Drivers whizzing by on the New York State Thruway in central New York are familiar with the iconic Beech-Nut sign that crowns this quiet little village. Until recently, at least, few were aware that Canajoharie boasts a remarkable collection of American art.
Since 1927 it has been housed in the Canajoharie Library and Art Center, established by Bartlett Arkell, founder and first president of the Beech-Nut Packing Company and art collector extraordinaire. Working with Macbeth Gallery in New York, Arkell assembled an outstanding trove of work by Gilbert Stuart, Winslow Homer, George Inness, John Singer Sargent, William Merritt Chase, Childe Hassam, John H. Twachtman, Maurice Prendergast, Mary Cassatt, Gari Melchers, Frederic Remington, Robert Henri, Grandma Moses, Georgia O’Keeffe and many others.
At the outset, Arkell also commissioned copies of European paintings in an effort to bring masterworks to Canajoharie. Museum officials estimate that the more than 500 works of art are worth $500 million.
Housed for years in cramped quarters, the Beech-Nut magnate’s collection is now displayed in the splendid new Arkell Museum, which doubled the available space and provides all of the amenities of a modern art museum. The 36,000-square-foot, $10 million Arkell Museum opened late last year.
Designed by Boston-based designLAB architects, the contemporary new building is a felicitous blend of glass and gleaming white glazed brick that resonates with the white concrete frame and crisp geometry of the still active Beech-Nut factory across the street. The new complex blends 18,000 square feet of renovated space in the old, gambrel-roofed gallery and library, while adding 18,000 square feet of new gallery and museum space, office and educational quarters, a new Great Hall for gatherings and presentations and interactive exhibits that include creating advertisements from paintings in the galleries and displaying artifacts from the Mohawk River Valley’s historic past.
As museum director Eric Trahan observes, the new building “is a catalyst that greatly expands the services that can be provided to museum visitors,” noting new space for displays of the permanent collection and loan exhibitions and “greatly expanded educational programs for all audiences.”
Highlights of the permanent collection are 21 works by Winslow Homer (1836‱910), purchased by Arkell between 1930 and 1944 from Macbeth Gallery. According to the museum’s deputy director and chief curator, Diane Forsberg, the “Homer collection is known to art scholars and an international audience of museumgoers.”
All were executed after Homer’s early training as a draftsman and printmaker in Boston and subsequent experience as an illustrator for Harper’s Weekly. He entered his artistic maturity in the 1870s armed with a consummate talent for compositional organization, astute coloring and telling detail. Arkell’s first purchase, “On the Beach,” a circa 1869 oil, shows carefree folks cavorting on the seashore at Long Branch, N.J., as imposing waves roll in.
On view currently are several evocative watercolors of Gloucester, Mass., including a lighthearted image of youngsters at play amid rocks and the nearby harbor teeming with sailing ships in “The Sea Saw,” dating to Homer’s first visit in 1873. “On the Cliff,” an 1881 watercolor, was executed while Homer stayed in the North Sea fishing village of Cullercoats, England. This image of fisherwomen anxiously awaiting the return of their men from the dangerous North Sea reflects the artist’s admiration for the heroic struggle for survival of the hardy fisherfolk.
Time spent on an upstate New York farm led to oils such as “Shepherdess and Sheep,” circa 1878, showing a contemplative young woman minding her charges. A splash of red for a flower animates the background, a signature Homer touch.
Of particular interest to Bennett Arkell were artworks recording the picturesque Mohawk Valley †the river, the Erie Canal and its villages and farmland. One highlight is a painting by William Guy Wall (1810‱886), who emigrated from Ireland in 1818 and soon after executed a “Hudson River Portfolio,” acclaimed by contemporaries for its “faithful attention to nature.” His interest in the advance of civilization in the Mohawk Valley is suggested by “New York and the Erie Canal,” 1862, a view across a verdant field of the canal, completed in 1825. Considered the “quintessential image of the Mohawk Valley,” Wall’s painting puts one in mind of George Inness’s tranquil landscapes of peace and plenty.
Elsewhere in the museum is a quite different oil, Boston native Abbott Handerson Thayer’s “Girl Arranging Her Hair,” circa 1920.
An arch-idealist, Thayer became known for his images of angels and Madonnas, generalized pictures featuring young women in flowing white robes. Many of his best works were brilliantly colored Impressionist views of New Hampshire’s Mount Monadnock, near which he lived a hermitlike existence after the turn of the century. By the time Thayer painted this portrait, he was using looser brushwork and heavier impasto.
Perhaps the finest still life in the museum’s collection is “Blue and White Jug and Vase,” circa 1910, by Danish-born Emil Carlsen (1853‱932), who was greatly influenced by the style of French master Jean Baptiste Simeon Chardin. As art historian Matthew Baigell has written, Carlsen “endowed the genre with a seriousness and dignity at a time when the still life tradition was about to undergo a decline and metamorphosis.”
Three titans of late Nineteenth, early Twentieth Century art, Chase, Hassam and Twachtman are represented by fine, characteristic paintings.
