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Fine Art Connoisseur Article

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FINE ART CONNOISSEUR.COM  |  January/February 2013

Robert Strong Woodward
A Painter’s Vision of New England

When surveying the story of 20th-century American art, it is easy to discern artists who regularly depicted
the regions where they flourished. Obvious examples include Edward Hopper (Manhattan and Cape Cod), Thomas Hart Benton (Missouri and Manhattan), and Andrew Wyeth (Penn-sylvania and Maine). In our own globalized era, these close, often passionate, connections between artist and place are less common; does it matter, for example, where Jeff Koons or Mickalene Thomas live today? They do not generally depict their immediate surround-ings, and their artworks are commissioned, made, and exhibited worldwide. To fret over this change is pointless, yet it cannot be denied that place remains a hugely significant marker of human identity. That’s one reason Fine Art Connoisseur often highlights histori-cal and contemporary artists who celebrate, and sometimes critique, their locales.

In particular, much ink has been spilled regarding Americans’ fascination with New England between 1876 and 1945. In tandem with the Colonial Revival, it emerged at Philadelphia’s Centennial Exposition as an expression of both nostalgia and Northern hegemony, and it flourished right through the near-collapse of representational art after World War II. In literature, the poetry of Robert Frost is a highly visible example, and for paintings there’s Grandma Moses, whose folk-ish scenes of small-town life in upstate New York and Vermont were revered as late as the 1960s. Today, even a casual visit to the smaller auction houses of America’s North-east churns up half a dozen paintings by early 20th-century artists illustrating tidy town greens centered on white churches, or perhaps quaint fishing boats bobbing in rocky har-bors. Some are merely kitsch, while others deserve a closer look.

Among the latter are Rockwell Kent (1882-1971), Eric Sloane (1905-1985), Aldro


Born in Northampton, Massachusetts, Woodward lived in Ohio, upstate New York, Illinois, and California as a youth because his father’s career in real estate required the family to relocate often. “Home,” however, remained the picturesque hill town of Buckland, Mas-sachusetts, where young Woodward spent every summer on his grandfather’s farm. In 1906, when he was 21 and set to attend what is now Stanford University, Woodward suffered an accidental gunshot injury that severed his spinal cord. The accident left him paralyzed from the mid-chest down and confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life, which was marred by recurring pain.
Painting, which had been the young man’s hobby, now became his career. In 1910 he attempted several months of study at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, but the challenges of accessing its studios proved insurmountable. Soon he remodeled an outbuilding on his uncle’s Buckland farm, where he made a meager living drawing vaguely medievalized illuminations and bookplates. In 1916, Woodward shifted to landscape painting, a choice that might seem odd for an 'invalid' until we learn that he had developed the upper-body strength needed to hitch his own horse to a buggy. For the rest of his career, Woodward could be spotted regularly around rural west-ern Massachusetts and southern Vermont painting his favorite locales, even in the snow. (Later in life, he was chauffeured in a massive 1936 Packard Phaeton convertible, from which he painted in fresh air if the weather allowed.) For his major landscapes, Woodward spent two or three days painting on site, then finished the canvas in his studio.

His career took flight in 1919, when one painting won a major prize at New York’s National Academy of Design. Through the next three decades, he produced more than 750 finished artworks; roughly 80 percent were oils, and the remainder were chalk drawings, made primarily when Woodward’s painting arm was hurting. These com-positions were often planned with sketches drawn in charcoal or pen-cil, and some watercolors are known to survive. Most of Woodward’s scenes depict sites around the region, detailed enough to be recogniz-able to locals, yet lyrical enough to appeal to viewers far away. Almost all evoke a powerful spirit of place, and by extension of that place’s people, who have lived there since the 17th century.

A favorite motif was the ramshackle barn; indeed, a farmer in Hog Hollow (a section of Buckland) once observed wryly, 'If Rob Wood-ward ever painted my barn, I’d know it needed fixin’.' Woodward often made an oil painting and chalk drawing of the same scene; it was not unusual for him to give the drawing to the owner of the depicted barn or farm, which is one reason these artworks keep surfacing in New England estate sales and auctions.

The other major genre explored by Woodward was still life, arranged before various windows in his studio, captured at every sea-son with a small and well-chosen array of props such as glassware, vases, and ornaments. Here the window frame features as a crucial artistic element, allowing us to admire the expertly captured light and scenery beyond it. Other still life paintings center on brilliantly colored textiles draped behind the object groupings.


