Of all the art museums we visit, the Canajoharie Art Museum is the most unlikely. There’s not much to it, and it’s in the middle of nowhere (about half an hour west of Albany).
What attracts us to this upstate New York museum is a small but very creditable collection of American paintings from about 1860 to 1940: American impressionists, Ashcan artists, and regionalists. And anyone who cares for Winslow Homer at all must go to Canajoharie.
This was the first time we’d been back since the museum got a shiny new addition a year or two ago. The addition seems to allow for a little more gallery space. The museum seems to have a new name, too — but we’re not quite sure what it is. The sign over the post in front still says “Canajoharie Library and Art Gallery” (see above), but a big sign on the side of the building now also says “Arkell Museum” in large letters, with “Canajoharie Library” getting second billing. Its website now calls it “The Arkell Museum at Canajoharie,” which for some reason reminds us of the ridiculously named Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim.
If the name “Canajoharie” seems vaguely familiar, it could be because you’ve noticed it on the signs for New York State Thruway Exit 29. You pass it on your way to Albany from Rochester or Syracuse. If you know where to look, you can see the museum building from the Thruway itself.
The location of the museum still leaves a lot to be desired. It shares its facility with the local library, and the same lady who sells you a $7 ticket to the museum also checks out library books. The museum isn’t located in a semi-glamorous tourist destination like the Feminore Art Museum in Cooperstown, about 40 miles west, or in an upscale residential neighborhood like the New Britain Museum of American Art in Connecticut, a hundred miles east. Instead, it’s right across the street from a baby-food factory. (The Arkell family, founders of the museum, owned the Beech-Nut company, makers of chewing gum and baby food.) The town of Canajoharie itself is the sort of slowly decaying upstate New York community that Richard Russo sets his novels in (like Empire Falls).
Still, it’s easy to get to — only about five blocks from the Thruway exit. A visit to the Canajoharie Art Museum is a pleasant and convenient diversion if you’re on a road trip, as we were a week and half ago.
The group of American impressionists at the Arkell Museum is especially rewarding. By a nose, our favorite was a 1904 painting by Edmund Tarbell called “Girl Crocheting,” a gentle, golden interior with hints of Vermeer and de Hooch. We think it’s as fine a Tarbell as we’ve seen. The wife of our bosom, on the other hand, would have chosen Childe Hassam’s “Provincetown” (shown here) a richly worked canvas that we agreed was among his finest. The collection also includes impressionist paintings by Willard Metcalf, Edward Redfield, Edward Lawson, John Twachtman, and William Glackens. We were taken with a remarkably bright snow scene by Walter Launt Palmer, a new artist to us. We couldn’t find an image of his Arkell Museum painting, but you can get an idea of its light effects from a couple of his winter scenes in this excellent blog post about Palmer by Matthew D. Innis.
The Ashcan painter John Sloan is one of our very favorite American artists, and our heart was gladdened to see once again his lively 1917 painting “Gloucester Trolley.” Remarkably, the Arkell Museum has two paintings by Thomas Hart Benton, both portraits from the 1920s (this one is “New England Postmaster,” painted in 1924). Although we are devoted to Benton, we liked even better a delightful painting by a lesser-known regionalist, Ogden Pleissner, whose works we have not often seen in museums. Pleissner’s 1939 painting “Circus Comes to Rawlius, Wyoming” (unfortunately we couldn’t find an image) shows the organized chaos of a traveling circus getting ready for a show — a circus tent, brightly colored caravans, and the rear ends of several elephants.
But what makes the Arkell Museum special is its collection of Winslow Homer. The museum has some six or seven Homer oil paintings (they weren’t all on display ten days ago), including the late marine shown toward the top of this post, and more than a dozen Homer watercolors.
As might be expected, the watercolors are exhibited sparingly, only once every several years. We’ve seen them before, but missed them during our recent visit; we suppose the museum’s website will announce when they’ll be up again. Of the Homer oil paintings, our favorite here is “Punishment for Intoxication,” which we think is one of the best of Homer’s dozen or so Civil War paintings. It’s a Union Army camp scene; a soldier, holding a stick instead of his rifle, is standing in disgrace on a box, while another soldier paces nearby. We couldn’t find an image of “Punishment for Intoxication,” but it’s as richly detailed, and has the same atmosphere, as Homer’s poignant “Home, Sweet Home,” in the National Gallery of Art.