|Fenimore Art Museum|
We’ve so identified impressionism with the French that experiencing the masterpieces in this exhibit of Americans came as something of a shock to me. These painters seized on the new style after an exhibition of Degas, Monet, and Renoir hit New York in 1886. For the next two decades, their collective creative output led to the formation of several artist colonies. A group of them became known simply as “The Ten.” I like to consider myself a reasonably educated person, but I had never heard of most of these people – Childe Hassam, John Thwachtman, Julian Alden Weir, Frank Weston Benson, Joseph Roedefer DeCamp, Thomas Dewing, Willard Metcalf, Robert Reid, Edward Simmons, Edmund Tarbell, and William Merritt Chase. Chase I’d come across before, as well as the woman left conspicuously out of “The Ten,” Mary Cassatt. But this was the most attention I’d given them, and it was worth the effort.
|Denis at Her Dressing Table (1908)|
Bridge at Dolceacqua – and moves abruptly onto the Americans. The first room contains several studies of solitary subjects, including Cassatt’s Denis at Her Dressing Table from ca. 1908. Like her Woman in Black at the Opera, contemplation is the theme. In a rough, unfinished look, the subject beholds her reflection in a large mirror through a reflection of that image in a handheld mirror. As viewers, we contemplate her contemplating herself, and study the image of her image in the mirror, getting lost in the degrees of self-consciousness. William Merritt Chase laces a similar theme into The Connoisseur from 1885; in a flat perspective, we see another female subject studying an image. Here, though, she contemplates artifice, sitting in an art studio. The walls dwarf her frame and surround her in a clutter of accoutrements – a hand fan, a statuette, a photo album – that gives you the sense of Gilded Age gaudiness. Chase comes off as a real master in this exhibit, with two other pieces that gripped me: 1887’s Bath Beach: A Sketch and The Pot Hunter from 1894.
|Bath Beach: A Sketch (1887)|
But these artists were romantics and most of the pieces pour forth with sumptuous idealism, like Willard Metcalf’s The Red Maple and William Chadwick’s Irises. Metcalf’s 1920 work features a stunning tree on the right that flames out in fiery reds and oranges, hundreds of dots forming a bed of leaves at its base. The image moves from the right, a wind sweeping the branches rightward into the rolling meadows in the background with small, grazing Guernsys and Holsteins. The pastoral sensibility continues in Chadwick’s piece from 1900, which he painted in the artist colony of Old Lyme, CT. Bearing a heavy Monet influence, it bursts with color from the luscious foliage it depicts. The flowers in closeup on the right effuse dark greens, purples, and turquoise, while the openness to the left contains yellows and pinks. The whole image is an explosion of floral fecundity, a sea of dots you feel you could wade right into.
|Winter Twilight – Brooklyn Bridge (1932)|
|Under the Trees, Luxembourg Gardens (1906)|
– nostalgia mixed with loss – struck a chord with those of us who, like her, partly wish we could return to this winsome place, but know we shouldn’t try. Like the impressionists, better to have the romantic image of a place I can escape to than the reality that one’s home suffers from the same disenchantment you find in the wider world.
Today, the village’s future lies in doubt. “Cooperstown is the place time forgot,” my grandmother exclaimed to me during my stay, and certainly for over two centuries it’s escaped many ills of an industrialized, overdeveloped modernity. But “time will have its fancy, tomorrow or today,” Auden reminds us, and in recent years it’s remembered this tiny town with a vengeance. The region sits in the crosshairs of natural gas companies, swept up in the fierce national debate over the human and environmental cost of hydrofracking. Whether drilling goes forward or not, the issue’s already divided the community like no other political controversy in memory. If it does, the character of the town will change indelibly, and not for the better. In the meantime, Cooperstown – through the improbable meeting of baseball and opera, farm fields and art – remains an uncanny mixture of popular and high-brow culture, one that captures the larger contradictions at the heart of American life. That alone makes it worth the visit.
– Nick Coccoma is a Master of Divinity candidate at the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry. He holds an M.A. in philosophy from Boston College, and a B.A. in theatre from the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, MA. A native of Cooperstown, NY, he also taught religion at the Nativity Preparatory School, a tuition-free, Jesuit middle school serving boys from low-income families in Boston.