my way? John Sloan's Gloucester Trolley.
Realism: Painters of Work and Play Before World War II
Canajoharie Library and
Art Gallery, through Oct. 16
You’ve probably never been to the Canajoharie Library and
Art Gallery, but the chances are pretty good that you’ve heard
of a number of the artists whose works are in its collection:
say, Thomas Hart Benton, Edward Hopper, Winslow Homer and
William Merritt Chase, for starters.
Dominated by a huge Beech-Nut factory that has been churning
out baby food for generations, “Canjo” is a small, sleepy
village on the Mohawk River that, like many such places, has
seen better times but has also seen worse. Factory jobs may
be fewer, but there are the charms of small-town life, Victorian-era
architecture and nearby pretty landscapes to attract tourists,
weekenders and new year-round residents who’ve escaped more
hectic (and more lucrative) lifestyles elsewhere to revivify
these once-forgotten places.
But no other upstate town so small can boast an art collection
like this one. Established by the unusually philanthropic
spirit of Beech-Nut president Bartlett Arkell (who died in
1946), the library is situated directly across the street
from the factory, placed there intentionally to serve as an
educational opportunity for off-duty workers. The collection
of paintings and sculptures was assembled mostly in the period
just before World War II, and so represents some of the dominant
styles and artists of that time. It features American artists
exclusively and remains open to the public free of charge.
The library’s current exhibition, American Realism: Painters
of Work and Play Before World War II, is culled from the
collection and provides a thematic framework for understanding
the value of much of the art Arkell purchased, which held
fast to the notion of representation when the avant-garde
was pulling strongly toward abstraction and conceptualism.
History seems to show that the forward-thinkers had it right,
as those modes came to dominate almost completely in the last
half of the 20th century. Whether the artists who remained
behind were, like a beast too slow to adapt, doomed to be
forgotten, or whether they ultimately survived the test of
history to remain important and vital, is the question this
show aims to answer.
there is plenty of evidence here to support the latter conclusion.
Comprising 18 paintings (chosen from holdings of more than
700), American Realism spans the years from 1904 to
1965, but most of the work on view was created between 1932
and 1941, a period in which economics played a huge role in
artists’ choices of content and style.
Though the theme of work and play is characteristic of the
period (nothing gives you a better appreciation of work—or
more time in which to play—than a worldwide depression), some
pieces in the show fall well outside those parameters, and
others touch on them only vaguely. But this is a minor criticism
in light of the fact that the work included is so darn good.
There are the big names, like Thomas Eakins, George Luks and
John Sloan (as well as Hopper and Benton), and there are wonderful
pieces by lesser-known artists such as Roy Brown and Ogden
Pleissner. My favorite of this group is Luigi Lucioni, a New
Yorker who settled in Vermont and is considered an important
Lucioni’s piece is characteristic of his strength: an extremely
skillful rendering of a Vermont landscape featuring receding
planes of trees, farm buildings and mountains in which every
nuance and detail is lovingly recorded, down to the last leaf
on a tree, the last wisp of a shadow. Lucioni is also represented
in the library’s permanent collection gallery by a still life
of fruit with the same glowing realistic treatment—but I prefer
the sun-touched Granite Country landscape.
Another Vermont landscape in the show, by Henry Schnakenberg,
also represents regionalism; but the majority of artists (and
works) in this selection are from cities and can be associated
with a group known as the Eight, also called the Ash Can school.
Among them are Luks (represented by a portrait of a man playing
a squeezebox), Ernest Lawson and Sloan, whose 1917 Gloucester
Trolley is perhaps the best piece here.
Painted during one of the last summers Sloan spent in this
artists’ colony before it became too popular, Trolley depicts
a suburban scene of summery joy, as gaily dressed women and
children board the intercity trolley on a blue-sky day with
fluffy, white clouds rising up behind them. Perhaps they are
heading to the beach, or to a celebration—the painting has
an air of expectation about it that you can’t help enjoying.
It also has great color sense and a deftly painted pair of
houses at the right-hand edge that reveal the strong urbanist
underpinnings of the Ash Can style (later expanded by Hopper).
And, speaking of Hopper, his 1932 watercolor shown here is
an interesting example of the Depression effect: a scene on
Cape Cod titled The Back of the Freight Station, it
is stark, still and, well, depressing, despite being next
to a sunwashed beach.
More uplifting is a 1941 watercolor by the great social observer
Reginald Marsh. His Three Girls Walking shows the dawn
of a new age in the sensual, casual forms of office workers
strolling along the river in New York City, wind tossing their
hair and colorful dresses, possibility in the air.
Other paintings in the show depict terrific subjects such
as a baseball game, a moment behind the scenes at a circus,
and farmers plowing a Midwestern wheat field—all of them supporting
the theme of the show and presenting an opportunity to enjoy
anew the great work of a more innocent time on our history.
The exhibition notes add depth to a visitor’s understanding
of the paintings without being too long or academic, and the
hexagonal gallery used here for changing exhibits is an easy
space in which to lose one’s bearings and get immersed in
the worlds evoked by the artists.
By the way, if you go, be sure not to miss the permanent-collection
gallery, where numerous gorgeous paintings can be enjoyed
in a salon-style presentation. Among the best currently on
view are several by Homer, two by Frederick Childe Hassam,
an Edmund C. Tarbell, a Chase, a George Inness and my favorite,
the ravishing 1889 oil on panel by Thomas Dewing titled The