According to Woodstock Town Historian and town board member Richard Heppner, the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation decided unanimously last week to include the former home of painter George Bellows on to the State Register of Historic Places, where it’s to be officially listed this week, and to forward its nomination that the Bellows House also be placed on the Federal Register of Historic Places, which uses the same criteria (and application).
“The Bellows home is a two-story, three-bay by five-bay frame, off-center, front gabled house with an L-shape plan,” reads the introductory description of Woodstock’s latest sanctioned historic site written by Heppner in a 43-page application. “Utilizing Hambridge’s theory of dynamic symmetry, Bellows played with traditional ideas of symmetry in building construction in his design for the house. The roofline extends to the east on the façade, incorporating an additional bay similar to the side elevation of a saltbox house. The house rests on a native bluestone foundation drawn from local quarries and is covered with clapboard. An interior stone chimney is visible over the roofline…”
Located, naturally, on what is now Bellows Lane, the home looks like many in the area. Yet during its time it served as a center of the town’s arts life, and a key element in the shifts that pushed the popular painter into new areas of exploration cut short by his sudden death at the age of 43, and are only now pushing him into the forefront of all artists.
George Wesley Bellows, born to older Columbus, Ohio parents in August 1882 and quite an athlete as a younger man (excelling at baseball, basketball and boxing), moved to New York City to study art at the New York School of Art the same year this town was witnessing the birth of Ralph Whitehead’s Byrdcliffe Colony on Mount Guardian. Studying under Robert Henri (also a later Woodstocker) alongside such disparate talents as Edward Hopper, Rockwell Kent and Stuart Davis, he gained fame fast, as well as a side career teaching art at the Art Students League, which would later open various campuses around Woodstock, including where the Woodstock School of Art now is. While his own art ushered in several forms of realism that would dominate much of the coming few decades, meanwhile, Bellows also gained notoriety as one of the organizers of the 1913 Armory Show that burst European Modernism on to our shores.
By invitation from Eugene Speicher, a fellow student of Henri and a realist painter, Bellows and his family first arrived in Woodstock during the summer of 1920, taking up residence at the home of James Shotwell, a historian, statesman, and long-time seasonal resident of Woodstock. Bellows and his family remained in residence until Thanksgiving of that year,” Heppner wrote in his application of the great painter’s move into a town transformed by the numbers of artists moving north because of its two colonies (Maverick, having come in to existence to rival Byrdcliffe) and various art schools. “Returning in 1921, they purchased land adjacent to the home of Eugene Speicher; the property already included an artist’s studio (no longer extant).”
Bellows set about designing his own home and then, with the help of his growing number of local artist friends, undertook most of its construction himself. He became one of the earliest members of the new Woodstock Artists Association, narrated one of Hervey White’s grand pageants at the Maverick Festival (a Flaubert adaptation). He studied printmaking with Bolton Brown, quickly mastering the form, taught alongside his own teacher Robert Henri at the Arts Students League, and pulled together a number of key business people throughout town to form a Woodstock Athletic Club. He built a seasonal swimming pool on his property and taught local kids how to swim; he coached baseball for fellow artists and the town’s teens.
“If you were with me we could tramp the wild places all day…and everything would be about love and beauty and the greatness of this nature which is in us,” he had written his beloved wife Emma years earlier on one of his first trips outside the City, to Monhegan Island in Maine (still beloved by Woodstock artists to this day). By the time he was settling into Woodstock (while still spending half each year in the New York art world that provided his living) Bellows started working his new life into his art, noting at one point how “the domestic sphere and bourgeois family life were not antithetical to modernism but, as much as the city and the machine, integral to it.”
During his busy summer of 1924, capturing his new home town in plein air works that kept reaching towards something more metaphoric and darker, as well as several series of prints depicting the ravages of war, George Bellows went to his Woodstock doctor complaining of abdominal pains. The doctor (Dr. Downer) said it was acute appendicitis; immediate surgery was advised when the artist returned to New York. But that autumn was busier than usual and, in early January, 1925, Bellow’s appendix ruptured. A week later he was dead of peritonitis.
“Although Bellows’ time in Woodstock was relatively short, the Bellows House is associated with an important period of transition and productivity in the artist’s career. In contrast to his early work, which depicted urban landscapes with a lively, rough character, Bellows’ later work focused increasingly on landscapes, smoother brushwork, and incorporated a greater variety of colors,” Heppner’s application noted. “Woodstock’s landscapes and artistic community played an integral role in both his works and his artistic career from 1920 through his death in 1925.”
The home on Bellows Lane, owned by Barry Motzkin, now joins other historic sites in town: the glass factory on Hutchin Hill Road, an old judge’s home on Elwyn Lane, the old mill at the golf course, the Church on the Mount up Meads Mountain Road, the Maverick Colony, Byrdcliffe and the old Arts Students League buildings where the WSA now is. It will stay much as it is, and was, as is possible. It’s craftsmanship is still Bellows’, and this town’s long-dominant arts community’s.
“You do not know what you are able to do until you try. Try it in every possible way. Be deliberate, and spontaneous. Be thoughtful, and painstaking,” Bellows had written, in a poem, in 1921 during his second year in the town where he is now revered as one of Woodstock’s more honorable residents. “Be abandoned, and impulsive. Learn your own possibilities.”