American Women Artists · Essay · Exhibitions

Susie Barstow (1836-1923) in the White Mountains

The end of the nineteenth century saw the pinnacle of the nature spiritualism first advocated by the American Transcendentalists in the 1830s. By the 1880s and 1890s, the writings of Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson, as well as the art of Thomas Cole, had acquired a cult-like status.[1] This led to the founding of organizations like the Boston-based Appalachian Mountain Club, the oldest national outdoor group, first established in 1876 to explore the White Mountains in New Hampshire. After the club’s second meeting in 1876, women were accepted and many became renowned female hikers. Members included Marian Pychowska, a frequent summer boarder, and Isabella Stone, who helped plan the trails near Woodstock, NH.[2]

Susie M. Barstow of Brooklyn, New York, was both a prominent member of the Appalachian Mountain Club and a well-known painter of the Hudson River School style. Born in 1836 to the tea-merchant Samuel Barstow, Suzie studied at the Rutgers Female Institute in New York and later taught at the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences.[3] Marian Pychowska described her as ‘Miss Barstow’ in her letters and in an 1889 issue of The White Mountains Echo, it was claimed that the same ‘Miss Barstow’ had climbed “all the principal peaks of the Catskills, Adirondacks and White Mountains, as well as those of the Alps, Tyrol and Black Forest, often tramping twenty-five miles a day, and sketching as well, often in the midst of a blinding snow-storm.”[4]

According to archival sources, Barstow followed the method of painting established by the Hudson River School: sketching in the field and later compiling one larger composition in the studio. In photographs of her Brooklyn studio, Barstow can be seen holding a brush and palette with her paintings, including a scene of a still lake in the woods [fig. 1]. In another image, Barstow opens an antique glass chest framed by sketchy watercolor drawings in the foreground and two classical paintings of rustic Italian scenes above [fig. 2]. Barstow’s European studies were also evident in her studio on Carlton Avenue (earlier 44 Madison Avenue), which reportedly showed “careful decoration” with a back room full of “rare rugs.”[5] Her paintbrushes, nicknamed ‘Camel Hair Pencils’ (actually squirrel hair), were the finest from Austria and she stored them in a box monogrammed with her initials, SMB [figs. 3 & 4].[6]

Like many of her peers, Barstow was influenced by the work of Asher B. Durand (1796-1886) and she completed several interior, wooded scenes reminiscent of Durand’sIn the Woods from 1855 [fig. 5]. In compositions like In the Woods, Durand ‘domesticated’ the wilderness of his predecessor Thomas Cole to create inviting spaces that provide protection.[7] Barstow was aware of Durand’s work and also painted forest interiors, as seen in the sheltered glade featured in her work Autumn Clearing [fig. 6]. In Barstow’s tranquil woodlands, a soft light through the trees often creates a haven for the viewer. This style of composition, which was popular with other women artists including Julie Hart Beers, expresses the serenity these artists found in nature.

Barstow also appears to have been influenced by a compositional device invented by Cole: the use of bright red branches in mountain landscapes to create a striking focal point. In two fall scenes by Barstow, Autumn Landscapeand In the White Mountains, 1872, the left area of the canvas is distinguished by bright, red bristles against the dark brown of the general scene [figs. 7 & 8]. This technique builds on Cole’s use of red patches of flora in his own gloomy wildernesses, including Clove Catskillsfrom 1827, Gelyna (View from Ticonderoga)from 1828, and The Falls of Kaaterskillfrom 1826 [figs. 9 & 10]. The resulting works depict fall as a season of change marked by scattered thunderstorms, burning tree brush, and colorful foliage.

As was the fashion at the time, Barstow also contributed to her local Exchange Society, the Woman’s Work Exchange and Decorative Art Society of Brooklyn (1878). Established in the antebellum years, Exchange Societies were charitable organizations where women could sell home-made goods and avoid the stigma of paid, commercial labor in the late nineteenth century.[8] As historian Kathleen Waters Sander writes, for “women imbued with the ideals of domesticity,” selling through a “voluntary, cooperative association softened the lines between [the] public and private spheres.”[9] Barstow was aware of the opportunities these societies offered and according to an exhibition catalogue for the Brooklyn Exchange in 1890, she contributed two landscapes: A Camp in the Adirondacks(listed for $300) and Sunset in the Woods (listed for $150).[10]

