A History of Artists’ Colonies in the Hudson Valley
Abundant in natural beauty, our region was conducive to the stirrings of utopian ideals and communities.
In the 19th century, the United States saw the spread of what were loosely known as artists’ colonies. There was an abundance of factors for this rise. Artists’ colonies had been a European phenomenon; it made sense that sooner or later the concept would find its way to North America. The Industrial Revolution — both in Europe and the United States — was busy laying waste to the 19th-century ecosystem. This engendered, quite expectedly, a wave of revulsion. Who wouldn’t want to take refuge in a sequestered, pastoral space devoted to artistic creation?
New York and the Hudson Valley were fertile ground for these artists’ colonies. Abundant in natural beauty — no small factor for artistic inspiration — the region was also especially conducive to the stirrings of utopian ideals and communities. This was a phenomenon of the 19th century that extended up to the communes and alternative communities of the 1960s and 1970s.
In essence, if there was a political movement or societal innovation — such as suffrage for women or the abolition of slavery — New York had it. All of these movements intersected in various ways, cross-pollinating with the era’s writers, painters, poets, musicians, and craftspeople — gelling into what we recognize as artists’ colonies.
Just as good art does away with codified definitions, artists’ colonies also varied in terms of setting and intent. Some sprang up organically; some were created with specific strictures and guidelines. And creativity has long flourished in practically every nook and cranny throughout the region. The constant is that the Hudson Valley was — and is — the fount of an enormous output of art in all its manifestations. Here is a look at some of these communities.
By the 1870s, the painters of the Hudson River School had successfully mined the region’s beauty and majesty. In the next decade, the more adventurous artistic spirits set out to explore new terrain: the wilderness of Ulster County’s Shawangunk Ridge. The artists’ colony of Cragsmoor was spawned amid the ridge, the name itself indicative of a certain rusticity: a crag — a steep cliff or rock — and a moor — a boggy stretch of land.
If crags and moors didn’t exactly connote easy living, the stunning landscape more than made up for it. Cragsmoor’s locale was pure gold, nestled as it was amid the Catskills and the valleys Hudson, Wallkill, and Rondout. Artists came and culture followed in its wake. The little enclave of Cragsmoor managed to support three churches, a playhouse, and a library. There were chamber music concerts, plays, poetry readings, and exhibitions. The architecture was spectacular. Not surprisingly, Cragsmoor has been included in the National Register of Historic Places.
Living in Cragsmoor was an acquired taste. It was isolated, off the transportation grid, and winters could be fearsome. The artists, ultimately, didn’t replenish in number and the original inhabitants slowly died off.
Cragsmoor today, though, is a living, breathing place, a wonderful village of around 500 people. If it sounds quaint to think of portions of Ulster County as the wilderness, many of these arduous conditions still do apply. The hamlet’s location — right in the Shawangunks and the unspoiled Sam’s Point Preserve — still presents some logistical challenges (the nearest metropolis, for example, is Ellenville). The splendid isolation endures, the winters are still hard, and the two rural roads that lead into Cragsmoor don’t lead out of it.
The impetus for making Cragsmoor one’s home are essentially the same now as it was then: beauty, escape, community. And these are things that Cragsmoor offers in abundance.
Bronxville’s attractiveness and proximity to Manhattan has long been a magnet for all sorts of creative people. While never an artists’ colony per se, the artists’ component to Bronxville’s history is quite significant.
Artists began settling in Bronxville in the 1850s, attracted to the picturesque, non-urban setting and its easy accessibility via railroad to New York City. In the late 19th century the entrepreneur William van Duzer Lawrence transformed farmland into the planned community of Lawrence Park. (He also bequeathed Sarah Lawrence College.) Artists were deliberately sought to become denizens of this rarefied settlement, and creative types responded in droves.
