Bolton Brown and the making of modern Woodstock

Bolton Brown, The Bather, 1921, Lithograph on paper, 14 x 17.5 inches, Collection of Morgan Anderson Consulting.

Woodstock as we know it begins with Bolton Brown (1866-1934), a prodigy whose gifts brought him fame, before ego accompanying these ripped them away again. He was an art instructor at 19, arguably the first great mountain climber in America (as well as pioneer of notations and adventure-writing documenting such); a draftsman without peer, masterful painter and extraordinary teacher of painting; a builder, designer and architect, and a father of modern lithography (with more than 60 technical breakthroughs and several books on such to his credit); a lecturer, author, memoirist and “survivor of modernism.” Brown’s accomplishments are particularly astounding for the fact that he remains a marginalized figure today, even if such “shoddy treatment” by history is largely the consequence of a singularly tempestuous and uncompromising nature.

Locally, a fair amount of attention has been paid over the years, of course, to “the discoverer of modern Woodstock” and — if you look for it — fascinating material on and by Brown is not hard to find. We are extremely lucky, however, that the Woodstock Guild’s Derin Tanyol has brought her own mountain-climbing mastery to bear in curating a new synthesis of Brown’s accomplishments, since prior to Bolton Brown: Strength and Solitude (January 17-February 23, with an Opening Reception, 4 p.m.-6 p.m. Saturday, January 18 at the Kleinert/James Arts Center, 34 Tinker Street, Woodstock) a proper appreciation of Brown’s cross-blend of art, writings, and advancements in climbing have been studied in relation to one another only at a cursory level.

Photographer unknown, Bolton Brown drawing The Bowl, 1925. Private collection.

Born in 1866 in Syracuse, into the large family of a Presbyterian minister (with whom BB battled his whole life long), Brown credits his mother as his first art teacher. He received a Master’s degree in painting in 1891, then traveled to California, accepting an invitation to create The Fine Art Department for the newly-established Stanford University — a position he held for ten years, before being fired in a typically heated controversy.

The widow of Stanford’s founder had become outraged that a nude model was being used in co-educational art classes. First Brown was asked to separate male from female students, and then to abolish the use of a nude model altogether. During the ensuing battle Brown wrote contemptuously of, “the foolish idea that the visible body is primarily a sexual excitant,” when he contrarily argued that, “it is simply the home of the soul.” He also defended himself grandly with the claim, “To the best of my knowledge and belief, I am now the best teacher of art in the United States. This is not a boast — but a judgment.”

During the Stanford years (climbing often with his new wife, Lucy) Brown was credited with first ascents of some the highest, most formidable Sierra peaks including those he named Mount Ericsson, Arrow Peak, Mount Gardiner, Mount Stanford, and — in honor of his hero — Mount Ruskin. His solo barefoot ascent of Mount King involved previously unseen lassoes, nooses, harnesses and knots, and has been called, “the finest Sierra Climb of the nineteenth century.”

Immersed in the writings of naturalist philosopher John Ruskin, Bolton Brown’s complex personality seemed to require both that he be heralded as hero (which his writings in the Sierra Club Bulletin certainly accomplished) and yet to simultaneously “disappear” into nature, establishing a nothing-less-than spiritual connection which, in the end, conquered the conqueror. Such dual ambition would inspire many of Brown’s most memorable artistic achievements, and, ironically (due to the immense popularity of climbing), provide him the potential for a contemporary renaissance after the near total eclipse of his reputation in the last century.

The confidence and “cool” of the climber did not leave Brown upon his dismissal from Stanford. He built a beautiful home and, to support his growing family, became a dealer of Japanese prints, buying such right off the docks of San Francisco. It is almost certainly under this pretext he first visited the home of Ralph Whitehead, an immensely wealthy Englishman, who’d studied with Ruskin in Oxford, whose American socialite wife, Jane Byrd McCall, shared his philosophic views (biting the industrialist hand supplying their fortune), and who, together, first attempted in miniature, a Ruskin-based art colony on the California coast. After it floundered, Whitehead came to rely upon two young Americans to help supply him the verve and nerve to try again. Eventually Mr. Brown negotiated three times the salary first offered him and, ever the pioneer, set out to personally explore the Catskill Mountains of his native New York State, since these (he argued to Whitehead and his “poet” companion, Hervey White) better conformed with the requirements for an arts and crafts community as laid down by Ruskin, himself.

In an article (which should be read by every high school student in Ulster County) famously quoted in Alf Evers’ Woodstock, The History of an American Town, Brown, later in life, recalled the formative days of the Byrdcliffe artists colony, when he first arrived “by stage [coach]…in Windham” and hence “scrambled over summits so wild it seemed no man or even animal could ever have been there.” Following only a topographical map of the Catskills he sought an exact altitude recommended by Ruskin. On a particular day in the spring of 1902 Brown explored “a high pocket with steep walls, in its bottom a single farm.” This was Mink Hollow. Finding Cooper Lake at the southern entrance of this cul de sac and with “The day still being young…[he] walked up the back side of Overlook, emerging into a notch at Mead’s Mountain House.”

Now Brown — never shy of a grand-eloquence — recalls, “Exactly here the story of modern Woodstock really begins, for it was just at this moment and from this place that I, like Balboa from his ‘peak in Darien’ first saw my South Sea. South indeed it was and wide and almost as blue as the sea, that extraordinarily beautiful view, amazing in extent, the silver Hudson losing itself in the remote haze.” It was an “old man…Mr. Mead himself” who, after Brown clambered over a stone wall to speak with him and asked, “What is the name of that place down there?” answered, “That is Woodstock Village.” “It looked good to me then…” wrote Brown, and then, with rare understatement, “it has not ceased to do so.”

Whitehead and White were convinced to give up their own explorations near Asheville, North Carolina and, once Whitehead was convinced that Woodstock teamed with no secret community of Jews, he agreed, “Well, all right; let’s have it here.”



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