American art in New Britain, Connecticut

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The old museum building is on the right, the new one on the left.

(April 11, 2009) Till a couple weeks ago, we hadn’t been back to the New Britain Museum of American Art (New Britain, Connecticut) since before its new building was built three years ago. We were a little nervous; part of the charm of visiting this museum had been muddling about in the old Victorian mansion (on a quiet city street) that housed its collection. The truth was, though, that the place was cramped and inadequate.

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The fine old houses on the other side of the street from the museum. We were able to park our car on the street right in front of the museum steps.

We now give our belated review of the new facility: it’s excellent. They’ve put up a 43,000 square-foot building with two floors of nicely designed exhibition space (including a Dale Chihuly glass sculpture hanging over the staircase). The pleasant neighborhood is the same. The old building, next door, is connected by a walkway; it’s just not used for exhibiting art anymore.

Of all the museums that exhibit only American art, the one in New Britain is still our favorite. Its collection certainly isn’t the largest or finest (that would be the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C.), and much can be said for other museums of its ilk (the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, in Philadelphia; the Whitney Museum of American Art, in New York City; the Butler Institute of American Art, in Youngstown, Ohio; and the Terra Foundation for American Art (not currently located anywhere at all). Still, this collection, benton-boomtown-magespecially in its new digs, touches us at all the right points, and it includes a number of our very favorite American paintings.

For anyone who might go out of his way to see the works of Thomas Hart Benton, the New Britain Museum of American Art must be visited. Here in Rochester, the Memorial Art Gallery has one of Benton’s very best, Boom Town, from 1928 (above) — but if Boom Town is the only Benton painting you know, you absolutely must see the Bentons in New Britain, benton-arts-of-the-west-new-britainespecially Benton’s large, lively, mildly racy mural, The Arts of Life in America. The various parts of the mural occupy all four walls of a gallery on the museum’s second floor. (This is the ten-foot section of the mural entitled “Arts of the West.”)

100_7872-croppedAnother reason we’re high on the New Britain Museum of American Art is its superb gallery of American impressionists. There are first-rate pieces by Frederick Carl Frieseke, Childe Hassam, Richard E. Miller, J. Alden Weir, and Willard Metcalf, among others. (We put images of a couple of these in this earlier post.) We said earlier that Colin Campbell Cooper’s Main Street Bridge, Rochester (also at the Memorial Art Gallery) is the best Cooper we’d ever seen. But the New Britain museum also has a wonderful Cooper, entitled On the Rhine, also a painting of a bridge. We were fascinated to see how differently Cooper approached painting the European bridge in the New Britain painting.

koch-interlude-magOne of the most “hmm”-provoking paintings at the Memorial Art Gallery is John Koch’s 1963 painting Interlude. The painter (presumably Koch himself) takes a break and sits back to think about his canvas; an older woman in an orange morning robe (presumably the artist’s wife) placidly serves coffee to a nude model. In the New Britain museum, we were delighted to see a John Koch painting that depicts his wife in earlier years. From the museum’s exhibition label for Koch’s The Florist, we learned that in 1943 Koch was newly married and had just 100_7933been drafted into the armed forces when he painted this picture. “He thought he might never return to his bride and his career as a painter. Consequently, he worked feverishly to complete The Florist, which he hoped would establish his fame and also serve as a looming tribute to his wife, whom he portrayed surrounded by beautiful flowers.” Fortunately, The Florist was neither Koch’s last picture nor his last portrayal of his wife.

We devoted an entire post several months ago to George Grosz’s 1943 painting, The Wanderer, another of the Memorial Art Gallery’s prizes, which portrays a weary man 100_7913fleeing a burned-out city. So far as we know, the New Britain museum does not have any works by Grosz, but a 1946 painting by Carl Frederick Gaertner (a new artist for us) reminded us immediately of The Wanderer. The scene of devastation in Gaertner’s The Search Begins looks a lot like the product of aerial fire-bombing, and in this picture Gaertner used a palette similar to Grosz’s in The Wanderer. But The Search Begins is not a war scene at all, except possibly figuratively; it shows an area of northeastern Cleveland where in 1944 an explosion of gas tanks devastated a large neighborhood, with a large death toll.

This is the same tragedy described in a novel we liked when we were young. Don Robertson’s The Greatest Thing Since Sliced Bread tells the story of a nine-year-old Cleveland boy who was caught up in the chaos of that very explosion and fire. We re-read the book (still in print) with great pleasure just a couple of years ago.

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The MAG’s “Chinese Restaurant”, by John Sloan

The Memorial Art Gallery’s pieces by the Ashcan painters and the later American impressionists, including Robert Henri, George Luks, William Glackens, Ernest Lawson, and especially John Sloan (the MAG’s two Sloan paintings are among his very best) are good, but so are the ones at the New Britain museum, which are all part of a very satisfying exhibition of “The Eight” at the New Britain museum for the next several weeks. The show includes works from the Milwaukee Art Museum and the Terra Foundation for American Art. We wish we had a chance to go back and spend more time with “The Eight.”

One thing we do think the New Britain museum could use is a better copy writer. Go back four paragraphs to the museum’s discussion of its John Koch painting; did you gulp at the phrase “a looming tribute”? In what way, exactly, might a tribute “loom”? Then consider this sentence from the gateway page of its website:

The NBMAA is thought to be one of the nation’s most dynamic art museums by exhibiting the permanent collection and special exhibitions on widely diverse subjects in ways that combine the highest aesthetic standards with engaging and intellectually accessible presentations.

What a dreadful, ungrammatical, jargon-full sentence! Ouch.

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American art in Canajoharie: the Arkell Museum

100_7628Of 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.

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The Homers at the Arkell Museum include "Watching the Breakers"

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.

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Theodore Robinson's "Josephine in the Garden" was painted in 1890 in Monet's garden in Giverny, France -- one of our favorites in the Arkell Museum collection.

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).

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Edmund Tarbell: "Girl Crocheting"

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 hassam-provincetown-canajoharie-1900Childe 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.

sloan-gloucester-trolley-canajoharieThe 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). benton-new-england-postmaster-1924-canajoharieAlthough 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.

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Homer's "Home, Sweet Home," in the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

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, 100_76271and has the same atmosphere, as Homer’s poignant “Home, Sweet Home,” in the National Gallery of Art.