In the early years of the twentieth century, Rosie Magee (1850-1927) was the ministering angel of the Woodstock art colony, unsurpassed in her motherly care, support and sympathy for the young artists and art students in town. Longtime Woodstockers “unfamiliar with the ways of artists met the newcomers with skepticism, caution, and in some cases with outright hostility as they saw their town take on a new and not necessarily welcomed persona,” observed town historian Richard Heppner. Not Rosie, who embraced the young souls who made their way to Woodstock in hopes of establishing long and successful careers as artists, and provided them her personal brand of wisdom, good cheer and home cooking.
Rosa A. Powell Magee was born in Woodstock in October 1850. In 1872, Rosie married Sanford P. Magee (1846-1918), who spent his most productive years working as a quarry teamster. With the decline in bluestone quarrying at the end of the nineteenth century, he tried to make a go of it as a farmer. In his later years he often whiled away the day sitting in his rocking chair on the front porch, while Rosie ran the place as a boarding and eating house.
The couple had no children. Rosie’s maternal side emerged in her interchange with the artists who boarded at her home or came by for dinner.
The Magee farmhouse is just beyond the northeast corner of the crossroads of Rock City Road and Glasco Turnpike, less than a mile north of the village green. The Magee house dates from 1824, and has undergone relatively modest renovations over the course of the past century. In addition to the large kitchen, there is a living room, dining room (currently serving as an extension of the living room), four bedrooms, and two bathrooms. Mature trees of various kinds occupy the space where Rosie’s apple orchard once stood.
The farmhouse served in a limited capacity as a boarding house. Its claim to notoriety was the presence of the generous and spirited Rosie Magee, who served and became friendly with the aspiring young artists who came to her house to stay and/or dine on her cooking in the kitchen.
Chronicler of the Woodstock art colony Anita M. Smith devoted a chapter of her book Woodstock History and Hearsay to Rosie Magee and the artists of Rock City. According to Smith, Rosie was a frequent portrait subject, despite her homeliness, hairlip, and the “odor of sour milk about her.” The Magee farmhouse was itself a popular subject for the artists, and Smith noted that Rosie never seemed still except in the hundreds of sketches made of the Rock City corner.
Approached from the hamlet side, Smith noticed, the composition seemed perfect. “Through the branches of the old apple trees was the white house surrounded by a picket fence with splashes of red from a flowering shrub or the apples to match the color of the chimney,” the observant Smith wrote. “Then there was the hard-to-catch faded blue of Rosie’s sunbonnet or the several layers of skirts, or the apron that usually held a few handfuls of grain to the fowl that followed her about. Close to the house were weathered barns and sheds that shone warm gray against the blue of Overlook Mountain. The place was depicted in every season, in spring when the first cool greens crept over the valley under silver skies, and full summer when the sun parched the grass and the mountain seemed to smoke in a heat wave.”
Artists began to settle in Woodstock with the founding in 1902 of the Byrdcliffe arts colony on the south facing side of Guardian Mountain. Taking the cue of Bolton Brown, artists soon started to live on the neighboring slopes of Overlook Mountain. Many artists found homes in the barns and assorted farm buildings that dotted the crossroads of Rock City.
Among the artists who lived or frequented the immediate Rock City neighborhood between 1903 and 1915 were Zulma Steele, Edna Walker, John F. Carlson, Walter Goltz, Benjamin Bufano, Andrew Dasburg, Charles Bailey Cook, Eugene Speicher, Henry Lee McFee, William V. Cahill, Edward Thatcher, Henry R. Pfeiffer. Margaret Goddard, Marion Bullard, Evelyn Jacus, Grace Mott Johnson, Samuel Brown Wiley, George Macrum, Ned Chase, and Frank Swift Chase. The area also was home to poets Harriet Howe, Anne Moore, and Grace Fallow Norton (Macrum’s wife), and pianist Clara Chichester. The Indianapolis Star reported in 1911 that in Rock City the “happy fad of making studios of barns and old buildings obtains, and it is astonishing to see what ‘comfy’ artistic pieces old gray barns make ….”
Artists resided in the house across the road from the Magees. Frank Swift Chase moved into the house on the southeast corner following the departure around 1912 of Harriet Howe and her 24 cats. Chase lived there until around 1930, when the landscape, marine, still-life, and frequent painter of self-portraits Henry Mattson moved in, setting up a studio on the second floor.
