Hudson River School · Women in the Arts

Susie M. Barstow – Redefining the Hudson River School

Nancy Siegel’s Susie M. Barstow: Redefining the Hudson River School (Lund Humphries, 2023) is the first-ever biography of Susie M. Barstow, a greatly under-rated Hudson River School artist, teacher, and adventurer. The book commemorates the hundred-year anniversary of Barstow’s death and coordinates with an exhibition of her work premiering in the spring of 2023 at the Thomas Cole National Historic Site.

Susie Barstow: Artist and Adventurer

Susie M. Barstow, Early October near Lake Squam, 1886, oil on canvas on board, 36.83 x 30.48 cm (14 ½ x 12 in.). Lebanon Valley College Fine Art Collection, “All That is Glorious Around Us: The Vesell Family Collection, Gifted by Hilary Vesell, 2020.1.3

As an American female landscape painter, Susie M. Barstow (1836-1923) has been on my radar for a while. (She featured in my article, “Female Painters of the Hudson River School, part two” at DailyArt Magazine, first published in 2017.) However, there wasn’t a lot of information easily available about her until recently, and I had no idea how fascinating Barstow actually was until I read this book. The biography is lovely, and I really enjoyed it. Barstow came across as a very likeable and relatable person, in no small part thanks to the quotations from her letters and journals sprinkled liberally throughout the text. The prominence of the artist’s own voice made it feel like I could really get to know her. In particular, her passion for art, travel, and the outdoors came across strongly and was quite inspiring. Understanding her love of nature and recognizing that it held so much more meaning for her than just a subject to paint adds a lot to my appreciation of her landscape paintings.

The most interesting part of Susie’s story, in my opinion, is how she seemed to plough right over countless obstacles without even noticing them. She was a highly adventurous woman whose hobbies included a pretty extreme love of mountaineering, and she seems to have just followed her interests with no concern for the challenges. Barstow achieved so much – world travel, adventuring, successful painting and teaching careers, positive media coverage, civic engagement, and more. But it’s the fact that she did all this in open but unstated defiance of late-19th and early-20th century society’s ideas about her gender that makes her story so unique. As Siegel tells us, “Susie made no reference in either private letters or public lectures to gendered constraints. She carried forth as if with blinders on, unaware of – of refusing to accept – her status as anything but a professional artist.” (p. 31) This remarkable observation could easily incapsulate Barstow’s entire fascinating life story.

The Verdict

Susie M. Barstow hiking
Susie M. Barstow, c. 1870, tintype, 13.97 x 10.16 cm (5 ½ x 4 in.). Private Collection. Image courtesy of Dennis DeHart.

Nancy Siegel’s book is well written, lively, and easy to read. It’s all about the artist’s life and work, without any of the long digressions that other artist biographies often use to pad the page count. The author seems to feel genuine affection for Susie and treats her with lots of respect both as a person and a professional artist. She doesn’t sensationalize any aspect of her life or jump to any conclusions, and she lets Barstow tell her own story in her own voice as much as possible.

Barstow’s art is beautiful, and this book reproduces tons of it. (There are 120 images within its pages.) Most of these artworks have probably not been available to the public in any form since her death, because almost all of it is in private collections and very little in museums. As the copious admiring press quoted throughout the book proves, Susie Barstow was a truly celebrated American artist in her lifetime. It’s nice to see this biography once again giving her the attention she deserves after a century of obscurity. By bringing attention not only to Barstow’s life and work but also her individual artistic philosophy and extensive time spent in nature, the book makes a great case that she merits a place of prominence within the American landscape painting tradition.

Susie M. Barstow: Redefining the Hudson River School will be published by Lund Humphries on March 10, 2023. It is available on the Lund Humphries website (£35.00 or $44.99) and through Amazon. The book is part of Northern Lights, a Lund Humphries series about northern art and artists.

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Cover Image: Susie M. Barstow, Landscape (In the Woods), 1865, oil on canvas, 76.2 x 55.88 cm (30 x 22 in.). Collection of Elizabeth and Alfred Scott.

In June 2023, I got to see some of Susie Barstow’s paintings for myself at the Thomas Cole Site exhibition. (Click here to read my review at DailyArt Magazine.) I was simply blown away by how incredible they are, to the point that I looked at each artwork multiple times and still felt sad about leaving them afterwards. The images in this post can’t even begin to do them justice. She had a beautifully poetic take on the landscape that makes her stand out within the Hudson River School crowd. It’s clear that she felt a really emotional connection to the landscape beyond the purely aesthetic. It’s easy to imagine the places she painted being the settings for some kind of wonderous, magical stories.

But at the same time, even though Barstow’s paintings have this lovely softness in some places, they also include meticulous details in others. Her paintings feel strong and cohesive – not vague or unsure in any way, which can sometimes happen with lots of softness in landscape paintings. I guess the best way to describe it is that everything in her art seems very clear and intentional. Her depiction of light, particularly moonlight, was just phenomenal. But that being said, the selection of works in the exhibition proves that she could paint equally well in a crisper and more linear style, too.

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