A Passionate Nature
The consummate art of Harold Weston
by Anne Mackinnon
HAROLD WESTON was born on February 14, 1894, in Merion, Pennsylvania, but his real life began—according to the evidence of his memoir—when his father took him up Mount Marcy for the first time, at the age of nine. “Well I do remember the sound of the trees during that night, that sound peculiar to upper reaches of the timber line,” he wrote almost seventy years later.
One of the major figures in twentieth-century American art, Weston drew his inspiration from the Adirondacks and was compelled throughout his life to depict the images and sensations that struck him so vividly and aroused his deepest emotions. His experiments took him from landscapes and nudes, through portraits and still lifes, to abstract reflections on the universe in small things.
Fortunately for those who share his feeling for the Adirondacks, Weston was drawn by philosophy and inclination to paint the things and people he knew best: the mountains, lakes and sky; the exhilarating colors of a leaf in autumn; his well-worn snowshoes; himself in his studio; friends from the valley. Like his contemporaries Georgia O’Keeffe and Marsden Hartley, whose paintings speak the essence of the American Southwest and the coast of Maine, so Harold Weston gave voice to the region he knew so intimately.
Weston’s life as a painter began during the winter of 1920–21, when he set himself up in a roughly built one-room house of his own construction at the top of ·an isolated hill in St. Huberts, three miles south of Keene Valley. There, by design, he tested his mettle as a painter and achieved a solitude that brought him close to the subject he wanted to explore and the feelings it evoked in him.
He spent his days alone, walking trails he had known intimately from the time he was a child, carrying oils and cardboard and often a camera. In Freedom in the Wilds, a memoir written in 1971, he recalled that first winter in the mountains, hiking on snowshoes from Upper Ausable Lake almost to Panther Gorge, or to the foot of Dix in the Bouquet valley, or to Giant’s Washbowl. A series of spontaneous oil sketches records those adventures.
At night, after splitting wood until dark, he would walk down the hill by moonlight, in the brightness of the gleaming snow, to sit and talk in the sweltering heat of Spencer Nye’s back room. Weston’s excuse for going was to collect his mail, which Nye picked up for him every day in Keene Valley.
Spen Nye owned a livery stable in St. Huberts, and he had a crew of men living there and working for him. There was plenty to do during the winter that involved teams of horses—cutting and hauling blocks of ice, lumbering, bringing heavy items by sledge to camps on the Ausable lakes. Nye and his men had worked out in the cold all day, and they seemed to Weston “to need to soak up heat when in the house in rooms that got stuffy, hot as an oven, and blue with tobacco smoke.” They teased him about his cold shack, his unaccountable taste for discomfort, and dubbed him “the hermit of the Ausable Club.” Weston tolerated their humor and even cultivated his eccentric image. He could afford to. Because over that winter he was accomplishing what he had set out to do. He was making paint work for him.
HAROLD WESTON WAS AN extraordinarily self-reliant person, and his commitment to self-expression amounted to a passion. Yet he was shaped profoundly by the history of his family, and particularly its history in the Adirondacks. The stories recounted in his memoir begin well before his own birth, and throughout the tale his own life and the history of the Adirondack Mountain Reserve (AMR) and the Adirondack Trail Improvement Society (ATIS) are inseparably intertwined.
Weston’s maternal grandfather, Charles Hartshorne, had been among the wealthy Philadelphians who in 1887 purchased a large tract of land that contained the Ausable lakes and several High Peaks, including the summit of Mount Marcy. Their intention was to preserve the land from a threatened purchase by Finch, Pruyn and Company. (It was over the next few years that the AMR evolved into the private and extremely exclusive Ausable Club.)
In 1886, however, before there was an Ausable Club, people used to gather on summer evenings at campfires, sometimes held in a cow pasture at the Otis Farm, near the foot of Roaring Brook Falls. It was at one such campfire that Mary Hartshorne met her future husband, S. Burns Weston, a young follower of Felix Adler, founder of the Ethical Culture Society and a summer resident of Keene Valley. Burns Weston had been trained for the ministry at Harvard Divinity School, but had lost his first church—a Unitarian congregation in Lenox, Massachusetts—under charges of radicalism. He went to Adler, whose philosophy he admired, only to be told that he needed to educate himself further to prepare for a vocation in the Ethical Culture movement. At the philosopher’s suggestion, Weston, the son of a Maine farmer, borrowed money from a life-insurance policy and spent the next two years studying at the Universities of Berlin and Leipzig. He returned for more training as Adler’s assistant until finally, in 1885, he was sent to found and lead an Ethical Culture Society in Philadelphia, coincidentally Mary Hartshome’s hometown.