These works were well regarded in their day. Woodward regularly won prizes at exhibitions in New York, Boston, and other Northeastern centers, and could count on coverage from major critics. He was repre-sented by top-notch galleries (Vose in Boston, and Macbeth and Grand Central in New York City), though it surely was disadvantageous to his career that he was physically unable to meet new clients there. A stand-ard easel-size canvas sold for roughly $450 (larger ones for $600-$800), and a chalk drawing for $125. Woodward was an enthusiastic corre-spondent, diarist, and reader, and his well-preserved archives make it clear that he was up-to-date on trends and gossip in the American art world of the time.

These are pictures that have always reminded viewers of simpler times, far from the din and complexity of cities and factories. Thus they were avidly collected not only by Robert Frost, but also by Gilded Age plutocrats who yearned to get away from the grubby settings where their fortunes were earned; among them were George D. Pratt (Standard Oil), Bartlett Arkell (Beech-Nut), and members of the Vanderbilt family. A key factor in Woodward’s success was his longtime friendship (from California days) with the interior decorator Harold Grieve, who intro-duced his Hollywood clients to the paintings. Among those clients were George Burns and Gracie Allen, Jack Benny, the writer Norman Krasna, and especially Beulah Bondi, best remembered for her performances in It’s a Wonderful Life and The Waltons. These were generally people who had come from the East; lovely as California is, they were surely glad to be reminded of snowy scenes back home.

By the late 1930s, Woodward had become something of a celebrity on the regional art scene and was recognized throughout New England by anyone in the know. In the hill towns, however, he remained a beloved local, always generous to those less fortunate, yet also aided, whenever nec-essary, by those more physically able than himself. As if his health weren’t enough of a disadvantage, Woodward endured terrible luck with studios burning down. In 1922, an overheated stove destroyed one, and then, 12 years later, lightning struck another. In 1950 his mountaintop studio in Heath, with its panoramic views of the Berkshires and one windswept beech tree, burned to the ground under mysterious circumstances. Fortunately, the most important house and studio complex he created — 'the Southwick place' in Buckland Center — has survived almost unchanged since his death. Assisted by the generosity of Ada Small Moore (1858-1955), the collector wife of a titan of industry, Woodward spent two years renovating this facility, and indeed this is the structure we see in most of his lovely window paintings. Poor health forced him to stop painting in 1951, though he did not die (of stomach cancer) until 1957.

A key factor in the care of Woodward’s artistic flame has been Dr. Mark Purinton, who is now in his 80s. As a young man, Purinton was hired to drive the artist around in his Packard, and it was Woodward’s generosity that allowed him to attend medical school and set up a practice in Buckland. He and his wife, Barbara, still live at the Southwick place, and with their son, Larch, have carefully organized photographs, documents, clippings, and props that shed valuable light on Woodward’s life and pro-cess. Fortunately, the painter kept a meticulous ledger of the oils he sold, and he even had his finished paintings photographed; the Purintons have succeeded in preserving this archive of sepias, along with the negatives from which they were made.

Using these extraordinary resources, the Purintons have created a thorough website that functions as a flexible catalogue raisonné, and their recollections were invaluable to Janet Gerry, who has published an enter-taining book for young readers about Woodward, Artist Against All Odds. Gerry, who grew up near the Southwick place, says that she has 'woven as many facts as I could within a fictional framework to make the story more inviting. My great wish is to introduce a new generation of readers to Robert Strong Woodward, and give them an opportunity to delight in the beauty that was his life’s work.' Along with Susan B. Samoriski of the local Mary Lyon Foundation, and indeed many other neighbors, Wood-ward’s memory still burns brightly in the hill towns, primarily because his pictures resonate with all the reasons residents love living here. His memory grew brighter last autumn, when local collectors loaned 20 works for an exhibition at the Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association in nearby Deerfield.

Today, pictures by Woodward can be found in houses throughout Massachusetts, treasured by families that may have owned them for dec-ades. When they do slip out of private collections due to death, divorce, or taxes, they can be found in estate sales or auctions all the way from southern Connecticut to northern Maine (especially Skinner’s in Boston), and sometimes in California, where good examples popped up recently at Karges Fine Art. Depending on their medium, size, condition, and context, these sell for anywhere from $500 to $30,000. Just a few Woodward exhibi-tions have been held in New England since the artist’s death, and some paintings can be found in regional museums such as the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and the Yale University Art Gallery (though they are never displayed there).

Woodward is just the kind of American artist that smart collectors should know about, and we urge you to keep your eyes open for him in the future. ¦
PETER TRIPPI is editor of Fine Art Connoisseur.

Information: Artist Against All Odds: The Story of Robert Strong Woodward (Paideia Publishers, Shelburne Falls, MA, 2009) can be ordered via robertstrongwoodward. com, which offers a plethora of information about the artist.