Artistically, Barstow was competent with all the major styles of the Hudson River School, including woodland interiors, classical mountain-range compositions, and Romantic scenes of twilight and wintertime. Such Symbolist subject matters first became part of the American painter’s lexicon in 1819 when Washington Allston painted his silhouetted twilight scene Moonlit Landscapeafter his return from Italy [fig. 11]. Allston’s painting of the Boston area, which is vaguely reminiscent of the Italian countryside, remains eerie in its vagueness. In Barstow’s sensational painting Night in the Woods (c. 1890-91), the intermittent light from the moon shines down on the forest brush in the same manner as Allston’s moonlit lake [fig. 12]. Both artworks capitalize on the vague yet glistening light of the moon and its romantic qualities.

Like her peers, Barstow pursued the art of ‘beak-bagging’: practice where one ‘bags’ or accumulates mountain peaks that one has summited.[11] Her audience was aware of the intrepid nature of these hikes, as well as the symbolism of mountain ranges for women breaking free of the home. In a winter scene titled A November Frost in the Mountains, Barstow captured the serene experience of arriving at an untouched, snow-covered mountain clearing just after a major storm [fig. 13]. Barstow was unquestionably fond of such experiences, as she reportedly climbed one hundred and ten mountains in her lifetime.[12] As Jennifer Krieger, owner of Hawthorne Fine Art, writes, “Barstow’s physical feats paralleled her artistic achievements.”[13] One can experience the ‘repose’ she felt after reaching the top in many of her paintings.

Exhibitions of landscapes captured by women hikers of the Appalachian Mountain Club demonstrated to larger audiences how such organizations liberated women from the domestic art of the home. The jagged branches, snow-peaked mountain ranges, and glistening sunsets and sunrises featured in many of these canvases brought the experience of exploration to mass audiences in the city centers. As art historian Nancy Siegle writes, Barstow in fact exhibited at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, the Brooklyn Art Association, and in 1858 at the National Academy of Design (founded in 1828), where she showed landscapes entitled Sketch from Nature, Pembroke, Massachusetts and Clarendon, Vermont [currently lost].[14]

Hawthorne Fine Art actively discovers, acquires, researches, and restores landscapes by Susie Barstow. Though Barstow completed over one hundred paintings and despite the fact that she exhibited over seventy-five of these paintings at the Brooklyn Art Association, few are known to contemporary audiences.[15] Barstow was not only an excellent painter, she was also a fascinating individual. Her skill with the full range of Hudson River compositions, from fall clearings to moonlit landscapes to rustic mountain-ranges, demonstrates her immersion in the zeitgeist of her time. Barstow’s painting Night in the Woods, which was discovered by Hawthorne Fine Art, is currently on display at the “Color of the Moon: Lunar Painting in American Art” exhibition at the Hudson River Museum from February 8 to May 12, 2019 [visit www.hrm.org for more info] [fig. 14].

Lizzie Frasco

Citations

[1] The great historical irony of this period remains the fact that the pursuit of the ‘wilderness’ of the Transcendentalists led to the hotels and tourist industries that harmed the environment over time. See: Nancy K. Anderson, “‘The Kiss of Enterprise’: The Western Landscape as Symbol and Resource,” in Reading American Art (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998), 208-231; Pavel Cenkl, The Vast Book of Nature: Writing the Landscape of New Hampshire’s White Mountains, 1784-1911 (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2009), 133-139.

[2] Cenkl, ibid.

[3] Julie Boardman, When Women and Mountains Meet: Adventures in the White Mountains(Etna, N.H.: Durand Press, 2001), 69-70. “Suzie M. Barstow,” Obituary, New York Times, June 13, 1923. Susie’s graduation from the Rutgers Female Institute was also written-up in the New York Daily Times (1851-1857): “Additional City News,” New York Daily Times, Jul 9, 1853, 8.

[4] Boardman, ibid.

[5] Nancy Siegle, The Cultured Canvas: New Perspectives on American Landscape (Durham, NH: University of New Hampshire, 2012), 172-173.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Siegle, ibid.: “The description of Barstow’s woodland scenes could easily refer to Landscape (1865). Her mature work of the 1860s reflects a keen awareness of the artistic style of Durand. The framing boughs in the foreground triangulate into the distance as the perspective leads back to an endless sense of depth in this secluded woods.”

