August 2019 will mark the 50th anniversary of the mother of contemporary music festivals: Woodstock. Held over three days in 1969, the festival featured three-days of performances for folk and rock artists like Joan Baez, Janis Joplin, and Jimi Hendrix. The legacy of the festival was cemented by the Woodstock documentary and a song of the same name by folk luminary, Joni Mitchell. That’s a lot of talk about Woodstock when the festival wasn’t actually held there. Woodstock the event was actually held in Bethel, a neighboring town in upstate New York. Woodstock itself wasn’t even considered as a site for the festival. According to Woodstock the Oral History (1989) the only connection between the concert and the town is that the event’s promoters originally considered building a music studio in Woodstock, NY and incorporated under the name Woodstock Ventures. So what about the other Woodstock? Though it didn’t host the eponymous music festival, Woodstock, NY had been home to a thriving art colony since the early 1900s.
In 1902 Englishman Ralph Radcliffe Whitehead founded the Byrdcliffe arts and crafts colony in Woodstock, the first of its kind in the United States. At Oxford, Whitehead was a student of writer and art critic John Ruskin and the founder of the arts and crafts movement, William Morris. Both possessed views on art, aesthetics and the role of work that appealed to social reformers of the day. Their influence had a profound effect on Whitehead, who at one point tried to bring “Ruskian” reforms to his father’s textile factory.
For several years after his graduation from Oxford, Whitehead lived and worked “on the continent” and dreamed of ways to make his arts and crafts colony a reality. In 1891 he wrote an essay called “Work” that reflected this interest. In her book Woodstock, an American Art Colony 1902-1977 scholar Karal Ann Marling observed noted the following:
“The most remarkable feature of the document is Whitehead’s fascination with grubby realities that make or break Utopian dreams. The agrarian colony plotted out in ‘Work’ is detailed down to an itemized expense of three-shillings for every meat eating, tea drinking member…” (1977)
Whitehead would go on to marry Jane Byrd McCall, an artist and Philadelphia socialite who shared his vision. After joining her in America, Whitehead established Byrdclliffe and worked to attract a wide variety of craftspeople from potters, to jewelers, to furniture makers, to the mountains of the Hudson Valley, in the hopes of making a completely self-sufficient community. While he was successful in attracting students and artists like Eva Watson-Schǖtze (photographer and founding member of the photo-secessionists), the Byrdcliffe dream of a self-sufficient artist colony would never be realized. Though Whitehead could not fulfill his Utopian vision, he was successful in making Woodstock a destination for the arts. Byrdcliffe’s artists moved to homes in the neighboring valley, and not long after, a new institution would come to replace it in influence and importance, The Art Students League of New York Summer School.
“The Happy Valley”
In 1905 Byrdcliffe resident and landscape painter, Birge Harrison, was asked to head up the Woodstock Branch of the Art Students’ League of New York. By the summer of 1906 the town became home to The Art Students League Summer School. The Art Students League of New York was founded in 1875 by a group of renegade students from the National Academy of Design. Their goal was to offer quality art instruction that was open to modern methods and offered creative freedom, while minimizing costs to students, who could attend any class after paying the membership fee. The school first connected to Woodstock through the Byrdcliffe arts colony in 1905. Harrison led the school until 1919 and through some of the most tumultuous years in the art world, while maintaining his commitment to every student finding their own voice. (Harrison, 1912)
As Harrison wrote in an article for Arts and Decoration magazine:
“It is sincerely hoped indeed, that there will never be anything as a “School of Woodstock,” but that each graduate will leave the happy valley still more himself, still more individual than he found it.”
