Hoosiers in Taos: The Woolsey Brothers

by James E. May

 



 

Carl and Wood continued to paint and exhibit but Wood found it necessary to supplement his income as a commercial artist in Indianapolis. The quality of the paintings from 1935 to 1940 remained strong, but the truly inspired works were fewer and farther between. Both artists continued to win awards, received good reviews and sold their work, but they missed the community of artists they left in New Mexico. Neither Woolsey joined the colony of artists in nearby Brown County preferring to keep pure their identity as Taos painters. As the thirties ended, several factors were coming together that would spell the end of the Woolsey brothers' careers. The joy the brothers had found in Taos was disappearing, family solidarity was collapsing, World War II was on the horizon and the art world was rapidly changing.

In 1939, Wood moved with his parents to Tunkhannock, Pennsylvania and Jean soon followed. After divorcing his wife, Carl tried again for Taos around 1940 but stayed there only a few months before going to join his brothers out east. The Tunkhannock period was brief, for Carl and Jean shortly left for service in World War II and Wood, Charles and Marie moved again to East Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania. Maja tried her luck in New York City and Chicago before settling in Honduras.

The art world to which Carl and Jean returned following the war was very different from the one they had left. By the 1940s large juried art exhibitions had lost their prestige or were no longer being held. Modernist abstraction had finally eclipsed the Realist aesthetics of American Regionalism. The international art world collapsed in on New York where first generation Cubists and Surrealists were now working having fled the devastation of the war and Nazi persecution. Young American artists no longer needed to travel to Paris to experience the avant garde. A new group of American painters, the New York School, was getting all of the attention, and in their wake, went hundreds of more traditional artists. Carl and Wood found themselves painting in a suddenly out-dated style.

Jean settled in New York City after the war and married his second wife. Though he stopped making frames, he worked as a gilder for a sign company. He died in New York City in 1988.

Carl worked for a while in New Haven, Connecticut but by 1950 he had joined up again with Wood in East Stroudsburg. From a shared studio the two men continued to paint but did little as far as attempting to show their work. Wood primarily painted portraits on commission and Carl increasingly concentrated on imaginative miniatures. Carl died there in 1965.

After the death of his parents and his brother, Wood found himself alone for the first time in his life. Given this new freedom, he headed west and from 1965 until his death he toured the Western United States. No paintings have been found from this period. He died during a flu epidemic in Laredo, Texas in 1970.

Perhaps that is too sad an ending. It is however not that atypical. Tastes change and artists find themselves either in or out of fashion. Time becomes the only true critic. With perspective one can look back and appreciate different periods and different styles for their unique contributions. As young men determined to be realists the Woolsey brothers were well recognized, no matter how briefly. Today they are appreciated in a broader context as prime examples of American Regionalism.

 

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