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Julia Searing Leaycraft: Independence, Identity, and a Woman’s Life as an Artist

Updated: Dec 31, 2022

By Matthew T. Leaycraft


This month Matthew T. Leaycraft is contributing an article about his grandmother Julia Leaycraft, an instrumental figure in the historic Woodstock art colony. Coming next

is a three part piece on George Ault. Best Wishes to All for the New Year!

Julia Leaycraft, Vassar Student,

At Her Parent’s House, Nantucket, Massachusetts, c. 1906

Leaycraft Family Archives


Julia Leaycraft’s quest for independence and creative self-expression manifested in her lifework as an artist, writer, educator, and single mother. Breaking free of the conventional bonds women faced at the turn of the 20th century, she found in Woodstock a place where she would form her own artistic, intellectual, and personal identity. To truly understand Julia, one must consider her progressive upbringing, the value she placed on independence, the rigid social expectations imposed on women of her time, and the courage it took for her to find her own way.


Born in 1885 at her grandparent's house on the Hudson north of Saugerties, Julia Searing grew up in Kingston, New York. Her father John Searing was a prominent lawyer and civic leader. He was the owner and editor of the Kingston Daily Leader and a friend of, and law partner with, Alton B. Parker, the Democratic presidential candidate who lost to Theodore Roosevelt by a landslide in 1904. Julia’s father concluded his career as chief counsel for the Brooklyn Rapid Transit Railroad. Her mother Annie Pidgeon Searing was a well-published writer of fiction and suffragist who sometimes shared the speaking stage with her friends and colleagues Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. Julia and her sister Isabelle grew up in a household that put a high value on art, culture, and education. Family friends included artists; the Hudson River School painter Jervis McEntee; his cousin, the painter Julia Dillon; and members of the Thomas Cole family. Julia grew up with a wider view of life’s possibilities than most young women of her era.


Julia attended Kingston Academy and, like her mother, went on to study at Vassar College. She graduated as president of the Class of 1906. At Vassar, she formed many lifelong friendships with women who, like her, came of age amid the prevailing feminist ideal that became known as the “New Woman.” This concept embodied the then radical goals of independence and developing the full potential of women beyond their traditionally assigned roles, allowing them to take their place in the wider world as the equals of men. The quest for gender equality remains a struggle to this day, but represented an even greater challenge for a strong-willed, capable woman in the early 20th century.

Walter Goltz (1875-1953)

To Miss Searing – Woodstock Landscape, c. 1910

Watercolor on paper

Private Collection


After graduating from Vassar, Julia began her journey to become an artist. For three years, she studied at the Arts Student’s League in New York City. Her instructors there were F. Luis Mora, Frank DuMond, and William Merritt Chase.


Julia first came to Woodstock in 1907 as a student at the League’s Woodstock School of Landscape Painting under Birge Harrison, John F. Carlsen, and Walter Goltz. She returned for four successive summers through 1910.

Julia Leaycraft (1885-1960)

Woodstock Landscape, c. 1910

Private Collection

Julia Leaycraft (1885-1960)

Beach at Nantucket, c. 1907

Private Collection


Surviving work from her student years is scant, but the Woodstock landscape and Nantucket beach scene shown here typify the Tonalist and Impressionist influences on her early work.

Alice Boughton (1866-1943)

Portrait of Julia and Ann Leaycraft,

c. 1916

Platinum print

Leaycraft Family Arhives


When she concluded her studies, Julia could have lived at home with her parents who at that time resided in Gramercy Park and at their summer place on Nantucket, while continuing to paint as she awaited eventual marriage and motherhood, but it was important to her that she be independent and self-supporting, and making a professional contribution in the world. In 1909, she thus became the art reviewer for Gustave Stickley’s Craftsman Magazine. Soon thereafter, she was named managing editor of the Delineator, a popular woman’s magazine featuring fashion, culture, and fine arts. Her work in publishing brought Julia into contact with leading cultural figures, including her friend and colleague Theodore Dreiser; Lady Augusta Gregory, founder of the Abbey Theater; and Photo-Secessionist photographer Alice Boughton.


