And so in his paintings, drawings, and particularly in his own later lithographs, Brown peopled the rivers, glens and grottoes of Woodstock with this nameless muse who defied his more reasoned side. For fast he’d learned that individual human beings are but ghosts that flit over the stage of Earth for a few years before melting away, themselves leaving only the forest and the river and the river’s stones over which they’d briefly lingered. Fast he learned that beauty and youth are themselves mere phantoms within the larger haunting of single life — phantoms within the career of a phantom, and so?…Serious and studious though he was, Bolton Brown persisted with cuneiform of sprites and such creatures as — blink once — and they’re gone. Blink once more, and look! There she is, again! Bringing wonder to the flat, forlorn world of men.
In 1915, his marriage forfeit, Woodstock over-run with lesser talent, Bolton Brown, 51, fled to England with a 23 year old model, to master lithography. Arriving just in time for Zeppelin bombardment, he was turned down trying to enlist, and after very brief study indeed, became (in his own mind, anyway) a true a peer of Goya and Daumier, himself. Back in America four years later, his greatest fan became George Bellows, who promptly threw over his famous lithographer, George Miller, and converted to the school of Brown. At that time BB was performing what he called “missionary work,” inviting the likes of Bellows, John Sloan and others to “draw on stone.” Now “the master” would perform his chemical and craft-like miracles, finally creating finished prints — all in public. From the enthusiasm inspired by such demonstrations he opened “The Artist’s Press” at 32 Greene Street in Manhattan, where he soon added to his stable of clients Rockwell Kent, John Taylor Arms, and Arthur B. Davies, to name but a few. Never shy of associating himself with Greats
through the Ages, I don’t know whether Bolton Brown ever called himself, “The American Rembrandt,” — an accolade which, after studying his passionate portraits of desolate mills, abandoned kilns, broken-down coal docks, and Catskill weather, mostly at its most malevolent, seems a sensible enough moniker to me…
His favorite American artist remained Bellows, who, with typical self-effacement he called, “The most lithographic lithographer in the country…except me. We made a gorgeous team.” Brown required that artists allow him to co-sign a lithographic print, a demand to which Bellows gladly acquiesced. Unfortunately, with Bellows’ untimely death at age 42 in 1925, Brown’s high-handedness reached a plateau, and while royalties from his books dribblied in, and a few “true believers” still beat a path to his door for private instruction, his reputation had peaked and from here on out poverty would take its time with him, before, after a few more years, closing in for the kill.
John Taylor Arms, who apprenticed himself to Brown in the 1920s, recalled once visiting the aging perfectionist in his studio while he busied himself making three piles of his own work — the best, the next-to-best, and the discardibles. Feeding a wood-stove with the large collection of what Brown considered to be his own inferior lithography, he rhapsodized on the standards which the ignorant world hadn’t any hope of understanding, which the artist must hold himself to — alone. He then, according to John Arms, fed the stove with the second pile, as well.
Towards the end of his life, with seemingly no interest in wealth or fame from such a pursuit, Bolton Brown turned to pottery to amuse himself. Woodstock’s local streams teamed with plenty of clay banks to dig from, Brown found himself a kick wheel, and built a large kiln using several blow-torches for firing his cups and bowls. The austere palette of Japan appealed to him once again, and no doubt, a culture of renunciation, associated with such. In the end he even carved his own tombstone from a local boulder.
Like many a renaissance man before him, Bolton Coit Brown had given the world several examples of his greatness, only to find a majority preferred a class of talent closer to their own mediocre sensibilities. So he abandoned them to such, sought his own company, and after 72 years on Earth, seemed quite content to leave it, in 1936.
Now, 80 years later you will not spend a more fascinating hour this year, than by re-visiting the austere perfectionism espoused by one Bolton Coit Brown upon — for who else could take the heat? — himself.