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Thursday, July 29, 2010

Reflections on Water in American Painting at the Arkell Museum

Anton Otto Fischer Summer Seas oil on canvas 1945

The drive along the Thruway to Canajoharie is a great set-up for seeing Reflections on Water in American Painting at the Arkell Museum. Along the way, the toll road follows the Mohawk River for miles, affording frequent and pleasant views of just the sort of landscape that inspired many of the artists in this excellent show.

Drawn from the collection of Arthur J. Phelan (best known for works depicting the American West), Reflections on Water is perfectly suited to the Arkell – its first stop on a national tour – because it includes a number of artists who are either in the Arkell’s permanent collection or might as well be. Comprised of 50 paintings dating from 1828 to 1945, the show provides lessons in both history and geography, as it mirrors the American expansion from east to west. In addition to the expected Atlantic Ocean and Hudson River scenes, there are also images from the Great Lakes, the Mississippi and Columbia rivers, even an Alaskan glacier.

Phelan, a former banker who later got involved in ocean shipping, began collecting marine paintings in the 1960s and displays a keen eye for outstanding work by lesser-known artists. Unsurprisingly, there are numerous pictures here that would appeal to any typical man or boy who enjoys action and activity – but there are many more that indicate a more specifically artistic sensibility that transcends the hunting, sailing, and fighting genres.

The crown jewel of the collection (shown above at right), a miniature tour de force made by William Merritt Chase while looking up the Arno River from his villa in Florence, Italy, is atypical in its foreign subject, but announces the seriousness and breadth of the collection. And it has plenty of company in a gallery filled with many fine American Impressionist canvases, such as a stunning winter scene by Elmer Livingston MacRae and Willard Metcalf’s petite Twachtman-like marsh view.

These, like many other works in the show, were made in Connecticut, where Phelan spent his summers growing up, and they form the core of the collection, both from the personal standpoint and artistically. Phelan, who holds two degrees in American history from Yale University, said “I have built a number of collections that started with a chance acquisition of an artwork that reminded me of something from my past.” He also said, in a 1978 Washington Post interview, that he “got interested in art through an interest in the historical process, because paintings offer a clear record of the changes that people have made in the environment.”

The second quote may explain two other key groups of pictures in the show: those that go deeper into the historical aspect of life in the United States (such as James Bard’s meticulous, fanciful 1873 rendering of a Hudson River steamboat, shown at the bottom of this post) and those that represent industrialization (such as Reginald Marsh's 1936 Lift Bridge, Jersey Marshes, shown below at right). Others present popular pastimes, including duck hunting and beach vacationing (such as Aiden Lassell Ripley's 1935 Beach Scene, shown above at left), but most of the work in the show is landscape – and the majority of that falls into the timeframe of the heyday of American Impressionists, revealing a softer side to the historian-collector whose first purchase depicts a burning ship and its fleeing crew.

I don’t know if it’s a trend, but it appears that exhibitions drawn from personal collections are becoming more common (see my review of an exhibition at the Hyde Collection earlier this year). This may not be a bad thing, as institutional perspectives can get stuck in conventional thinking, which an independent voice can possibly shake up. But it also means there’s a risk that the (moneyed) source of the collection is more vain than rigorous, and that we will be subjected to a lot of second-rate work in the process of polishing their ego with our attention.

Fortunately, Phelan does not seem to be that sort of collector; despite its slightly punny title, Reflections on Water is a first-rate show that explores a strong personal sensibility while exposing a number of unfairly overlooked figures from our rich artistic history. If you haven’t yet seen the wonderfully renewed and expanded Arkell Museum, use this opportunity as an excuse to go – I promise it will be an unqualified pleasure.

Reflections on Water in American Painting, organized by Exhibits Development Group and accompanied by a nicely produced color brochure with several reproductions and a fine, historically oriented essay by John Seelye, runs through Oct. 3. A related event set for Oct. 2 will feature NPR’s Selected Shorts readers performing seaside stories live as a fundraiser for the museum. For details, call (518) 673-2314 or go to

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