Historian Smith roomed for a period at the Rock City boarding house of Ella Riseley, and in a stable up the mountain on the old Riseley homestead. She learned about Rosie’s use of a spyglass to keep an eye on the doings in the neighborhood.
In around 1903, Zulma Steele and Edna Walker lived in Rock City while awaiting the completion of the construction of their cottage in Byrdcliffe. Through the lens of her spyglass Rosie gleaned that Steele was living with what she thought was a male companion up the road at the Reynolds family’s barn. After walking up to take a closer look, she discovered Edna Walker was working in pants. Surveying the two women’s quarters. Smith reportedly exclaimed in amazement, “Why, they’re living like real folks even if it is a barn!”
In the first decade of the 20th century, the artists of Rock City were a tight, fun-loving and congenial group who often dined together at Rose Magee’s. Then, in 1910, Andrew Dasburg return from Paris, where he had come under the influence of French modern art. The German-born artist Konrad Cramer arrived in Woodstock from Munich in late 1912 with further knowledge about radical developments in contemporary European art. The following year a group of Rock City artists traveled to New York City to see the International Exposition of Modern Art, better known as the Armory Show, and returned talking about the work of Paul Cézanne, Pablo Picasso, George Braque, Henri Matisse and Marcel Duchamp.
According to an article in the Woodstock periodical The Overook. a gallery was formed in Rosie Magee’s dining room, “and the motive force driving this group of Woodstock artists was the motto. Modern Art or Die.”
For the cost of 25 cents, artists dined at the Magee house on lavish portions of poultry or meat, and potatoes and gravy, accompanied by onions, turnips, pickles and jellies, followed by a dessert of pies and puddings. Diners frequently had to brush a hen or two off of their plate or chair, thanks to the Magees’ habit of failing to discipline or keep their animals out of the house. While parsing out meals, Rosie would linger for a while and join in the fun and conversation. Smith related that she added a bit of her wise philosophy.
“Among the farm people she was one of the few who appreciated the humor of the artists, and she was always ready to defend them,” explained the article in The Overlook. “She rejoiced over their successes and lamented over their failures, ever tolerant of their behavior even when the other village folks were scandalized. When they were unable to pay for their meals, she allowed them credit or accepted their paintings, which hung on her walls.”
The artist Henry Lee McFee related that Magee’s opinion was asked about various issues that arose. “She even decided an argument, though it was generally with a compromise that would hurt no one’s feelings,” McFee explained.
In addition to cooking and doing the housekeeping for her guests, Rosie helped out on the farm: milking the cows, feeding the horses, pigs and fowl, planting and weeding the vegetable garden, washing and mending clothes, making rugs, and filling the cellar with her homemade pickles and preserves. According to Smith, Rosie’s husband found it difficult to bestir himself to help Rosie with the chores. Rosie told Anita Smith that her husband was “harder to get going than a British sloop.”
Following Sanford’s death in 1918, Rosie continued to keep his horses in the barn. She remembered how proud her husband had been of the work the animals had accomplished when he was a quarry teamster.
Rosie made pets of every creature on her farm. She bought boxes of shredded wheat for her chickens even when her funds were depleted. She befriended a skunk she discovered in a barrel, and formed a friendship with a fox that she encountered. A reporter for the Kingston Daily Freeman remarked that always “in her wake were her chickens and ducks, and once when someone asked her if she ate the ducks she replied indignantly: ‘Why, you couldn’t persuade me to eat one of my birds.’”
Neighbor Anne Moore’s wrote a poem in response to Rosie’s warm and loving attitude toward animals. It begins:
The Hen Came Clucking In
The hen came clucking in one day
and found the chair.
”I declare to goodness,” said Rosie Magee,
“if she ain’t got Sweetie’s place.
I suppose I ought to drive her out
but it seems to fit her somehow,
and Sweetie ain’t wanting it right now.”
For several years John F. Carlson lived in a barn for which he paid five dollars a year across the road from the Magee house. Carlson studied with Birge Harrison at Byrdcliffe, and at the Woodstock School of Landscape Painting. In 1907, Harrison hired him as his assistant, and five years later Carlson succeeded him as head of the summer school of the Art Students League of New York.