The engagement that followed their meeting was tolerated but not exactly approved of by Mary’s industrialist Quaker father. According to Harold Weston, Burns was not invited to dine at the Hartshorne home until after the wedding. But Burns and Mary’s unlikely alliance combined elements that were perpetuated in their son: nonconformity, willfulness, a love of knowledge, tolerance and an ability to pass easily in different social worlds.
WHEN HE ARRIVED in the Adirondacks, then, in 1920, Weston was essentially coming home. He had spent every summer of his childhood hiking the mountains around St. Huberts and the Ausable lakes, and he knew the land both well and fervently. At the age of fourteen, he and his brother Carl had been trusted to act as guides for their father’s famous friends, the educator John Dewey and philosophers William James and Felix Adler. In 1906, when he was twelve, Weston had helped choose a location for his grandfather Hartshome’s camp on the Upper Lake, and proudly worked on its construction.
During the forest fire of 1913, which devastated Round Mountain and damaged much of Giant, he and his brother raced to the top of Noonmark to scout the progress of the flames, an extraordinarily meaningful achievement for a young man who two years earlier had been struck with polio and told he would never hike again. (He climbed that day—and for rest of his life—with a walking stick.)
Weston graduated from Harvard in 1916 and spent the next three and a half years in war-related work ( the damage inflicted by polio made him ineligible for combat) with YMCA International in the Near East. He had become intensely interested in art while at college and as part of his wartime service established the Baghdad Art Club for British soldiers. Back in New York in early 1920, he attended art school for a few months, but found the experience too arid to hold his interest. In an article published in the Magazine of Art in 1939, he explained the impulse that had led him back to the Adirondacks:
There I felt I belonged. There I felt that if I lived alone with the woods and the mountains the technique of how to paint would work out. A semi-pantheism, sentimental though genuine, permeated my thinking: the tree, cloud, mountain, life and the eternal seen through the incandescence of the moment. I was as profligate with paint and canvas as I was frugal in living-spoon, frying pan, coffee pot and kettle, big box-stove, axe for wood, warm clothes and snow shoes, daily milk from a farmhouse and monthly supplies from the village three miles away. These and my paints were the essentials.
Weston’s work from those early years records his struggle to do justice to the natural forms he knew so well and to the feelings they inspired. “I was trying to paint what I felt rather than what I saw,” he said later, but there can be little doubt that he often managed to do both. By the side of a trail, from the top of a mountain, Weston looked out, and then inside himself, to distill the essential and put it down as truthfully as possible. He often worked in his studio, but had a gift for vivid recollection of nature in all its stirring detail. In his seventies he wrote:
I can still wander over trails I climbed years ago, recall the changing conditions of the forest floor and how the character of the trees alters as you reach a higher altitude, the flowers, berries, ferns, mosses, and lichen, the quickening of breath as you reach a lookout or get beyond the timber line. I carry these trails with me.
Frank Owen, a Keene Valley painter, professor of art and a friend of Weston’s, recalled a visit in the 1960s to the older artist’s Greenwich Village apartment, where he first saw those early paintings. Weston pulled out a trunk. Inside were more than seventy small oils on cardboard, all painted between 1920 and 1924. “I was very excited,” Owen remembered. “I wanted to see more and more.” And, somewhat reluctantly, Weston agreed. What the paintings told was a story of coming to terms with three terrains—sky, land and water—and finding, in Owen’s words, “an artistic vocabulary to account for them.”
In his 1939 article Weston explained the importance of his Near East experience: “Both the patterned landscape and the art of Persia stressed for me at a formative period the emphasis on color, design, use of outline, broken areas—a certain stylization of approach.” His characteristic use of expressive outline and vivid color were already in place, to convey with stunning immediacy the emotional state of the artist.