Bronxville’s status as an artistic nexus began to wane by the 1930s: The rise of the automobile had made sequestered living less of an immediate need. Artists could pick and choose their enclaves to a far greater extent. And the shifting of artistic and societal mores — Jackson Pollock and the barbarian Abstract Expressionists were on their way — added a patina of obsolescence to the Bronxville community of artists and their quest for beauty.
Its artistic legacy remains an undercurrent that runs through Bronxville — still a sought-after, rarefied place to live and explore.
If location is the guiding principle of real estate, it is also the guiding principle of artistic enclaves as well. The historically protected, sequestered community of Snedens Landing lies in Rockland County 12 miles north of the George Washington Bridge, amid the Palisades and one of the Northeast’s busiest corridors. This is nobody’s idea of bucolic, yet Snedens Landing strove hard to successfully create its own peaceful autonomy. As a result, a certain quaintness was long attached to the place: name-checked in Woody Allen’s Manhattan as a synonym for stuffiness and the sort of place where a 19th-century historical account saw fit to include the mention of a needlework class, in which “each girl had a Sampler with a strawberry, a wild rose and its foliage, a buttercup, and a daisy clearly stamped on it.”
Snedens Landing’s quaintness, though, is not the whole story. Its artistic roots are linked to the trailblazing Mary Lawrence (who deserves some renewed historical attention), a late-19th-century anomaly: an actual female sculptor. Together with her Italian-French husband, fellow sculptor François Tonetti, they settled in Snedens Landing and served as a magnet for creative types to come and settle. The list of denizens could go on and on: Aaron Copland, John Dos Passos, Laurence Olivier, and Gerald and Sara Murphy, who were F. Scott Fitzgerald’s inspiration for Tender is the Night’s Dick and Nicole Diver.
Snedens Landing remains a tucked-away, sought-after place for high-profile types to enjoy a bit of the low-profile existence.
The Woodstock Byrdcliffe Guild — a vital, multi-faceted artistic force — began as the Byrdcliffe artists’ colony in 1903. Its founders were the (British) husband and (American) wife team of Ralph Radcliffe Whitehead and Jane Byrd McCall. The establishment of Byrdcliffe reads like a textbook study in the annals of the American penchant for alternative communities. A mélange of artists’ colony, utopian community, and proto-commune, it consisted of roughly 30 Arts and Crafts buildings, along with a library, an art school, and barn. The staff had their own cottages and there was even an inn for Byrdcliffe’s visitors.
Byrdcliffe stood apart in many ways. Families were encouraged to come and the entity was more female-friendly than most — ideas of societal change and female emancipation could be promulgated within its environs. There was a strong theoretical basis to Byrdcliffe: the gospel of the outdoors and the need for economic self-sufficiency, which Byrdcliffe strove to accomplish via the production of furniture, with an emphasis on cabinet making.
That specific incarnation, ultimately, did not survive, beginning with economic difficulties that terminated the goal of self-sufficiency, but it began an enduring, unique cross-pollination between Byrdcliffe and the town of Woodstock. Decades before the famous 1969 happening that enshrined the name of Woodstock as a synonym for a whole generation (which savvy readers know took place in Sullivan County’s Bethel, not Woodstock), the town of Woodstock — thanks to Byrdcliffe — had become a cultural nexus. The fact that Bob Dylan settled there in the mid-1960s is not happenstance.
The Byrdcliffe saga is far from over: The Woodstock Byrdcliffe Guild offers artists’ residencies, exhibitions, and educational programs. It has hosted — not surprisingly — Bob Dylan, along with Abstract Expressionist Philip Guston, Wallace Stevens, sculptor Eva Hesse; the list seems endless. (Byrdcliffe — nothing if not inclusive — even provided a slot for Chevy Chase.) This summer, Byrdcliffe began hosting artists from areas affected by the natural disasters of 2017.
Byrdcliffe has been in operation for more than a century — a truly rare distinction. For info on what the Guild is up to, consult their website: www.woodstockguild.org