Published: June 17, 2011
Take a hike through the Mohawk Valley near the town of Canajoharie and you will find yourself at the “gateway to the West,” between the Adirondacks and Catskills, following in the footsteps of Algonquin, Mohicans and Mohawks, British and French troops, colonists, farmers and industrialists. At some point, the mountainous landscape and charming homes will have you reaching for your camera. If you are lucky enough to draw, you will reach for your sketch pad.
Others before you have wanted to document the area and their place in it. This was especially true around the time of America’s Independence Centennial, when the successors of the early settlers and the immigrants who worked at the many factories in the Mohawk Valley were reveling in prosperity. About the same time, Rufus Alexander Grider and Fritz Vogt appeared on the scene wielding pencils and crayon with authority.
Their drawings are the focus of the Arkell Museum’s exhibit “Drawn to the Same Place.” Running through August 14, it is the first exhibition to survey both Rufus Alexander Grider’s and Fritz Vogt’s work in context.
Interestingly, the artists came from very different walks of life. Grider, an intellectual, and Vogt, a drifter, would not have been friends. They did, quite likely, know of each other’s works, as their time in the Mohawk Valley overlapped somewhat. Their personal stories provide a colorful background to their extensive bodies of work.
Grider arrived in Canajoharie from Pennsylvania in 1883 at the age of 66, after having successfully run a hotel, a vineyard and a dry goods store. While it sounds as though he skated from career to career, Grider was, in fact, typical of his generation. Born in Lititz, Penn., of Moravian parents, he had a strong work ethic and an abiding interest in the community. He had been head of a horticultural association and active in the Civil War drafting procedure.
A widower with two still-young daughters, Grider seems to have wished for nothing more than an active retirement as an amateur historian and art teacher at the Canajoharie Academy. Installed in a light-filled studio on the third floor of the academy, Grider taught art until his retirement in 1888. He then concentrated ever more intensely on history and drawing until his death in 1900.
Vogt was only 48 when he arrived in Canajoharie in 1890. Little is known about him other than that he was a German immigrant, who worked as a laborer or commercial artist, depending on the season, his rheumatism and drinking issues.
A likeable local celebrity who left nothing in the way of a photograph or self-portrait, Vogt is said to have been a small man who traveled by foot in shoes made of sewn carpets, slept in barns sandwiched between two buffalo pelts, and sometimes accepted food as payment for his work. He spoke English with a German accent, played the organ and had a jocular disposition.
Stylistically, Professor Grider had a thoughtful, refined hand that frequently gave way to chronological annotation. Fritz Vogt was a vernacular artist whose drawings were always complementary, often colorful and quite detailed.
Interestingly, “Drawn to the Same Place” is the creation of guest curator Alice Smith Duncan, who arrived in Canajoharie in the late 1990s, a transplant from New York City. She is as enthusiastic about the region as Grider and Vogt were.
Duncan can, in fact, be credited with rediscovering Rufus A. Grider. Shortly after moving to Canajoharie, she saw his work in the nearby Van Alstyne house. It soon became apparent that Grider’s work was all around, in local homes and establishments. Intrigued, she began researching him. Grider then became the subject of Duncan’s master’s program thesis.
During Grider’s 17 years in Canajoharie, he produced more than 2,400 watercolors, drawings and copies of historic documents along with hundreds of handwritten notes about his subjects.
He documented American military history, religious and musical history, education, architecture, the folk arts and local and exotic flora. He committed to paper the designs of intricately engraved powder horns, often traveling far afield to view them. He also created “memory” paintings of structures destroyed during the Revolutionary War. These were, of course, based on the memories of people he interviewed. He included their signed testimony in each of the works.
Ironically, despite Grider’s copious output, relatively few of his drawings were ever published. Only a handful of Twentieth Century historians have seen original Rufus Grider works. The New-York Historical Society holds more than 500 of Grider’s drawings of engraved powder horns. A Chicago institution owns a collection of his Native American drawings. Still other collections reside in small museums and private hands. Rarely have any been exhibited.
