November 1995

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Bolton Brown

Dresden's Other Famous Son


Herbert A. Wisbey, Jr.

Dresden, on Seneca Lake, has received much attention as the birthplace of Robert G. Ingersoll, nineteenth century anti-religious orator. The house in which he was born, then the Presbyterian manse, is now a museum dedicated to his memory. Few know that in this same simple building, thirty-one years later, another person was born who achieved international recognition in the field of art. He also was a militant Free Thinker who rejected his minister father's religion.

Bolton Coit Brown was born in Dresden on November 27, 1864. His father, a graduate of Yale and Union Theological Seminary, was minister of the Presbyterian church there, but soon moved his family across Seneca Lake to Burdett, his old family home. Here Bolton spent his boyhood in the midst of a loving, close-knit family that included his parents, grandparents, and, eventually, seven brothers and sisters. Late in life he recalled his memories of a mischievous, dare-devil boyhood on and around Seneca Lake and the Hector hills. He was attracted to dangerous physical challenges and showed the stubborn qualtities that characterized his later life.

Boyhood Memories of Bolton Brown, the manuscript of his memoirs was arranged and written by Marian S. Sweeney and published by the Watkins Glen Library in 1986 .1 The book is filled with descriptions and anecdotes about life around Burdett in the last half of the nineteenth century. The book also includes his essay written in later life entitled "How I Shed Religion." It is interesting that Bolton's older sister, Ellen, also recorded her reminiscences of the same people in the same places at the same time. Her memoirs are better written and also reflect a more pleasant personality than that of her brother. Her memoirs are part of a full-length autobiography that was first published in 1940 and reissued in 1987 by two granddaughters as It Happened This Way by Ellen Coit Elliott, Beejay Press, Burlingame, CA.

A scholarly, well-written biography of Bolton Brown, Crayonstone, The Life and Work of Bolton Brown, was written by Clinton Adams and published by the University of New Mexico Press in 1993. It is a handsome, definitive biographical work, beautifully designed, and includes some 90 illustrations, a catalogue of Brown's lithographs, and a bibliography.

Adam's primary interest in Brown was as a major figure in the art of lithography, but he also documents his long and complex career as teacher, painter, scholar, mountaineer, writer and social critic. Among the many honors that Brown received was having a mountain in the Sierra Nevadas named after him. It is clear that Adams admires Brown but the book is objective enough that a reader can conclude that Bolton Brown was a difficult person and not particularly pleasant. He was self-confident to the point of arrogance and never felt that he received the credit he deserved for his achievements. He founded the art department at the new Stanford University in 1891, and was the principal founder of the first artist colony in Woodstock, New York. His personality led to unhappy endings to both of these accomplishments. As an acquaintance commented, "To his dying day, Bolton was always sure he was right."

His essay "How I Shed Religion" is a sad example of his self-wounding stubbornness. From early manhood until his father's death he engaged in a bitter dispute with his father over religious beliefs. His father was also stubborn, but it is sad that the two never found a way to reach an understanding. He did not allow his father to officiate at his wedding and did not attend his father's funeral. Bolton's own marriage ended in divorce and he was estranged from his children until shortly before his death. He disliked modern art and disputed with those who disagreed with him with the same no-holds-barred invective that he argued religion with his father.

Bolton Brown's fame rests on his mastery of lithography, an extremely difficult art form that involves drawing on a specially prepared stone using a special crayon and making printings. He studied, experimented, and wrote what are considered to be the best treatises on the subject. For people interested in lithography, the work and writings of Bolton Brown are essential. Unfortunately, too few people were interested in lithography in his lifetime to enable him to earn a living from his work. His life ended in poverty near Woodstock on Sept. 15, 1936, at the age of 71.

His sister summarized his life in her autobiography. "Bolton cooperated with Mr. Whitehead in founding the art colony at Woodstock, Ulster County, set up a Japanese print business in New York City, applied himself to oil painting, publishing a book about it, and did some beautiful pictures in that medium. Later he took up lithography, made himself an expert and authority, lectured and wrote on the subject, and taught it. His skill was marvelous, his industry prodigious, and his pursuit of the perfect Beauty enthusiastic and tireless to the end of his life."

For people interested in Bolton Brown, the Watkins Glen Public Library is a good place to begin. The Brown family home, still in good condition, stands overlooking Seneca Lake in the town, not the village of Burdett. For people visiting the village of Dresden, it is interesting to know that two men from similar backgrounds, born in the same house some thirty years apart, should have such similar ideas about organized religion.

© 1995, Herbert A. Wisbey, Jr.
Index to articles by Herbert A. Wisbey, Jr.


This topic was suggested by Mrs. Betty Smalley, Town of Torrey Historian, who provided some of the information. Mrs. Jean Argetsinger of Burdett furnished directions to the Brown ancestral home.
1 Boyhood Memories of Bolton Brown, his stories of growing up in Burdett, is available for $5 plus $2 for shipping and handling from The Watkins Glen Public Library, 610 South Decatur Street, Watkins Glen, NY 14891.
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