In the summer of 1911, the visiting reporter for the Indianapolis Star got a glimpse of Carlson’s residence, and related that the interior of the barn was occupied by bookshelves and couches, and “a long table filled with books that invite one to linger and read, an old spinet, easels, canvases and all the paraphernalia that marks the artist, make this studio not only a working, but a hospitable center.”
Carlson described the congenial atmosphere of Rock City. “Gaiety was a habit with the [artists], and most of them owed their creature comforts and happiness to the ministering angel embodied in a dear old soul, the famous Mrs. Magee, for, in fair weather and foul, in sickness or in health, she stood ready to serve the youngsters with shelter, food, and sympathy,” he wrote.
The English author and poet Richard Le Gallienne related that Rosie would often put her hands on Carlson’s head, and jokingly say “‘Oh, you, you’re a great man now, aren’t you? With your singing and your going off with the young girls pretending to paint.’”
Magee is pictured in Carlson’s early painting Rosie Magee Walking on Road Near Rock City. This work was once owned by Rosie. The label on the reverse indicates that the work passed down from descendant to descendant. The second owner was Rosie’s half-sister, Charlotte Van Velkenburgh.
Eugene Speicher and Margaret Goddard (who later married Carlson) also lived for a period in the barn across from the Magee house. Speicher dined regularly at the Magees, and following his marriage in 1910 he and his bride Elsie boarded at the house. While staying at the Magees, Speicher was frequently visited by George Bellows, his artist friend from New York City (and himself a later summer resident of Woodstock), with whom he attended Robert Henri’s class at the Lincoln Arcade. Speicher sometimes gave the Magees paintings in trade for board or meals.Andrew Dasburg also had a close and affectionate relationship with Rosie. In later life he looked back fondly at the times he boarded and dined at the Magee home, surrounded by the likes of Carlson, McFee and Macrum. His frequent comings and goings from the house once led Rosie to exclaim “My soul’s sake alive, you’re like a swingin’ door, in and out of the house all day!’”
Dasburg considered Rosie to be “even-tempered, hard-working, with a twinkle in her eye. She always greeted ‘her boys’ with a smile and a joking remark. ‘Come, Dasburg,’ she would say, ‘set down and eat your vittles.’ Such breakfasts! All the eggs and bacon you could eat and sour batter buckwheat cakes with maple syrup.”
In the summer of 1910, following his return from abroad, Dasburg rented a house near the Magees for $2 a month with his fellow artists Morgan Russell and Walter Dorwin Teague (who went on to a successful career as an industrial designer). He later recalled that the three of them were hired by Sanford P. Magee to chop up 20 cords of wood.
Dasburg split his home between New Mexico and Woodstock from 1918 to 1928. In 1929, he moved permanently to the Southwest. Dasburg loved living in Woodstock, and in later years recalled “those early mornings up in the Catskill Mountains looking down [from Rock City] on Woodstock Valley lying in a frosty mist and seen through a screen of trees in full autumn colors. Woodstock became an open door; it was all of life to me, not just trees and hills.”
The artist Marion Bullard also formed a close friendship with Rosie. Bullard included images of Rosie in her paintings, and devoted her children’s book The Cow Next Door to her memory. Rosie is featured in the story that unfolds in The Cow Next Door, and appears in two illustrations.
Like most of Bullard’s children’s books, The Cow Next Door is based in a Woodstock locale. It tells the story of a cow who lived at Bullard’s neighbor Rosie’s house, who, after hearing an automobile horn, refuses to moo until her “supposed rival” gave milk. Rosie and her friends try again and again to coerce the cow to moo, but she doesn’t comply until one day when an automobile gets stuck nearby in the mud.
Bullard’s early paintings feature the barns, fields, mountains and farms of Woodstock in cool and misty values. In the 1920s, she came under the influence of Paul Cézanne, and from 1925 to 1930 she spent extensive time in France. In 1930 she worked in Cézanne‘s studio in Aix-en-Provence, which she shared with her fellow Woodstockers George Macrum and Grace Fallow Norton.
As noted, Rosie appears in Bullard’s painting Woman and Child Walking Up Road. A woman with a Rosie-like figure and attire appears in the foreground of the painting Maison d’Aix — an indication that even while abroad Bullard was mindful of her friend back in Woodstock.