YET CULTIVATING HIS EMOTIONS with no object but nature could only sustain him for so long. By the middle of his second winter in St. Huberts, as purposefully as Weston had orchestrated his solitude, so he organized its end. During the early 1920s, Weston wrote and lectured on his travels in Persia. One of his lectures took him to Vassar College, where his sister Esther was a student. After his talk—which had the provocative title “Persian Chieftains and Veiled Women”—Esther arranged a dinner with a few of her friends, among them a quiet young Quaker woman named Faith Borton. Faith was surprised to learn at the end of the evening that Weston had liked her and hoped to see her again.
An invitation to a winter party in St. Huberts in January 1922 followed. Later, Faith recalled her reaction to this unconventional suggestion: “I had never been to the Adirondacks, and I had certainly never attended anything calld a ‘winter party.’ ” Yet she obtained her parents’ permission and went, only to discover that the arrangements were even more unusual than she had imagined:
During the next three days the placid sub-urban pattern of my life was completely shattered. We balanced perilously on a load of teetering logs as charging horses dashed down hill, we watched the cutting by hand of three-foot cakes of pure aquamarine ice. My future husband and I cut down a hardwood tree seven feet in circumference where we used a crosscut saw. … A sturdy team drove us, bundled to the ears in furs, for an overnight trip across frozen lakes at temperatures of ten degrees below zero to a camp seven miles from any other human beings.
Was he testing her? Perhaps. He even went so far as to get them lost—during a blizzard, on snowshoes—in Marcy Swamp, and still she liked him.
Weston’s proposal of marriage was not long in coming. Faith accepted, but her skeptical father refused his blessing until her suitor could prove his capacity to support her. Thus spurred to action, Weston managed to arrange his first one-person show, which opened less than a year after the winter visit, in November 1922, at the influential Montross Gallery, in New York. The exhibit contained nearly two hundred paintings, mainly Adirondack landscapes, and was received with an acclamation that surprised Weston and impressed the Borton family. Faith and Harold were married in May 1923 and returned to St. Huberts to live.
IN THE CALM THAT FOLLOWED, Weston reflected on the show and wondered, his father-in-law’s challenge notwithstanding, if he had forced too early an exposure of his work. The show had created expectations that the now more thoughtful artist was reluctant to address:
The success of the exhibition made me selfconscious about the stylization and the attitude: youth running to the mountain top, beating his chest and declaiming “I have seen God!”
Furthermore, he now had a new subject, one that broadened his range and produced a new maturity. “Marriage at this time brought the nude into my life, and pantheism disappeared,” he wrote. “My wife had a beautiful body, and I wanted to express in paint some of the deep emotions it aroused in me.” Alone together that first winter they worked intently, he painting and feeding the stove while she posed. He wrote of this time:
It is difficult to describe the joy of living and painting with this new impetus—the excitement of getting it down, direct and spontaneous, obliteration of all else, no time to stop and perfect, no time to theorize, no time to think of food until exhausted.
The series of nudes that he created drew on everything he had learned from his experiments with landscape. The artist John Marin, seeing the paintings for the first time, said, “I feel the woods and the mountains in these nudes—synthetic American landscapes—direct primitive quality—purely American stuff-who did them?”
This comment delighted Weston and reinforced his confidence that his work could change and grow in subtlety without losing its essential character. Having shouldered the traditional burden of the American artist—to comprehend and express a relationship with the American land—Weston achieved an inspired extension of the subject, a completion of the equation: the body of the land and the body of the lover were one and the same.
During the summer of 1925 Weston had a kidney removed, enduring the second lengthy convalescence of his life. In early 1926 he and Faith decided to go to France, where they traveled for some time before settling in a remote village in the Pyrenees. For the next four years they lived in a cottage even more primitive than their home in the Adirondacks, occasionally spending a month or two in an inexpensive studio in Paris. He painted and explored new media, including gouache on colored paper, partly under the pressure of their limited living space. Two of their children were born during those years, which must have made the small quarters even tighter. In 1930 they returned to the United States.
Living in St. Huberts with two and then three children, the Westons did make a few concessions to domestic comfort. They bought a car, for instance, and around the time that their third child was born they installed a furnace in the house. The original studio had been added to several times, once after the first winter, again before their marriage and then as the need arose, each time with the help of carpenter Clarence Edmonds. Local people still marvel at the equanimity with which Faith accepted the circumstances of their housekeeping and even apparently shared Weston’s wish to keep things simple. Adrian Edmonds, Clarence’s son and himself a builder, remembers Weston as “a man who didn’t like things very warm” or, diplomatically, “not a man for advocating good construction.” (“Like a hedgehog den” is how one Keene Valley resident described the house.)
