 4.

(16) “Art Student Dance,” The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, July 6, 1911, p. 16.

(17) John W. Bentley, p. 4.

(18) “Erie Art Students Are Afforded an Unusual Opportunity in the Sketch Classes Instruction,” The Erie Sunday Herald, May 26, 1912, section two, p. 11.

(19) “Art Classes Have Been Closed,” September 28, 1912, otherwise unidentified article, Bentley Family Archives.

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