Alexander Hamilton was all the rage well before the musical was ever thought of.
Beside a portrait of Andrew Hamilton Calhoun, on exhibit at the Arkell Museum in Canajoharie, is the text “His parents honored the new nation by giving their son the middle name Hamilton, after the American statesman and founding father Alexander Hamilton.”
Apparently, it was a common practice. Calhoun, who worked as an Erie Canal surveyor and was at one time the postmaster of Canajoharie, would go on to name one of his sons after Millard Filmore, the 13th president of the U.S.
The portrait is a new acquisition for the Arkell and it’s on display next to another, one of Calhoun’s wife, Maria Yates Calhoun. The couple appears at once warm and austere, a look that can only be categorized as traditional. Yet, it’s not so much the style of the works that one is drawn to in “Portraits & Landscapes,” but how it’s all woven together.
“I wanted to do another exhibit based on our permanent collection [and] I’ve been thinking a lot about people and place,” said Sue Friedlander, the executive director and chief curator of the Arkell.
The founder of the museum, Bartlett Arkell, first lent 12 of his own carefully collected and curated works to the museum in 1925 and he helped to expand the museum in the ensuing years. His collection reflected American history, not only in a national sense but in the sense of what was happening in New York State.
It’s a collection that’s grown immensely over the years. Not only are the Calhoun portraits new, but a work by Fritz Vogt will also make its debut with the “Portraits & Landscapes,” exhibit.
Vogt was an itinerant artist who went around Montgomery and Otsego counties during the 1890s drawing the farms, businesses, and homes. His style was in some sense completely realistic and crisply detailed. In “Residence of Mr. Asa Pickard, Brookmans Corners, NY,” he depicts the home, barn and blacksmith business of Pickard in such a way that it seems like he had a degree in architectural design. That sentiment makes sense, especially because Vogt completely disregards traditional rules of perspective, instead squishing details in to fit as much as he can into the piece.
“[His works] became incredibly rich historical documents,” Friedland said. It’s what makes the recently restored piece, so valuable, not only for the exhibition but as a historical work.
“Portraits & Landscapes,” is in some way self-referential, but in a good way, revealing an intricate history of the Mohawk Valley, through the people who shaped it and in the topography they worked to make their own.
Just look to Edward Buyck’s “Canajoharie about 1780.” Buyck was commissioned to paint the piece in 1929 and based his landscape on all the historical documents available to him at the time. It’s nestled next to two works that are closely tied to it in surprising ways.
Maria Yates Calhoun was an important figure in the Mohawk Valley. Her ancestor, Heinrich Frey first came to the area in 1689 and in 1739 built what’s known as the Frey House. Buyck depicted the house in “Canajoharie about 1780,” which is nestled next to Calhoun’s portrait.
Buyck also depicted the Van Alstyne house, which was built in 1749. It’s notable for its architecture, but also for a visit from a certain President George Washington, whose portrait (painted by Gilbert Stuart) is hung beside Buyck’s piece.
Though the exhibition reveals plenty of interesting historical connections, it also reveals some local figures whose stories have yet to really be uncovered.
An odd family portrait thought to be from the Cooper family in 1835 is perhaps the prime example of this. The husband and wife look like they were painted by different artists or at least using different techniques.
“If you look closely there’s a seam down the middle,” Friedland said.
An ultraviolet examination of the piece revealed that it’s been reworked and possibly stitched together, with the husband on one side and the mother, child, and dog on another. In the background the sky is fanciful, with apocalyptic red clouds hanging over impressive-looking mountains. Though there are some speculations on the identities of these figures and of the painter, Friedland said further research is being done to confirm the theories.
Another rather mysterious highlight from the exhibition is the artist Marie Guise Newcomb. She was one of 150 female artists (including Mary Cassatt) who was allowed to exhibit at the Chicago World’s Fair and Exposition. She studied in Paris and traveled around the world to paint, eventually coming back to settle in New York.
“Plowing,” her large-scale piece included in the exhibition, was recently restored and is now on exhibit with its original gold-colored frame. It’s a show-stopping work, depicting a farmer working a field with colors so rich they seem palpable. It’s unclear exactly where the painting was set, and not much is known about Newcomb’s life after she settled in New York.
Other highlights in the exhibition include two works by Winslow Homer (an engraving and a beautifully detailed watercolor) and two by Edward Gay.
“Portraits & Landscapes,” which opens on Saturday, will be up through the end of the year.
While you’re there . . .
In their smaller gallery space, there’s plenty of other pastoral scenes and landscapes, though with a focus on animals. “Fine Art Animals,” the Arkell’s other summer exhibition, isn’t just pet portraiture taken to a new level. It’s putting animals in the context of fine art. One piece, called “Two Grouse,” by Howard Hill is a wonderfully dramatic work, featuring two proud and curious grouses. On a side note, Hill was Norman Rockwell’s grandfather, who Rockwell said had a major impact on the way he painted. “Fine Art Animals,” will be up until October 21.
For more information visit arkellmuseum.org.