The 1930s was an exceptionally productive period for Weston, and his reputation grew steadily. He received valuable exposure through his relationship with Duncan Phillips, the influential art collector and critic, which began in 1928 when Phillips purchased the first in what would eventually become a collection of thirty-four works by Weston. During the 1930s alone, the Phillips Memorial Gallery, in Washington, D.C., (now the Phillips Collection) mounted four all-Weston shows—in 1930, 1931, 1932 and 1939. In his 1931 collection of essays, The Artist Sees Differently, Phillips praised especially the dynamism of Weston’s work: “The chief attributes of anything that lives are coordination and movement. Weston’s pictures are alive with both these vital functions.”
In 1939 Weston’s vibrant “Girl with Green Hat” won third prize at the Golden Gate International Exposition, in San Francisco, a public honor that raised his visibility in the art world and beyond.
Weston also painted a series of important portraits during the 1930s, including two very different depictions of Felix Adler, one done during the aging philosopher’s lifetime and the other, commissioned by Columbia University, after his death. He also painted Clarence Edmonds, Keene Valley’s beloved Alphonso “Doc” Goff, his longtime friend John Dos Passos and theologian Henry Sloane Coffin, an Ausable Club member. Several, including a self-portrait, were shown in Washington in 1936, prompting a reviewer to write, “These are not smooth, suave examples of portraiture, but rough and rugged as hickory stumps, or rock beaten by the elements.” His daughter Nina recalls sitting for her father on occasion, an experience she found challenging, not so much because of the difficulty of holding a pose, but because of the “energizing sensation of him looking at me so intensely and taking what he needed.” The intensity of that gaze still resonates in his self-portraits.
To Weston the real achievement of the portraits was his success at depicting something essential to the person beyond mere physical likeness. When Mrs. Adler first saw the portrait of her late husband she left the room in tears, then returned to say that she had felt “a sense of his presence more keenly than at any time since his death.”
Another achievement of the decade was the series of murals he painted for the General Services Administration Building, in Washington, through a commission awarded by the Treasury Relief Art Project. The murals, recently restored, consist of twenty-two panels in three sections, depicting federal construction projects and the government’s centralized procurement-and-supplies system. Together they show the scope of the efforts being made to speed recovery from the Depression through public-works projects, a topic that had personal relevance for the Westons, for, as Faith recalled, “at that time we had an exceedingly modest income.” From 1936 to 1938, Weston immersed himself in this subject, traveling to offices and construction sites and learning in minute detail their processes and the tasks involved, then coming home to St. Huberts to paint in a studio built specifically for the purpose.
In carrying out the project, Weston departed both from his own previous work and from the direction followed by many artists of his time, who tended to see the mural as an opportunity to present symbolic, and often highly didactic, subjects. Weston believed that his murals had to be built on technical knowledge of the material presented, that “any emotional approach would be out of place.”
He may have meant to banish emotion, but he seems to have included everything else. Federal buildings old and new from California to Maine are juxtaposed in two large panels, while others show people engaged in drafting, printing, accounting, excavating, opening government bids, driving piles, fitting steam pipes, maintaining elevators, chiseling sculptures, unloading freight cars, and, yes, painting murals. A panel on the north wall features a caricature of Weston himself, nonchalantly putting the finishing touches on a burlesque version of a typically melodramatic New Deal mural. Although the naked woman lying in the foreground is a specific reference to a different controversial mural, it is likely that Weston was also poking fun at the furor that arose in 1937 when Rockwell Kent—an Adirondack neighbor, although not a friend—included an oblique call for Puerto Rican independence in a mural he painted for the Post Office Department Building.
Perhaps it was exposure to Washington and the goals of the government that propelled Weston, for whom public service was a family imperative, to commit himself early in the Second World War to the war-relief effort. Having seen widespread hunger and suffering during the previous world war, he felt impelled to do what he could to prevent a similar fate. Suddenly and surprisingly, the artist and private man became a forceful advocate, pressing his agenda in the highest international cir-des. Eleanor Roosevelt later acknowledged that he had been the moving force behind the creation, in 1943, of the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration. He had also founded a citizens’ organization called Food for Freedom, the membership of which during the war numbered sixty million. As that organization’s executive director, he made speeches across the country on the worldwide food shortage and the need for American cooperation and assistance. He was prodigiously effective in his unaccustomed role, but the cost was almost six years lost from his work as an artist.
