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Going my way? John Sloan's Gloucester Trolley.

America the Beautiful
By David Brickman

American 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.

And 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 regionalist.

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 Letter.

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