Harold and Faith Borton Weston, 1923. Courtesy of the Harold Weston Foundation
His artwork was called “rough and rugged as hickory stumps,” like the man himself. Friends described her as “soft, gentle, like the moss in the woods.” It was a match made in heaven, or at least the Adirondacks.
Marking the centenary of the marriage of Faith Borton and Harold Weston, a new exhibition at Keene Arts pairs the artwork of one of the foremost Adirondack painters of the 20th century with the words of the woman who cast off her upper-middle-class comforts for a passionate but ascetic existence in the mountains.
“This time, I wanted to take the opportunity to tell the story from Faith’s perspective,” says Rebecca Foster, the couple’s granddaughter. She and her mother, Nina Weston Foster, manage Harold Weston’s estate and are collaborating with Keene Arts on the show. Rebecca edited and wrote the foreword for the 2008 third edition of Harold’s 1972 memoir, Freedom in the Wilds, and she co-wrote the catalog for a 2005 exhibition at the Adirondack Museum (now Adirondack Experience), Wild Exuberance.
Before he met Faith, in February 1922, Harold was known as “the hermit of the Ausable Club.” The promising young artist had holed up in a one-room cabin in St. Huberts, near Keene Valley, furiously painting the mountains and rivers and trees at his doorstep. He had recently returned from four years of wartime service with the International YMCA in present-day Iraq and Iran, followed by a few months of art school in New York City. He wrote in Freedom in the Wilds, “At twenty-six years old I was convinced that this edge of the wilderness was where I belonged and that there I should make my home.”
He had been coming to St. Huberts since childhood. His maternal grandfather, Charles Hartshorne, was a charter member of the Adirondack Mountain Reserve, which had protected the land surrounding the Ausable Lakes. His father, S. Burns Weston, was founder of the Philadelphia Ethical Culture Society and “kind of a hippie of his time.” He spent several summers living in a tent in a cow pasture near the summer home of his mentor, Felix Adler. It was at a campfire there that he met Harold’s mother, Charles Hartshorne’s daughter Mary.
Harold spent summers tramping through the reserve on epic backpacking adventures with his brother, Carl, until, at age 17, a bout with polio paralyzed his left leg. Determined to continue his explorations, Harold trained himself to walk again—and scale mountains—with the help of a cane.
Faith, a Vassar College student from a New Jersey Quaker family, came to St. Huberts on a winter visit with Harold’s sister, Esther, and the two began corresponding. Harold was immediately taken with the poised young woman. But, though Faith reminisced over “the jolliest memories of four glorious days,” she confessed that she didn’t return his affections and wished to remain just friends.
By November of that year, she began to see him in a different light and to appreciate both the man and his artistic vision. During a visit to New York City to view his first one-man show at the Montross Galleries, Faith confided her change of heart. The young lovers were married in May 1923 and decamped to St. Huberts to begin their life together.
The pair spent hours atop mountains, as Harold sketched and Faith wrote. In Wild Exuberance, Foster describes a typical day spent on Giant: “Wrapped in red wool blankets in the lean-to near the top, they saw the moon rise, red, large, and mysterious over Lake Champlain and light all the High Peaks. Then, with the morning’s sun, Harold painted. All that day they watched the shadows play across the mountains before descending in the late afternoon. ‘Somehow it doesn’t seem fair for two people to have all that we have in our lives of beauty and love,’ wrote Faith.”
Their first winter in the cabin, Harold began experimenting with a new subject matter, his wife’s nude form. Far rawer and more urgent than the idealized nudes of past generations, Faith considered them “thrillingly modern.”
When Harold brought the nude paintings to photographer and gallery owner Arthur Stieglitz (who, with his wife Georgia O’Keeffe, spent summers in Lake George), the artist John Marin walked in the gallery and remarked, “I feel the woods in these.” When he learned where Harold had painted them, he said, “Ah, that explains it. … Did you ever see mountains better painted than this?” From then on the paintings became known as the “landscape nudes.”
Nothing, even having a diseased kidney removed, could quell Harold’s fervent need to paint. Despite his doctors’ recommendation that he go abroad and rest, it wasn’t long into the couple’s voyage in France that he took up pen and paintbrush again.
But he did stop painting for seven years during World War II, when his conscience called him to focus on famine relief as founder and director of the organization Food for Freedom. After the war he returned to painting but also took on a new cause, advocating for government support for art and artists.
In his final decades, after a period of refined realism, Harold turned to abstraction and, in a way, back to his earliest inspiration—nature. Now, though, he focused his intense gaze on the patterns of river stones and wood.
He and Faith spent summers in St. Huberts until his death in 1972. Faith lived another 25 years.
Rebecca Foster was eight when her grandfather died. In her memories, he is boisterously singing, “The bear went over the mountain,” while her grandmother Faith stands by, “the center of peace.”