Nature Morte: The Early Years of Still Life Painting in Woodstock

Filed in Exhibitions, Past Exhibitions by on June 16, 2018

In the Press

June 16 – August 26, 2018

Reception: Saturday, June 23, 4 – 6 PM

PHOEBE and BELMONT TOWBIN WING

Curated by Donn Mosenfelder

The current show had its origins in a conversation with WAAM’s Janice La Motta whom we had invited to our home to see some works by Woodstock artists, in particular the work of my uncle, Hermon More, a largely forgotten but central figure in the Woodstock art scene from its early years through the 1950s. As we viewed various pieces, I remarked that there were a number of beautiful still life paintings in the group and suggested that they might form the core of an exhibition, supplemented by other examples from the WAAM collection. Janice agreed, and the idea of pulling them all together into a show was launched. We have chosen to focus on the work of Woodstock artists from the first half of the 20th century, the years that put the Woodstock art colony on the map. By the 1950s, many of the original generation of Woodstock artists had died off or moved away, and the synergy of their close-knit circle had dispersed.

Even in Woodstock, Hermon More (1887-1968) is known today only as a footnote to discussions of the deep relationship between Woodstock and the Whitney Museum of American Art. In fact, he was the guiding artistic hand behind the Whitney’s first 27 years, initially as their chief curator and, following the death of Juliana Force in 1948, for another ten years as their second director. During his years there, spotting and featuring emerging trends, he had enormous and early influence on the way American art evolved in late 1940s and 1950s. After his retirement in 1958, he dropped out of sight in the art world, and his many contributions remain unheralded. Hermon’s life as an artist and his oeuvre are even more overlooked. He had been part of that early wave of artists who came to Woodstock in the early 1900s. From about 1915 on, Hermon spent summers in Woodstock and the rest of the year in New York City as part of the Greenwich Village art scene centered around the Whitney Studio Club. It was there he met my aunt, Edna Robeson, a painter of portrait miniatures, who was visiting from Bettendorf, Iowa, then a tiny suburb of Davenport. They were married in New York in 1923, and two years later when the Davenport Municipal Museum was opened, Hermon became its first director. When the Whitney was founded six years later, Hermon’s museum credentials made him a logical choice to become the new museum’s first curator of paintings. When he took on this job, Hermon gave up painting altogether, and his earlier work dropped out of sight.

My sister and I inherited a few of these paintings from our parents, but the greater part of our collection came from the Mores when they both died in the late 1960s without
children of their own. The bulk of this group went to Seattle where my sister lived, and I have since added other pieces from auction. With my sister’s death three years ago, the future of her collection came into doubt, and the majority of the works seemed headed for an estate sale. The idea of these pieces being dispersed on the West coast where they held little significance was inconceivable to me, so we bought them from her estate and brought them back to the Woodstock area where they belong. With the More collection more or less reunited, it seems time to bring these works from obscurity.

Central to the still life tradition is the concept of nature morte where even the most vibrant freshly-cut blossoms or ripening fruit carry within them the unspoken recognition that beauty—and life—are transient. The blooms will soon fade, the fruit rot; and so it is with all of us. Thus, even the most exuberant floral pieces remind us to embrace the present moment, to revel in the beauty of life at its prime, for it will not last. Other pictures bring the hidden message to the fore, featuring skulls and similar symbols of mortality. This tradition was largely defined in 17th-century Dutch and Flemish art when still life painting enjoyed great popularity. A highly refined language of symbolism developed, in which individual flowers and objects carried specific associations which were widely understood by artist and viewers alike. Among our paintings, Lucile Blanch’s The Internment of an Era is prime example of this approach.

While schooled in this tradition, Woodstock artists departed from the highly realistic interpretations of preceding centuries, rendering their paintings under the influence of impressionism and pre-impressionism art. Following the 1913 Armory show in New York, currents of total abstraction and surrealism were circulating in American art, but few of the Woodstock artists did more than experiment with these concepts, most of them remaining firmly grounded in representation. Rolph Scarlett is a notable exception, yet his large painting included in this show contains distinct images not immediately apparent amidst the explosion of light and color that first meets our eyes.

Living in the shadow of the rapidly emerging School of New York, the work of these early Woodstock artists came to be seen as old-fashioned. By around 1950, even Hermon More selected fewer of their works for the Whitney Biennials, and he felt the resentment of his old friends. This impression of the Woodstock school has retained some currency, even as other regional schools have been rediscovered and newly appreciated. And yet, these Woodstock painters were highly skilled artists and produced a wonderful body of work, embracing a wide range of sensibilities and characterized by a zeal for the act of painting itself. A serious second look at their oeuvre is long overdue.

Donn M. Mosenfelder, June 2018

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