Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Cooperstown Culture (Part Two): American Impressionism at The Fenimore Art Museum

Fenimore Art Museum
In between my opera escapades, which I alluded to yesterday in my discussion of Kurt Weill's Lost in the Stars, I made time to stop by the Fenimore Art Museum on the outskirts of the village. In the late 1930s, Stephen Clark, a wealthy philanthropist, made an agreement with the New York State Historical Association to convert his newly-built mansion on the shores of Lake Otsego into an art museum (Clark also convinced Major League Baseball to build the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown; his brother Sterling founded the Clark Museum in Williamstown, MA). Today, the Fenimore houses one of the finest collections of Indian art and American folk art around. And the temporary exhibits it’s hosted in recent years, including 2009’s exhibition of American artists in Rome and last year’s Edward Hopper show, have been wonderful treats for this region. The current exhibit, American Impressionism: Paintings of Life and Light (on through September 16th), continues this trend.

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)
The exhibit opens with one European work  Monet’s
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)
The former belongs to a series of paintings he made of New York parks and harbors. He takes a square angle here, with a dirt path stretching from the foreground back away. A woman holding a child’s hand walk straight toward the viewer, their faces misty and indistinguishable. The scene on the left  a bay with grayish water, small boats, and plump clouds  evokes John Constable without the idyllic tone. A haze masks everything and there’s little feeling of life. The void of human activity also permeates The Pot Hunter, which emerged from his time in Shinnecock, Long Island. Coming off like a Winslow Homer  with creamy paint applied in thin, airy strokes  the piece has a wide open perspective, looking onto a vista of high sky and low horizon. Indeed, the sky is over half the image, with grey-white clouds making for an overcast day that, combined with the road of dirty sand ambling into the distance, creates a muted tone. A small man in black, back toward the viewer, stands in a treeless, windswept field of rusty grasses. Like him, you walk away with the strange feeling of loneliness and awe.

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.

Provincetown (1900)
This romanticization of reality crossed over into the realm of human society, too, especially with two of my favorite New England towns. John Henry Twachtman turns his setting into a dream in Gloucester Harbor from 1900, the subject but a misty pool in the background. A colonial house dominates the foreground, its whites and pinks reinforcing the pink polka dots of its neighboring trees, and the entire scene seems like a watercolor. Childe Hassam does a similar job across Massachusetts Bay in Provincetown, from the same year. He takes an aerial view of the town, the perspective glancing down onto the shingled roofs of a dozen clapboard houses bunched together. The tall, white church steeple dominates the scene, the only edifice standing completely in the soft light that warmly brushes the buildings from the west. Hassam paints in delicate brush strokes, creating a thin, blue harbor on the high horizon and peppering the foreground with the houses’ square chimneys. You can’t get more quaint than this.

Winter Twilight  Brooklyn Bridge (1932)
These impressionists even tried to soften up New York City, as Guy Wiggins does in A February Storm in New York and Ernest Lawson in Winter Twilight  Brooklyn Bridge. Lawson’s work is late, from 1932, and in it impressionism meets realism. He uses the impasto technique to evoke not an idyllic setting, but urban slime. Brick brownstones in the foreground belch smoke and hazy greens hover in the background, where the bridge stretches into Manhattan. The dots of carnival lights hang along the superstructure, giving the bridge a twinkling beauty in the evening softness. But the gritty feel of industrialized New York muscles through the romance. There’s no way it can emerge, though, in Lawson’s Connecticut Landscape of 1902. You can see how much changed in the thirty years of economic development between these works. The 1902 piece creates a snowglobe effect, with an almost complete lack of definition. With paint falling like shards, a dark muddy river slops along under white snow  or is it summer? The strokes are so violent and dynamic that you can’t tell if you’re in a blizzard or a surreal fantasy. If Lawson’s New York image signals the death of the impressionist movement, this earlier work has to be its apex.

Under the Trees, Luxembourg Gardens (1906)
Connecticut Landscape is remarkable, but my favorite image had to be William Glackens’s Under the Trees, Luxembourg Gardens from 1906. Featuring a dark palette that almost looks like pastel in application, this work evinces a completely different style, tone, and technique. The scene depicts a crowd of Parisians seated outdoors in the gardens, a deep, hunter green canopy of trees forming the backdrop. The figures  women in their Victorian finest, playing children  all have their faces turned away, except for a policeman in red pantaloons floating like a blur in the center. The whole image looks like an under-the-sea-world, but with a green glow. The smoothness of the strokes and calmness of the scene evokes the sophistication, refinement, and culture of Europe. It seemed wrong to prefer the lone European subject in the exhibition  how horribly American of me. But America’s never looked better than it does through the eyes of these painters, and the show’s cumulative high was enough to send me striding into the fields above Otsego Lake afterward. The water shimmered below me in the sun, giving credence to James Fenimore Cooper’s designating it Glimmerglass. With the green hills rolling in the distance and handsome meadows punctuated by the occasional house, it was a scene worthy of these impressionists’ best efforts.

Indeed, Cooperstown has been the subject of several artists over the years. Recently I stumbled upon a painting of the lake by John Steuart Curry hanging in Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts (you can imagine my surprise). And the town’s produced another novelist in recent years, the writer Lauren Groff. Groff (whose sister Sarah took fourth place in the triathlon at the London Olympics last month) published her second novel, Arcadia, this year and I’m just getting into it. The story follows a group of hippie types who set up a utopian commune in Western New York during the 1960s. Groff made her debut four years ago with Monsters of Templeton, an endearing homage to her roots. Taking Cooperstown as her starting point, she fictionalized the more salacious side of its early history and threw in a fun Gothic horror story for good measure. Some village elders apparently were non-plussed with her airing of the town’s dirty laundry, but I got a thrill from seeing her turn town trademarks and people I know into characters. And that whine totally missed the love Groff has for her subject. The book was a dream to get back to the mystery of one’s childhood home, and the tone  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.

In the end, though, escape is difficult. There’s a line from Bruce Springsteen’s “Long Walk Home” that always conjures Cooperstown in my mind: “My father said, ‘Son, we’re lucky in this town, / It’s a beautiful place to be born. / It just wraps its arms around you, / Nobody crowds you and nobody goes it alone.’ ” The song describes the singer’s disillusionment over the loss of the American values he grew up with, trampled by the very people who taught them. Alienated from his hometown, he suddenly regards the people as strangers. I’ve experienced my share of disillusionment with the United States in the ten years since I’ve left Cooperstown, and my relationship to the village has certainly changed. Though it forms a core part of my identity, it no longer has the hold on me it once did. How could it? Life’s changed me, as it does us all. Sometimes the childhood years I spent there seem to belong to a different dimension altogether. Cooperstown is far from the perfect place people imagine. It suffers from the petty gossip, coarse baseness, and occasional ugly scandal of the kind you find anywhere. Its dairy farms and blue collar sector have struggled for years, and if you’re young, living there can be downright boring. But it’s one of the few places left in America where you’ll find some semblance of community  where the fabric of common life binds families and neighbors together in intimate ways. Its cycle of festivals, parades, and traditions blend with the seasonal rhythms into a familiar matrix of civic life. No matter how long I go between visits, old friends inevitably recognize me on the street when I return and stop to chat. That’s the charm my parents found when they passed through in the winter of 1980, and it was enough to make them stay.

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.

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