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                                     The Provenance of a Painting


The Hiram Woodward Studio of RSW
The Hiram Woodward Studio of RSW
Following the disastrous fire which resulted in the complete destruction of Robert Strong Woodward's first studio, Redgate, in 1922, he purchased a nearby farm formerly owned by a distant cousin, Hiram Woodward. With the expert talents of Fabian Stone he converted this old farmhouse into a handsome living area and a one-of-a-kind artist's studio which became admired by everyone who entered it, especially the art critics.

Winter Dignity
Herb Ashworth photograph of Winter Dignity
On a winter day in about 1925, out of one of the windows of his studio, he painted the scene to the west. This included a part of his pasture edged by a woods of evergreen trees with the local landmarks Walnut Hill and Purinton Hill in the background. In his painting diary he titled it Winter Dignity. Almost immediately it was sent off to exhibitions in Boston and elsewhere and received great praise from the critics.

For some reason RSW failed to write the name of this painting on the back of the stretcher frame as was his custom. Because of this when the painting was sent to exhibitions or was critiqued by the newspapers of the day, it often became referred to as Dignity of Winter rather than Winter Dignity.

Dignity of Winter is full of power and silence. Standing in the deep snow of the foreground, we look across a tree-shadowed valley to a snow-patched mountain in the middle distance.

The Breeze, June 5, 1931

Snow Symphony (A Christmas  Card)
Snow Symphony (A Christmas Card)
White and Wyckoff, a local printing company, purchased the rights to copy the painting for a Christmas card. They renamed it Snow Symphony and RSW later learned that it was an exceptionally successful seller for the company that season.

The painting was exhibited at a one-man show in Amherst in the early 1930s and was purchased by the famous poet Robert Frost, who at that time was a professor of poetry at Amherst college. He lived there in one of the old brown stone houses on the campus near the common in the center of Amherst. The purchase was picked up immediately by the art critics and a number of articles were written comparing the artistic talents of the two men.

Newspaper article about Robert Frost and Robert Strong Woodward
Newspaper article about Frost and RSW
(See complete article on left.)
"The poet-laureate of New England---the title is not undeserved---otherwise known as Robert Frost, bought last winter a New England landscape painted by the artist whom we readily call the laurel-crowned painter of this same region, Robert Strong Woodward. Mr. Woodward, now recognized as in the front rank of living landscape painters of America, exhibited for ten days in the Standish galleries in Boston last February, for another ten days in Amherst a little later, and is to be again on view at Deerfield Academy during the ten days beginning June 6th. He has received many prizes at the large exhibitions of Pittsburgh, Chicago, New York and Boston. Those who know his work and who read Robert Frost declare that the combination of the New England poet and the New England painter could hardly have been more felicitously displayed than in the poet's purchase of the magnificent study, Dignity of Winter, and find that the artist in color has more than a superficial kinship with the artist in words, in the sensitive insight and understanding of our region which they both depict."

Then Robert Frost's wife died and he wrote to RSW that because his wife so loved the painting he could no longer live with it, and requested if Woodward would let him exchange it with another.
From the Woodward painting diary:
"for sentimental reasons he felt I would understand (though I somewhat failed to do so) he would like to know if he could exchange Winter Dignity for another canvas of mine. He being Robert Frost I couldn't possibly say no, though I didn't approve of the transaction wholeheartedly"

RSW Diary

To my knowledge, this was the first and only time such an exchange of paintings was made in the career of RSW and I do not think he ever understood it or ever got over it.

I can remember driving RSW down to Amherst one evening to pick up the painting. It was hanging in a large living room over a fireplace. Robert Frost was there to greet us, but of course I never really met him. I was only a driver and assistant to RSW to help with his wheelchair. The large living room was used by Frost for poetry seminars and I can remember feeling how honored it would have been to be an Amherst student invited to that room for this great man to give an evening talk and probably read some of his poetry. I took the painting to the car and surrounded it with cardboard to protect both the painting and the frame from the straps of the rear seat area of the Packard phaeton. And we drove it home to the studio. There was not much said on the trip home.

Vose Gallery, Boston, MA
Vose Gallery, Boston, MA
Robert Frost gave up his professorship after his wife's death and moved to Cambridge. RSW sent several paintings to Vose Galleries on Newbury Street in Boston from which Mr. Frost was to choose a replacement.

Passing New England
Herb Ashworth photograph of Passing New England
It was also my privilege to transport these three or four paintings down to Boston and park the big car on Newbury street. I remember carrying the paintings up the stairs to their studio. And I think it was my job later to go back to Boston to bring home the ones he had rejected, but I do not really remember this for sure. He selected Passing New England.

Winter Dignity remained in the frame room for many years thereafter. In fact, I do not remember ever bringing it into the studio to show the prospective buyers who came to select paintings. Nor do I think he ever again sent it out to an exhibition. At least I have no memory of ever boxing it up in one of the big wooden crates to send off by freight to an exhibition.

There was one subsequent mention of the painting in a Woodward notebook some years later:
Diary comment about Winter DIgnity
Comment in the Diary by RSW
"An ideal sunny May day. A prisoner at home. In afternoon got out the old Frost canvas "Winter Dignity" and at the N. window worked on it all day, cleaning, oiling, sand papering some cracks and touching up with paint, part of the sky."

RSW Diary
The painting was never sold. It remained in the collection of paintings in the storeroom at the time of his death. There was no mention of it in the final inventory submitted for probate.

The Academy at Charlemont, MA
The Academy at Charlemont, MA
Only recently was it discovered that it had been donated to the Charlemont Academy and is handsomely hanging in their main building.

Winter Dignity
A current photograph of the painting Winter Dignity courtesy of artist and photographer, Fred Burrington, Heath, Mass.
Winter Dignity has finally found a permanent and appreciative home


Mark Purinton
January 2010