According to The Woodstock Story “The influence of the European Cubist-inspired abstraction shown at the Armory Show of 1913 forced many American artists to reevaluate their artistic positions…” (Wigmore 2011) For example romantic realists like George Bellowes enriched the color in their work as a response to the vividness found in Cubism and Fauvism. In the 1920s, Woodstock artists were developing their own Precisionist Landscape style. Also there was new appreciation for folk art among Woodstock students like Yasuo Kuniyoshi and Doris Lee. (Wigmore, 2011). To document this swirl of activity, artists and critic Alexander Brook and painter Henry Billings founded the Hue and Cry, a weekly “rainbow-tinted weekly that hawked at Sunday market fairs that found kind words for the work of new comers and spread colonial gossip.” (Marling, 1977)
Though the Art Students League would discontinue their summer school in Woodstock in 1922, their presence cemented the town’s reputation as a destination for art and artists. The Woodstock Artists Association was formed in 1919 by students and teachers from the Summer School, including the leading light of modernism in America, Konrad Cramer. The Woodstock Colony developed a relationship with the Whitney Museum of Art, who frequently exhibited work from their artists. In the summers, tourists flocked to Woodstock Colony to be in the presence of famous artists. Also, in a sort of glimmer of things to come, from 1915-1931, every August crowds came to enjoy the Maverick music festival which featured chamber concerts with stage dressing from the local artists. (Wigmore, 2011)
The Smithsonian Libraries’ American Art and Portrait Gallery Library has a wealth of ephemera from the Woodstock outpost of the Art Students League, and much will be on display in the branch’s reading room, from September and through the remainder of 2019.
The Crash, Revival, and the Woodstock Festival
The Great Depression hit the artists of Woodstock particularly hard, leaving many without work or wages. Most looked to Washington for help. “One painter appealed for relief on the basis of an itemized statement listing property worth $2,000, debts of $4,818 and no income for three years preceding…” (Marling, 1977). Thankfully relief did come in the form of the New Deal. Programs like the Public Works Art Project and the Federal Art Project helped sustain the town from 1933-1943.
After World War II artists returned to Woodstock. Some artists, like Phillip Guston and Adolph Gottlieb, settled in permanently. The Artist Students League Summer school was revived in 1947, successfully hosting artists and students for another 30 years. The Woodstock Art Conference brought artists like Isamu Noguchi and Robert Motherwell from 1947-1952 to discuss contemporary issues. Also the Woodstock Artists Association held it’s own annual festival. The summer-long event featured exhibitions by Association members, plays, classical concerts and group shows from the Woodstock Guild of Craftsmen.
As for the legendary concert, though Woodstock didn’t host the event the town was impacted. Dozens of concertgoers made their way to Woodstock after the concert concluded and took over the town’s main street. Their frequent run-ins with local police made life difficult for local artists and crafts people. Ultimately, Peter Whitehead, grandson of the founder of Byrdcliffe arts colony opened the space “as a refuge for potters and weavers threatened by the tense atmosphere of Tinker Street.” (Marling, 1977)
When he died, Peter Whitehead left Byrdcliffe to the Woodstock Guild of Craftsmen. Today the former arts colony is home to the Woodstock Byrdcliffe Guild a nonprofit dedicated to arts and crafts. The site’s 250 acres is home to performances, residency programs, exhibitions, and classes. With the home for the arts and crafts in the Hudson Valley, one could say that Ralph Radcliffe Whitehead’s vision for Byrdcliffe was at least partially realized.
Harrison, B. (1912). “Painting at Woodstock: The Work of a Group of American Landscape Painters.” Arts and Decoration. New York, NY.
Makower, J. (1989). “Part One: Young Men with Unlimited Capital.” Woodstock: The Oral History. New York, NY: Doubleday Books.
Marling, K. A. (1977). Introduction. Woodstock, an American Art Colony 1902-1977. [Poughkeepsie, N.Y.]: Vassar College.
Wigmore, D. (2011). “The Woodstock Story (1902-1949).” The Woodstock Story: Told in Paintings, Photography, Sculpture & Ceramics. New York, NY : D. Wigmore Fine Art.
Woodstock, an Artists Community: Selections from the Baker/Pisano Collection and the Woodstock Artists Association. (1994) [Washington, D.C.]: Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System