[8] Kathleen Waters Sander. The Business of Charity: The Woman’s Exchange Movement, 1832–1900 (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois, 1998). Sanders writes how a “well-to-do girl growing up during the antebellum years learned that no matter what the circumstances, a woman did not seek work in the public sphere” (p. 18), this despite the fact that “many factors could lead to financial misfortune among elite women thought to be sheltered from earning a living in the paid work force. Poverty often came swiftly as a result of the loss of the family business [or] the abandonment of a husband” (p. 37).

[9] Ibid., 23.

[10] Siegle, The Cultured Canvas, 173.

[11] Boardman,When Women and Mountains Meet, 69-70.

[12] Ibid. Along with other members of the AMC including Edith and Eugene Cook, Barstow traversed the Carter-Moriah Range and Imp Mountain.

[13] Jennifer Krieger and Nancy Siegel, Remember the Ladies: Women of the Hudson River School, exhibition catalogue (New York City: Hawthorne Fine Art, 2010), 28.

[14] Siegle, The Cultured Canvas, 172-173.

[15] Ibid.; Krieger, Remember the Ladies, 28.

Figures

Fig. 1 – Susie M. Barstow (1836-1923) in the studio, circa 1900, from the family archives of Elijah Blossom Barstow.

Barstow, Susie at her easel copy.jpg

Fig. 2 – Susie M. Barstow in the studio, circa 1900, from the family archives of Elijah Blossom Barstow.

Barstow, Susie-in studio.jpg

Fig. 3 – Barstow’s brushes, circa 1900, Set of 7 Camel Hair Pencils, No. 15c, L&CH Austria, from the family archives of Elijah Blossom Barstow.

Barstow, Susie-paintbrushes.jpg

Fig. 4 – Barstow’s paint brush box, circa 1900, from the family archives of Elijah Blossom Barstow.

Susie Barstow paintbox.jpg

Fig. 5 – Asher B. Durand (1796-1886), In the Woods,1855, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Durand In the Woods.jpg

Fig.  6 – Susie M. Barstow (1836-1923), Autumn Clearing, oil on canvas, 20 x 14 inches, signed lower left, Hawthorne Fine Art, New York City.

Barstow, Susie_Autumn Clearing-unframed.jpg

Fig. 7 – Susie M. Barstow (1836-1923), Autumn Waterfall, oil on board, 6 1/6 x 5 inches, signed lower left, Hawthorne Fine Art, New York City.

Barstow, Susie M._Autumn Waterfall.jpg

Fig. 8 – Susie M. Barstow (1836-1923), In the White Mountains, 1872, oil on canvas, 9 x 12 3/4 inches, signed and dated 1872, lower right, Private Collection.

Barstow Susie M._White Mountains_unframed.jpg

Fig. 9 – Thomas Cole, Gelyna (View From Ticonderoga), 1828, Wadsworth Atheneum.

Cole_Thomas_Gelyna_(View_near_Ticonderoga)_1826-1828.jpeg

Fig. 10 – Thomas Cole, The Falls of Kaaterskill, 1826, Private Collection, formerly the Westervelt-Warner Museum of American Art in Tuscaloosa, AL.

Falls-of-Kaaterskill-1826-Thomas-Cole-Oil-Painting-3-768x905.jpg

Fig. 11 – Washington Allston, Moonlit Landscape, 1819, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Allson Moonlit Landscape.jpg

Fig. 12 – Susie M. Barstow (1836-1923), Night in the Woods, c. 1890-91, oil on canvas, 20 x 14 inches, signed lower left, Private Collection.

Barstow, Susie M., Night in the Woods_email.jpg

Fig. 13 – Susie M. Barstow (1836-1923), A November Frost in the Mountains, oil on canvas, 14 x 20 inches, signed lower right, Private Collection.

Barstow, Susie_A November Frost in the Mts..jpg

Fig. 14 – Night in the Woods (c. 1890-91) by Susie Barstow on display at the Hudson River Museum in “Color of the Moon: Lunar Painting in American Art,” from February 8 to May 12, 2019.

Barstow, Gifford and Cropsey in exhibit.jpg

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One thought on “Susie Barstow (1836-1923) in the White Mountains

  1. Had never heard of the Women’s Exchange Movement for selling art, what a creative work around! I am so thankful that research is being done on Susie Barstow. She was a particularly talented artist, and her work is just as beautiful as many of the more well known Hudson River School painters. “Night in the Woods” is exceptional and has such an evocative and magical feeling to it. Her love of nature and hiking is an inspiration to me.

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