What Bolton Brown then goes on to describe (far less better known to Woodstockers) is the clinical, patient, all but heartless strategy by which he was left (with ten thousand of Whitehead’s dollars) to methodically buy up the seven local farms comprising 1,200 hundred acres upon which Byrdcliffe quickly arose. Furthermore, it was he, BB, who established the signature design of the art colony’s architecture, and he who hired the carpenters, masons, and laborers who completed the community in little more than a year. Furthermore, it was Brown who — squinting through a transom — laid out the roads, and who, with one of several crews under his supervision, built his own family home “Carniola” [since victim of fire] — a 13-room mansion which “opened off a central hall or gallery lighted by a skylight. The front door was eight feet wide and commanded all creation. The back door, opposite and across the hall, had the same width…”
The fact that this “assistant’s house” out-stripped Whitehead’s own majestic White Pines (today considered the “crown jewel” of Byrdcliffe) no doubt contributed to Brown’s demise, first hinted at by the fact that he was demoted from Art Head to “drawing instructor.”
“We never quarreled, Whitehead and I; we ‘differed.’’’ Brown recalled. “Art was an amusement to [him], and the artists amusing; he was dilettante personified…The first man in, I now became the first man out.” Even so, Brown reported that Whitehead observed, “I don’t know anybody that would not be glad to have you settle in the neighborhood.” And so Brown bought his family 40 acres from Ella Riseley just at the base of Mead’s Mountain. He then proceeded to build them another house, and deeper in the woods — a studio where he painted for another seven years.
Over the years Bolton Brown’s studios became notorious locations, his staunch atheism providing a whiff of brimstone, his scholarly methodology, an austerity; his legendary single-mindedness a purity of vision both impressive and off-putting to bohemian types. The fact is we don’t know very much of Brown as a painter because comparatively few oils survive. If it weren’t for the fact that serious students who sought him out [Edna Thurber and John Bentley, for instance] managed to get ahold of “demonstration canvasses” we’d know even less. He did fall under the sway to some extent of “Tonalist,” Birge Harrison, who Brown topped at his own game, with “Morning Rose Bars,” a painting which anticipates Rothko by 50 years while (by my heretical view) rendering him completely redundant. Brown later practiced, one writer observed, “Impressionism without the yell.” And we do know that Brown participated in the 1913 Amory show, even if we don’t know what his contribution looked like. Clearly, the artist exhibited a near scientific obsession with duplicating visual aspects of heightened experiences surrounding moments he felt most alive, the natural world remaining the primary cauldron within which the majority of such alchemical experiences occurred. My own personal appreciation of Brown’s work for years foundered on the fact that while both his “eye” and “technique” seemed completely beyond reproach, a mythology-smitten sensibility seemed to remain the hostage of a 19th century sentimentality. His nudes, in particular, lack density, they shimmer and shine like aery-faery sprites out of Irish folklore. How is it, I’ve wondered, I don’t know how times, that a man of such strength, courage, and fortitude creates such fluff for a “Woman?”
It is only after recently reading of formative experiences in Brown’s childhood [culled by scholar Ron Netsky] — epic moments the shadows of which dart across his work his whole live long — that fuller appreciation has given way to a far more profound and charitable understanding. In “Boyhood Memories of Bolton Brown,” the artist testified to a presence, which “haunted the woods; never there, as the trees and the rocks always were; yet she was nearer to me than they. I could feel her nearness in almost any sunny glade. She would understand, she would be home in the quiet rooms of the forest. There impersonal nature everywhere spread before me as a garment waiting to be worn, waiting for my girl to wear it and make it alive. My brain said she was not in the woods somewhere, but my heart knew that until she was, the world was incomplete.”