In 1913 Julia married Edgar Crawford Leaycraft, Sr. Thomas Cole, an Episcopal priest and son of the Hudson River School painter, performed the ceremony. Edgar graduated from the Collegiate School in New York City and was a member of the Harvard Class of 1902. After a year at Harvard Law School, he decided to join his family’s real estate business, J. Edgar Leaycraft & Co., founded in 1872 by his father. The firm had been instrumental in the development of the Upper West Side of Manhattan in the 1880s and 90s, and specialized in larger-scale investment-grade transactions. It also managed the Stuyvesant estate in lower Manhattan. Not long after their marriage, her husband became president of the company. Edgar and Julia had two children: Ann, born in 1914 and, Edgar, Jr., who was nicknamed Peter, in 1918.

Leaycraft Family, c. 1915

Left to right; Julia, Edgar, and Ann Leaycraft; Caroline Leaycraft, Julia’s mother-in-law; her niece, Carol Donohugh; her sister-in-law, Agnes Leaycraft Donohugh; her nephew Crawford Donohugh; and brother-in-law Thomas Donohugh at the Leaycraft family summer house, Waterville Valley, New Hampshire,

Leaycraft Family Archives


Both Julia and Edgar were idealistic and felt the need to engage life’s deeper meaning. However, this manifested differently for each of them. For Julia it was primarily through art. For Edgar it was through Christianity, his church, and his love of nature and the outdoors. Edgar was a life-long trustee and officer of the New York City Mission Society, the oldest social service non-profit in New York.(1) He also served as a trustee of Christ Church Methodist, where he chaired the building committee that oversaw the construction of the parish’s church, a Ralph Adams Cram masterpiece, on the corner of Park Avenue and 60th Street.(2) He was an all-around outdoorsman and avid hiker in the White Mountains of New Hampshire which he loved. He was also an equestrian and a member of the polo-playing cavalry unit of the New York State National Guard, Squadron A.

Julia Leaycraft Early in Her Marriage,

c. 1915

Leaycraft Family Archives


During the early years of her marriage and motherhood, Julia continued her work life, a choice more radical still than working as a single woman. Even at this distance, members of her family can intuit the silent disapproval of her in-laws. During World War I, she was head of magazine publicity for the War Work Council of the Y.W.C.A. She then taught art at the Slater Museum in Norwich, Connecticut. Julia also became very active in women’s causes. She founded and became the first president of a New York non-profit, the Intercollegiate Bureau of Occupations, which was the first employment agency for college-educated women in the United States.

In 1915, she was a founding member of a progressive women’s public advocacy group, the Women’s City Club of New York. Membership was by invitation and limited to one hundred members, among them workers’ rights advocate Frances Perkins, who later became secretary of labor under President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and progressive journalist Ida Tarbell.(3)

Anita M. Smith (1893-1968)

House in Lake Hill, c. 1923

Private Collection


As time passed, Julia found her conventional social and married life constricting and felt the need to develop an individual identity on her own terms. And so for most of the 1920s, Julia along with her children began living apart from Edgar, spending all or part of the year in Woodstock, New York, where she was able to focus on her art and live in a like-minded community of artists and intellectuals. She became very close friends with the Woodstock painter Anita M. Smith, who went on to become an important historian of Woodstock as well as an herbalist. Together, they shared a house in Lake Hill for the winter of 1922 and 1923.


In forging her independence, Julia gained the freedom to live as she chose and to grow into the person she was meant to be. But, that freedom came at a price. Then, as now, it was not easy to be a single mother of young children. While traditional married life had limitations, foregoing it also meant giving up certain social and societal standings along with the security and economic implications that went with them. Julia and her husband amicably divorced in 1929, and she lived without a partner for the rest of her life.


Julia Leaycraft Playing with “Raggedy” and Peter at the Woodstock Mill (Now Clubhouse of Woodstock Golf Club),

c. 1926

Leaycraft Family Archives

Living Room, Woodstock Mill,

Now the Main Dining Room

of the Woodstock Golf Club, 1936 Leaycraft Family Archives


From 1924 to 1928, Julia and her children lived in an 18th-century gristmill that had been recently converted to a unique and beautiful house by her friends the artist Carl Eric Lindin and his wife Louise. Following her occupancy, it became the clubhouse for the Woodstock Golf Club, which it remains today. She had a large studio on the second floor where she painted the portrait of her son, then about ten years old, shown below.

