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Cudmore: The history behind the Amsterdam Post Office murals

Cudmore: The history behind the Amsterdam Post Office murals

Schnakenberg was well-known artist

According to an art website, the man who went on to paint Amsterdam’s Post Office murals originally was going to follow his father into the insurance business but changed his mind when he went to an art show.

Henry E. Schnakenberg was born in 1892 in the village of New Brighton, today part of the borough of Staten Island. After his art show epiphany, Schnakenberg took classes and forged a long relationship with the Art Students League of New York.

He served in the Army medical corps in World War I and then established himself as a portrait, still life and landscape painter in New York City, best known for his renderings of Central Park.

Schnakenberg painted the two Amsterdam Post Office murals in 1939 as part of a U.S. Treasury Department art project. Local Postmaster William Gardner secured Amsterdam’s participation in the program.

Amsterdam native Dave Northrup said, “My uncle, Matt Orante, told me on more than one occasion that as a boy he would watch [Schnakenberg] up on a scaffold hard at work.”

The murals were painted three years after the post office was built south of the library on Church Street. The building was a Depression-era public works project, designed by Treasury architect Louis Simony in the Colonial revival style.

Colonist Sir William Johnson is shown in one of the murals holding an outdoor meeting with Iroquois chiefs. A sword cane depicted in the painting was in the collection at Johnson Hall in Johnstown. Schnakenberg used exhibits in Albany and Washington to come up with his ideas on Native American and European Colonial dress.

Schnakenberg’s second mural shows life on the Erie Canal in the 1840s when the community called Port Jackson was a canal stop. Port Jackson became the South Side of the city of Amsterdam. Historian Hugh Donlon said Schnakenberg took details for this mural from stills of the 1935 movie “The Farmer Takes a Wife,” starring Henry Fonda and Janet Gaynor.

The paintings were completed in January 1939 and first displayed in New York City at the Art Students League.

New York Sun art critic Henry McBride, who saw the paintings in New York, said Amsterdam was lucky to get Schnakenberg as its artist and that other government murals were not as popular. “The pictures in Amsterdam hint at the durability of the country rather than its collapse.”

In early February 1939, Schnakenberg oversaw the three-day process of installing the paintings at the post office.

One of Sir William Johnson’s descendants was told of the mural showing his famous ancestor and said the mural showed Anglo-American friendship in a troublesome time as Europe was on the brink of war. Gordon Johnson of Montreal said, “How Sir William would have loved to see this day.”

Schnakenberg painted four historical murals for the post office in Fort Lee, New Jersey in 1941.

The Amsterdam murals were restored by well-known local artist Lucy Suhr in 1974.

Schnakenberg died at age 78 after a long illness at his home in Newtown, Connecticut in 1970. He had no immediate survivors.

A New York Times obituary described him as an “imaginative realist.” He held 18 one-man shows in his career and his paintings and papers are found at the Smithsonian in Washington, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art, both in New York City.

The Arkell Museum in Canajoharie recently had three of his works on display, two of them early sketches for the Amsterdam murals. The Arkell has five paintings by Schnakenberg. The artist and museum benefactor Bartlett Arkell knew each other.

Bob Cudmore is a freelance columnist. Opinions expressed in his column are his own and not necessarily the newspaper’s. Anyone with a suggestion for a Focus on History topic may contact him at 346-6657 or [email protected]

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