In 1920, Anita M. Smith and the artist Caroline R. Atkinson organized a surprise party for Rosie’s seventieth birthday at Atkinson’s barn studio in nearby Shady. In the days leading up to the party they briefly reunited Rosie and her childhood beau Hercules Davis. At the meeting the two “exchanged coy glances” and flirted “like teenagers.”
Many of Rosie’s artist friends came to the party, traveling from near and far. Smith related that there “were a few good singers in the group, like John Carlson and Charlie Speicher [brother of Eugene Speicher], but the whole crowd burst lustily into ‘Sweet Rosie O’Grady’ as the little old woman was led into the studio.
“She was placed in an armchair where she was weeping with joy as each person in turn squeezed her worked-out hands, expressing their affection and gratitude,” wrote Smith. “As I recall, she did not say a word all evening, but sat there with the tears flowing down her cheeks.”
Near the end of her life Rosie was asked by the pianist Clara Chichester, who lived in the house immediately to the east of Rosie’s on Glasco Turnpike, what she would like as a present for an upcoming birthday. She responded, “Well, you know, I always wished I had a pair of pink satin slippers, and I’d like to be buried in them.”
In June 1927, now 94 years ago, Rosie was buried in the Woodstock Cemetery alongside her husband Sanford, her feet clad in a pair of pink satin slippers. Following Rosie’s death, Anita Smith acquired some of the land that the Magees owned, and in 1934 built a bluestone house on what once had been Rosie’s apple orchard. Smith inherited the Magees’ wooden rocking chair, affectionately preserved many of her old apple trees, and believed Rosie would be happy to know her trees were being lovingly cared for.
Author Dr. Bruce Weber would like to thank the Normand family for welcoming Matthew Leaycraft and him into their home, the former property of Rosie and Sanford P. Magee. He would also like to express his thanks for the help and assistance provided by Matthew, Timothy and Ruth Leaycraft, John Kleinhans, Paula Nelson, Arthur Anderson, Mark Schaming. William Lanford, Weston and Julia Blelock, Mikhail Horowitz, Michele Schwerert, and Barbara and Dinah Carlson. Kim Apolant, librarian at the Woodstock Public Library, provided very valuable assistance.
Four lectures about the Woodstock colony sculptors by Bruce Weber
For the past few years, Bruce Weber has been researching, lecturing, writing and curating on the historic Woodstock art colony. Starting on July 7, he will be giving a series of four lectures on the first Wednesday of consecutive months from 7 to 8:30 p.m. on the sculptors of the art colony. The series is entitled Seeing in Three Dimensions.
The July 7 lecture will explore the lives and careers of early Woodstock pioneer sculptors Abastenia St. Leger Eberle, Grace Mott Johnson, Florence Lucius, Myra Musselman-Carr and Bruno Zimm.
The August 4 lecture will focus on the post-World War sculptors Warren Wheelock, Wilhelm Hunt Diederich and Alfeo Faggi, all of whom worked in a more modern aesthetic.
On September 1, Weber will discuss later local sculptors Paul Fiene, Gaston Lachaise, Alexander Archipenko, Lu Duble, Isamu Noguchi and Carl Walters.
The concluding lecture of the series on October 6 will deal with what Weber terms the Direct Carvers, a group of artists who worked in the area from the 1920s onward, Including John B. Flannagan, Eugenie Gershoy, Hannah Small, Raoul Hague and Harvey Fite. Seeing in Three Dimensions is being presented in cooperation with the Woodstock Art Artists Association and Museum (WAAM) and livestreamed on Youtube from Green Kill.
To access the first lecture, please click the “Tickets” button on this page, which requires a minimum of a dollar. The suggested donation for this event is ten dollars. Eventbrite, which does not work with the Firefox browser. requires that you make a contribution. Green Kill is able to bring this livestream to the public at considerable cost, and Weber urges its support to keep this quality program going.
Bruce Weber received his Ph.D. in art history at the Graduate School of the City University of New York. A scholar of American art of the past two centuries, Dr. Weber has served as a curator at several museums, including the Museum of the City of New York. He has published widely and curated numerous exhibitions. Last autumn he initiated the blog Learning Woodstock Art Colony (learningwoodstockartcolony.com). This diverse and carefully researched blog has contributed greatly to the historical and cultural understanding of the scope of the Woodstock art colony. His affectionate portrait of Rosie Magee is a blog post published by permission here.