Julia Leaycraft (1885-1960)

Portrait of Peter, c. 1928

Private Collection

Julia Leaycraft (1885-1960)

Woodstock Landscape, c. 1925

Private Collection


Julia Leaycraft (1885-1960)

The Snowy Road, 1950

Lithograph on paper

Historical Society of Woodstock


Much of Julia’s life at this time centered on the activities and education of her young children. They adored country life in Woodstock and had many friends there of the same age, including Karin and Gregory Lindin (children of the Lindins), Agnes and Karl Schleicher (children of Eugen and Mina Schleicher, owners of the popular Jack Horner Shop, next to the Woodstock Artists Association), and Mary D. and Gretchen Smith (daughters of artist Judson Smith and his wife Mary, who created batiks and was also active as a craftsperson). In the summers, they attended a Montessori School led by craftsperson and educator Elizabeth Fraser, who had trained under Mme. Montessori. Classes were held in an old barn on Zena Road, later converted to a house by Murray and Elizabeth Hoffman, in what is now my and my husband's living room.

Julia Leaycraft (far right) Organizing Children’s Games with Ann Leaycraft (far left) at Woodstock, c. 1925

Leaycraft Family Archives

Agnes Schleicher, Peter Leaycraft, Julia Leaycraft, Karl Schleicher, Ann Leaycraft, Kim (?), and the Elephant at Maverick Festival, 1926

Leaycraft Family Archives

Ann Leaycraft as Athena in the King-Coit Production of the Story of Theseus, Byrdcliffe Theater, 1925

Leaycraft Family Archives


The then well-known King-Coit Children’s Theater of New York provided an immersive and creative theater experience mounting several productions in Woodstock during the 1920s. The Maverick Festival became a high point of the summer, with its themes and costumes planned long in advance. When her children were a little older, Julia would spend a good part of every summer traveling in Europe, sometimes taking along the children when they were not with their father. For many summers, Peter attended a summer camp in Talloires on Lake Annecy in the French Alps headed by progressive international educator Donald MacJannet.


Former Julia Leaycraft House

90 Rock City Road

Julia Leaycraft (1885-1960)

The Backyard, c. 1945

Private Collection

Julia Leaycraft (1885-1960)

Garage, c. 1945

Private Collection

Julia Leaycraft's Former Studio Building

Off Rock City Road Obscured by Tree, 2022

Former Studio with Bluestone Fireplace of Julia Leaycraft, 2022


In 1928, Julia was offered the post of chair of the art department at the Dalton School in New York City. During her tenure, she developed an art history survey course curriculum that was accepted for academic credit at Vassar, Smith, Mount Holyoke, Wellesley and Wheaton Colleges. She left Dalton in 1932 and was succeeded by her friend and later Woodstock neighbor, Gwen Davies. In the early 1930s, she bought a house at 90 Rock City Road, three houses south of the corner of Glasco Turnpike, on the east side of the road. With her daughter at Vassar and her son at the Loomis/Chaffee School, Julia divided her time between New York City and Woodstock, becoming more active in local civic affairs. Her beautiful beamed studio with a large bluestone fireplace was one of her greatest joys. It was her practice to spend a fixed amount of time in the studio daily regardless of actual artistic outcome.

Julia Leaycraft (1885-1960)

Village in Winter, c. 1940,

Woodstock Artist Association

and Museum

Julia Leaycraft (1885-1960)

Snowy Road, 1938

Historical Society of Woodstock


Julia engaged one of the country’s leading artists at the time, Woodstock painter Henry Lee McFee to provide periodic private critiques of her work and also sought critical insight from her artist neighbor and friend Henry Mattson. Her work of the 1930s and 40s represents her mature style, which incorporates elements and themes then prevailing among contemporary American visual art. Her choice of subject matter shows the influence of the American Scene. Her palette is somewhat muted, as was very typical at the time. There is sometimes an almost primitive, seemingly naif component that relates to earlier American art in the folk tradition, at the same time making her paintings relatable and informal, almost offhand. This was deliberate and purposefully integrated with very carefully structured form and composition both together giving a unity and dynamism to her work. Her admiration for Cézanne is apparent.