Possibly, Rufus Grider’s fame is at hand. A few years ago, when a volume of botanical and family drawings surfaced on the Antiques Roadshow , experts gave it an extremely high value. It was enough to bring many more to light. Duncan believes that there are still hundreds that have not yet been cataloged.
In contrast, Fritz Vogt was “discovered” in the 1950s by Monte Foster, a resident and dealer of Palatine Bridge, N.Y. In 1968, he was the subject of Karen Wells’s master’s and PhD thesis. Wells, of the New York State Historical Association, Cooperstown, relied largely on Foster’s collection for her research. In the 1970s, 37 of Vogt’s drawings were auctioned and his place in the world of folk art was secured.
In 2002, the Fenimore Art Museum presented an exhibition of Vogt’s works. Four of these graphite pencil on paper sketches are on loan to the Arkell exhibit. Today, the Connecticut-based collector Frank Tosto is regarded as the leading authority on Vogt. He has loaned 22 sketches to the Arkell exhibit.
Vogt is credited with creating approximately 300 portraits of homes, farms, churches, factories, stores and gravesites. Many still hang on the walls of the homes and buildings they illustrate.
Truly an itinerant, Vogt went from house to house looking for work. His pieces were often completed in two or three days, as he did not have the luxury of a studio or a permanent home.
Stylistically, Vogt’s works were pleasing. In the early days, he worked in black and white, suggesting to some that he may have had a career as commercial artist or engraver. The early images also hint at German Romanticism with its sentimentality and distant vistas.
Around 1894, he began adding touches of colored pencils and crayons. This may have begun as a clever attempt to outwit the photographers with whom he competed for commissions. They worked fast but only in black and white.
Overall, Vogt’s drawings evoked sunny days during which homes and farms stood in precisionist perfection surrounded by flowers in full bloom and trees abundant with greenery †even in winter. He added children and barnyard animals and cozy touches, such as smoke rising from a kitchen chimney, thus hinting at the making of a fine dinner.
The artist never drew the daily toil. Nor did he include adults in his drawings. As his style evolved †or perhaps as a result of his advancing rheumatism or even drink †Vogt’s drawings became looser and more stylized. Plants and animals, according to Duncan, “took on a Dr Seuss quality, conjured from his own vision.”
Frank Tosto has stated that Vogt added something special to each drawing. There are only two, for example, that portray guns. He also took liberties with perspective, sometimes portraying structures from two sides †in at least one case, five sides †and “bending” perspective as needed. This clever touch adds grandeur and importance. It no doubt provided yet another competitive edge over one-dimensional photographs.
As with many artists who live on commissions, Vogt played to his audience. He always put the property owner’s name prominently along the bottom of the drawings. He also dated and signed the drawings work, usually on the right.
Vogt worked in multiples, sometimes making adjustments that would better show desirable elements. For instance, on a second or third drawing, he might raise the porch to show all the windows. These multiples were often secondary commissions for relatives of the consigner.
Grider also tended towards multiples. In his case, he was keeping with the Moravian tradition of doing things in triplicate.
As for the original price of a Fritz Vogt drawing, Duncan believes it would have been equal to the price of day’s physical labor, about $2 per day.
Rufus Grider never charged for his drawings, but it is notable that as a school teacher he, too, made about $2 a day.
The drawings of both Grider and Vogt are now priceless for the insights and information they impart. This fact alone makes the trip upstate to view the exhibition at the Arkell Museum time well spent.
The Arkell Museum was founded in 1942 to house the collection of Bartlett Arkell, first president of Beech-Nut Packing Company. It now houses an excellent collection of late Nineteenth and Twentieth Century American paintings.
The Arkell Museum is at 2 Erie Boulevard. For information, www.arkellmuseum.org or 518-673-2314.
5 Church Hill Road / Newtown, CT 06470
Mon - Fri / 8:00 am - 5:01 pm