At the end of the war, Weston left Washington much honored and satisfied, but frankly worn out. According to his wife, “he had worked so hard that he was in a much enfeebled condition.” After he fell several times for no apparent reason, they discovered that he was suffering from pernicious anemia.
Weston returned to St. Huberts to rest, also living part-time in New York, but the years after the war turned out to be a period of especially intense work for him on another lifelong public commitment: the ATIS, of which his father had been a cofounder. In 1948, Weston became secretary of the organization, which entailed responsibility for an ambitious program of trail maintenance on AMR lands. Jim Goodwin, also a past secretary of the ATIS, recalled being hired to head a trail crew by Weston, who warned him, “Remember, it’s six days a week, eight hours a day, right through the rain.” Paul Lewis, superintendent of the AMR, saw Weston as one of the few Ausable Club members who truly understood the work involved in maintaining the club’s property: “If I ever needed anything, a piece of equipment, he was always in my corner. I might not get it right away, but I’d get it.”
Weston still did manage to paint, most notably a series of six oil paintings depicting the stages of construction of the United Nations, which are now owned by the Smithsonian Institution. Weston researched these paintings as meticulously as he had the Treasury murals, but with the added impetus of chronicling the building of a permanent home for an organization he cared about deeply.
In 1953 he reentered public life as an organizer of the International Association of Plastic Arts, later the International Association of Art, an affiliate of UNESCO. Throughout the next decade, he attended international conferences and meetings and served on the organization’s executive committee, and eventually as its president. He was also a cofounder, and for ten years the chairman, of the National Council on the Arts and Government, and played a major role in the creation of the National Foundation on the Arts and Humanities, which later became the national endowments.
His work meanwhile was moving toward a more abstract consideration of natural forms and patterns. Interviewed in 1978, Faith Weston explained:
Dating from the mid-fifties … he had become increasingly interested in the abstract as revealed in nature … in the design and structure of waves, fungus, driftwood, shells, or lichen on a branch.… He spent quite a while working in that direction because he would not make abstract paintings just for their own sake. He wanted to feel that he had arrived at a stage in his work which had logically brought him to a simplification without any sacrifice of depth of meaning.
It was thus that Weston arrived at his lyrical Stone Series, a group of seventy-six works in gouache on colored paper that he painted during the period from 1968 until his death, in 1972. The starting point for the series was a group of unusual stones brought back from the Gaspe Peninsula, in Quebec, by a friend. Weston was intrigued by the shapes and markings of the black-and-white stones and expressed an interest in painting them. Working on paper lie had brought from France almost forty years earlier, he began a series of meditations that took him, eventually, through a range of abstraction from the intimate to the sublime and across the full spectrum of colors. The depth of meaning he sought is everywhere realized in these profound reflections on natural themes.
Weston was apparently never tempted to retreat to a social world of artists and appreciative patrons, but even friends who had previously admired his work were bemused—and in some cases frankly stumped—by this series of works. Weston was unperturbed and continued, with no goal but to satisfy himself.
By contrast, Freedom in the Wilds, written at about the same time, was put together partly to please friends who wanted to ensure that Weston’s own memories, and also his vast knowledge of the early years of the ATIS and the AMR, were preserved. He lived to see the book published, and painted into the final months of his life.
WESTON HAD MADE FRIENDS freely across lines of education, occupation and age, and many people remember him vividly as fascinating, irascible, hard-headed, original. No one, before or since, has so eloquently captured the exhilaration and mysticism of reaching an Adirondack summit. Nina Foster, the oldest child of Harold and Faith, has contemplated her father’s unique view of life: “He looked through the initial surface of things, whether with his artistic eye or his political eye. He felt he had to understand—to, as he called it, get beyond the known, and this obsession fueled whatever he did.”
Faith, his intimate companion, explained that “very strong puritanical influences in his background affected his thinking and his standards of social and human behavior. However, there also existed a tremendous passion and drive toward the sensual and exotic.”
In an article in the New Yorker in 1932, Lewis Mumford asked, “Shall we call Weston’s combination of austerity and sensuality a saint’s love of flesh or a lover’s desire for holiness?” His life and work give the answer: let’s call it both.