Julia Leaycraft (1885-1960)

The Baseball Game, c. 1940

Private Collection

The Baseball Game (Detail)


The Baseball Game, shown above, includes all the familiar surroundings of Woodstock’s Andy Lee Field: the swing set, hillside cemetery, bleachers, and nearby mountains. Yet, none of them are in their rightful place. All the components have been scrambled and rearranged to densely populate the frame and focus our attention on the open field and players who appear to be in mid-play. Everything is in movement. The perspective is slightly skewed upward. The parked cars are too large given their placement in the distance. The viewer seems airborne, almost falling into the scene. But, the disconcerting distortions don’t matter since the overall depiction of activity is so jolly and everyone is having a great time. Adding to the sense of spontaneity the brushwork is very loose and undetailed. The spectators are just animated daubs of paint. The whole focus is on the game, except for the deftly painted woman in the lower right petting a dog, which renders the scene immediate and alive.(4)

Julia Leaycraft (1885-1960)

The Artist’s Studio, c. 1935

Private Collection


The Artist’s Studio shares similar qualities. Again, the usually observed elements of a real-life setting are present, but in changed form. The roof outlines are those of a neighboring building and not visible from the vantage point depicted. The studio’s chimney, in fact, lies at the rear and is less prominent. Through these alterations, the building becomes more monumental, especially as its dark and indistinct form rises up from an open, light-filled foreground that again seems to strangely tilt upward. Were you to take a step forward on that lawn, you could not be absolutely sure of any solid ground beneath you. The soft, loose brushwork and surrounding fecundity of the garden give the scene a dreamlike, transcendent quality. This is a place of unknown life energy and mystery, of beauty not without its perils, which for Julia was an apt metaphor for her own creative and spiritual life.

Julia Leaycraft (1885-1960)

The Bridge, c. 1935

Private Collection

Julia Leaycraft (1885-1960)

Quinces, c. 1940

Private Collection

Julia Leaycraft (1885-1960)

Still Life, c. 1940

Private Collection


Included above are two more paintings representative of Julia’s work. The Bridge depicts a view of Sutton Place at 53rd Street from high above overlooking the newly constructed FDR Drive, which at that time was considered a wonder of modernity. The careening highway and cars are out of scale; they overshadow the pedestrians and dominate a scene that is at the same time bathed in soft light and a kind of gentleness. Quinces is a still life of fruit from a tree reputedly brought back from China by the previous owner of her house in Woodstock and the centerpiece of her much beloved garden. Julia loved to take the everyday and make it into something more, to bring out its inner truth and beauty. I once overheard her disparagingly described as a “flower painter” by a then elderly artist who knew her when he was a young man. This spoke volumes to me about what women were up against in the art world of Julia’s day. But, that sort of attitude never stopped her from painting still lifes and flowers if she wanted to, because she loved them.


During her career Julia exhibited regularly at the Woodstock Artists Association (now WAAM). Her work was shown at the National Association of Women Artists, the Connecticut Academy, the Albany Institute of Art, and Artists Equity, of which she was a member. She had several one-person shows in Woodstock and in 1948 a one-person exhibit at the Argent Gallery on 57th Street, then a prime location for contemporary galleries. The show was widely reviewed and a highlight of her career. It was also just about the last gasp of a movement in American art that flourished between the wars and virtually disappeared from the contemporary scene in the second half of the 20th century.

Eleanor Roosevelt and Julia Leaycraft at the Laying of the Cornerstone for the NYA Crafts Center in Woodstock, 1939

Leaycraft Family Archives

 

Julia was admired for her balanced good judgment, wise insight, and high ethical standards. Consequently, she was repeatedly asked to assume leadership positions in Woodstock, sometimes at critical and difficult moments in the life of the cultural entities she served. In 1938, she was president of the Citizens Committee of the NYA (National Youth Administration) Crafts Center in Woodstock. The NYA was a nationwide pet project of Eleanor Roosevelt who took a keen interest in the Woodstock location. Its primary objective was to train young people, especially in rural areas, in various useful skills and crafts. The committee organized the planning and funding for the Center along with the construction of its buildings and staffing. The location is now home to the Woodstock School of Art.


For many years, Julia served as a trustee of the Woodstock Artists Association. The combined forces of the Depression and disruptions of World War II had left the organization in a perilous state. There were insufficient funds to maintain the building and the space temporarily rented out to Anna Carolan (see part 1 of Bruce Weber's piece on Carolan in Learning Woodstock Art Colony). Various proposed options were unsatisfactory to its artist members. Julia, then serving as president, helped lead the way to a solution, allowing the association to continue serving its artists while maintaining high curatorial standards. She also served on the board of the Woodstock Library as trustee and then president, helping it to survive a crisis that had imperiled its continued existence after World War II.