Chase (1849‱916), who was born in Indiana, painted “In the Corner,” circa 1881, not long after he returned from sojourns in Munich and Venice. The influence of his studies at the Royal Academy in Munich is apparent in this vigorously brushed view of a young woman perusing sketches in Chase’s famed, opulent quarters in Manhattan’s Tenth Street Studio Building, where he entertained artists, friends and patrons †and created some of his best work.
Hassam (1859‱935), America’s leading Impressionist, spent many summers visiting resorts in his native New England, turning out sunny, appealing images such as “Provincetown,” 1900. Here, the tightly packed houses and soaring church steeple in the foreground give way to a glorious view of the boat-filled harbor. As art historian Oliver W. Larkin observed, Hassam’s “paintings were not rigorous studies of light, but delightful evocations of well-liked places&” Like the Isles of Shoals and Old Lyme, Provincetown was Hassam’s kind of place.
Twachtman (1853‱902), a native of Cincinnati, studied in Europe and returned to paint memorable, poetic views of the waterfall, pool and bridge on his farm in Greenwich, Conn. Shortly before his early death, he frequented the picturesque fishing village of Gloucester, Mass. His lovely, elevated view of “Gloucester Harbor,” circa 1900, suggests why the site attracted so many artists.
Arkell, who had such a good eye for Impressionist masterworks, also recognized the quality and significance of paintings by The Eight. These rebels against the hidebound art establishment were led by magnetic teacher and artist Robert Henri, who is represented by a typically appealing, strongly brushed portrait of a young woman, “Moira,” 1924. It may have been painted in Ireland, where Henri spent time toward the end of his career. Other examples by Ashcan School artists, notably George Bellows, reflect their interest in recording the gritty, turn-of-the-century world around them.
The Arkell collection has a number of strong works from the American Scene movement, which rode a wave of nationalism just before and during the Great Depression. Consciously attempting to stimulate grassroots culture and celebrate everyday life among ordinary Americans, regional artists opposed the cosmopolitanism and sophistication of the preceding two decades. The economic crisis forced many artists to return home, where they rediscovered the picturesque variety of American life and the significance of its traditions.
The American Scene painters were led by Midwesterners Thomas Hart Benton, John Steuart Curry and Grant Wood. Their major figure, Benton (1899‱975), a crusty son of Missouri with an affinity for the landscape and mores of the Middle West and New England (where he summered), caricatured personalities and recorded colorful versions of local customs that resonated with popular conceptions of the American way of life.
While many of Benton’s paintings and murals focused on vigorous, rowdy folk, he was also capable of capturing the dignity of working people, as exemplified by the straight-backed “New England RFD Carrier,” circa 1923.
An often overlooked talent among regionalists was Paul Sample (1896‱974), who spent time as an artist-in-residence at his alma mater, Dartmouth College. From there and during visits to his in-laws in Vermont, he created firmly painted vignettes of rural New England life. According to art historian William H. Truettner, “Sample’s attempt to impose a&⁂enton/&⁗ood brand of Midwestern regionalism on New England seems to have been at once affirmative and upbeat, and singularly touched with irony.” His 1930s paintings of Vermont country life suggest his “mild suspicion of small-town social customs.”
In Sample’s “Sand Lot Ball Game,” 1938, baseball and tennis players continue to compete as a railroad train traverses their bucolic setting. As Truettner puts it, Sample’s “view of New England is that of a critical ‘insider’; he sees it not as a historical fable but as an Eden fallen on modern times.”
Many visitors will find fascination in the display of early Twentieth Century Beech-Nut advertising material. Arkell encouraged his marketing staff to use his collection in ad campaigns to bring “art to the masses.” Works on view range from a photograph of aviatrix Amelia Earhart posed in front of a Beech-Nut plane to a charming Norman Rockwell oil, “Beech-Nut Gum Girl and Policeman,” 1937.
Although, as Forsberg explains, “paintings have always been the focus of the collection,” the Arkell owns about 15 sculptures by the likes of Augustus Saint-Gaudens, Edward McCarten, Harriet Frishmuth and Frederic Remington. Arkell did not purchase decorative arts for the collection, but some Lalique vases, originally acquired for the library, have made their way into the museum.
This summer’s special exhibition, “Wyeth Family Paintings from the Farnsworth Art Museum,” contains a nice selection of more than 30 works from the outstanding collection of the Rockland, Maine, museum. Among those by the family patriarch, N.C. Wyeth (1882‱945), is “Portrait of a Young Artist,” circa 1930, showing the proverbial chip off the old block †the painter’s 13-year-old son, Andrew †working at an easel in front of pounding surf.
It seems likely that with splendid new facilities that add space in which to display its remarkable collection, the Arkell Museum will gain increasing recognition †and the augmented visitation it deserves. Bartlett Arkell would be proud to see how far his jewel of a museum and his trove of outstanding artworks have come.
The Arkell Museum is at 2 Erie Boulevard, three blocks from Exit 29 on the New York State Thruway (I-90). For information, 518-673-2314 or www.arkellmuseum.org .