Mature poets steal

Detail of The Corn Harvest by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Picnic by John McClellan and The Picnic by George Bellows.

What do the Woodstock painters George Bellows and John McClellan have in common? For one thing, they’re both subjects of the current lecture series at the Woodstock Artists Association.

McClellan first came to Woodstock as a 26-year-old artist about a decade after Bellows, one of the towering figures in American art, died of acute appendicitis at the age of 42. McClellan’s career was the subject of a modest slide lecture given last Saturday afternoon at WAAM by Patricia Phegan, curator of Vassar College’s art gallery.

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Bellows will be the subject of a grand exhibition opening November 15 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Bellows is tentatively scheduled to be the subject of a lecture at WAAM at 2:30 p.m. on November 10, and a bus trip to see the Bellows show on its opening day at the Met is being offered by WAAM.

Woodstock hosted dozens of professional artists in the 1930s, many attracted by the town’s reputation as one of America’s most celebrated arts colonies. Bellows’ diverse Woodstock landscapes and portraits from 1920 to 1924, often loosely and sensitively rendered, always extravagantly energetic, endlessly imaginative and restlessly inventive, were iconic images in the artistic ferment of the small community.

Artists in general and Woodstock artists in particular make restless followers. Bellows was more often admired than imitated, more a pervasive and respected top-of-the-line influence than a model. As the irreverent but short-lived Hue and Cry artists’ annual magazine demonstrates, Woodstock artists of the time loved to make sly digs, encapsulate insider references and pay subtle homage to their peers, the meaning of some of which, alas, have been obscured by the mists of time.

Into this scene a few years later came the young John McClellan, a Yale graduate whose parents had wanted him to be a doctor. Before coming to Woodstock, McClellan had studied printmaking in Boston and sculpture in Paris, and had visited Spain. It was in Mexico that he met writer and critic Manny Komroff, a local writer with city roots who persuaded him to visit Woodstock.

In 1934, according to Phagan, McClellan secured a Byrdcliffe rental from Peter Whitehead. He was to live in Woodstock until his death 52 years later.

McClellan devoted most of his adult life in Woodstock to printmaking, and according to Phegan produced about 130 prints and numerous drawings. She listed among his most notable characteristics a search for community, a keen sense of satire, and — like many Woodstockers then and now, including Bellows — a militant liberal social conscience. As a young man he was expelled from Spain during the Civil War, and the experience of taking part in the liberation of a concentration camp affected him deeply.

Both artists created images of hilltop scenes overlooking the Woodstock landscape.

Bellows’ oil painting The Picnic was a curious and compelling fantasy painted in New York City in 1924 of a scene of his family plus his painting colleague Gene Speicher. The group is portrayed scattered on an imaginary promontory in Lake Hill behind Cooper Lake, looking east to Keefe Hollow and other open land on two hillocks in the background. One of Bellows’ daughters is seen balancing on a ridgelet away from the unseen vertiginous drop. Speicher is sprawled on the right in a Breugelesque pose, the artist’s wife and two daughters are in the center, and the artist is standing on the left with a taut fishing rod whose line looks as though it must be dangling several hundred feet downward before contacting the lake surface.

Completing the view in the middle distance behind twin hillsides is a dark, inscrutable version of the Catskills ridgeline. At the top of the landscape reigns a moody sky of uncertain intention.

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