Julia’s last years were largely devoted to the needs of her daughter who became seriously incapacitated by multiple sclerosis. Julia enjoyed her friends and deeply loved her children and grandchildren.(5) She died in New York City in 1960.


The generation that grew up without electricity and automobiles but then lived to see air travel and atomic warfare faced a profound choice. As they grew into adulthood, they could either embrace the emerging forces of modernity or not. For women, this was especially difficult and yet all the more critical. Julia embraced the new changing world enthusiastically and bravely. She took joy in living in new ways, raising her children in new ways, and expressing her talents and creativity so as to embrace both change and the deeper possibilities and purposes that change allowed. The path to self-actuation is never easy. More often than not, people do not even try.


For Julia life and art were inexorably mixed, one powerfully giving vitality and rigor to the other. For her this was a spiritual experience. Writing in The Beacon, the monthly journal of the Theosophical Society, in 1936, she described the artistic and life process as she had come to understand it:


There is a very fine line of difference between the religious mystic, meditating until he received a “call from God,” and the artist freeing himself of personal aims and desires in order to be the channel for the “innate drive that seizes a human being and makes him its instrument,” as Jung put it … All expression is performed with remembered emotion – emotion poured through a relentless analytical process. [If the emotional] force is not translated into expression it atrophies, or it becomes a nebulous set of feelings. It can become, on the other hand, the source of soul power, if the personality has grasped it, and held it, like the hero of old, through all the terrifying changes of shape.”(6)


This “soul power” as she calls it, gave Julia the fortitude to walk her own path, but it was not solely for her own personal fulfillment and satisfaction. She sought the freedom to grow her own unique creative gifts so she could give them back to the world and people around her.

The Author and His Grandmother, Matthew and Julia Leaycraft, 1958 Leaycraft Family Archives

__________________________________________________________________________________

I would like to thank the kind people who assisted me with this article: Patricia Brecht, who kindly proofed and edited the copy offering helpful insights and suggestions; Steven Cambron, my husband, who was supportive and an invaluable sounding board as I thought through this piece; and Timothy Leaycraft, my brother, who offered his perspective and editorial input. Lastly, I want to thank Bruce Weber for inviting me to write this article

thus providing an opportunity for me to not only memorialize my grandmother, but an invitation to consider her life in new ways. I am so grateful to all.


(1) Many years after his death, two of Edgar’s grandchildren, Matthew and Timothy Leaycraft, were trustees of the New York City Mission Society. Matthew served for over twenty years and concluded his term as board chair.

(2) Ground was broken for Christ Church Methodist in the Fall of 1929 coinciding with the stock market crash. Consequently, a project expected to take two or three years instead took twenty. Over those years Edgar successfully resisted repeated demands that Cram’s design and decorative program be scaled back in order to reduce costs. Edgar’s grandson, Matthew, served on the church’s board of trustees for 6 years in the 1990s.

(3) This organization continues today renamed Women Creating Change.

(4) Baseball had a special meaning for Julia. Long before it became America’s favorite pastime, her grandfather, Francis Pidgeon, was a leading player in the 1850s and the greatest pitcher of his day. See: https://ourgame.mlblogs.com/finding-frank-pidgeon-985410f5c93e.

(5) Julia had four grandchildren, the children of her son, Edgar, Jr. They were Cathy and Bruce Leaycraft by his first marriage and Matthew and Timothy Leaycraft by his second marriage.

(6) “Creation and Expression”, Julia S. Leaycraft, The Beacon, March and April 1936. Published by the Theosophical Society. The Theosophical Society was founded in 1875 to advance world religious philosophies with an esoteric orientation functioning to bridge Eastern and Western thought. In Julia’s day it was guided by Annie Basant and Krishnamurti. Well-known people associated with it included Thomas Edison and William Butler Yeats. Though not religious, Julia was widely read in philosophy and religion, and particularly Eastern religion. Her beautifully bound copy of Practicing the Presence of God by Brother Lawrence is one of my most treasured possessions.



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