The Arkell Family founded a food conglomerate in the 19th century, renamed the Beech Nut company in the 20th century, and concurrently in the company’s middle age, the family created the Arkell Museum. A modest entrepreneur and inventor James Arkell developed the business in the 1800’s, which included flour and many other foods, and two of his children, Bartlett and William took over the business, expanded it, and gave it the name Beech Nut. At its greatest size and reach in the 20th century, the company was as famous as Wal-Mart or Target, and produced bacon, baby food, and chewing gum, among many others. In a typical arc for big businesses, the company became ubiquitous in the United States until a long, slow series of mergers and acquisitions reduced the business to just baby food in Florida, New York in the present day.
Over the course of his life, Bartlett Arkell collected that would become the Arkell Museum in 1924 and opened to the public in 1927. The museum is in Canajoharie, New York, which has a town square with a few shops, a truly massive Beech Nut Factory, and now a small museum with a sizeable collection of priceless artwork. Bartlett Arkell had an uncanny sense of what art time would honor in the future. This sense smacks of the guts and gusto of his courage that American painters could be considered as good or even better than their European counterparts. For example, the museum boasts over 21 paintings by Winslow Homer.
Winslow Homer (1836-1910) was a peculiar product of his time. To some extent the fine painters, or fijn-schilders of the genre painting in the 1600’s and 1700’s had made so many dramas and scenes that Americans of the 19th century wanted to differentiate themselves. Artists like Thomas Cole, basically the poster child for the Hudson River school of painting, made realistic gigantic landscape paintings. Again, implicit here is the dialectic these landscape artists engaged -- and how they artists made absorbed the genre painting dramas. Winslow Homer painted people at the beach who escape drama, but the waves aren’t plain or placid, they’re rippled and anguished. There’s just as much emotion in a Winslow Homer as there is in a Jan Steen or a Ter Borch. Sometimes that means reading between the lines, behind the scenes. In this case, Homer’s paintings represent “escape to the beach” and vacation, whereas the art collector who appraised these as valuable was the industrialist Bartlett Arkell. If work were so easy or enjoyable, one might not need a vacation so badly.
This sort of understatement is also the oeuvre of another painting of a nude at night by Arthur B. Davies (1862-1928), who was originally from Utica, New York. Davies was one of the Eight, which was a group of popular and championed American artists, and Davies was one of the artist founders of the Armory Art Show in New York City (The Arkell Museum boasts paintings by all members of the Eight). The painting currently showing at the Arkell museum by Davies of a nude in nature has to do with a fundamental meeting point of man and nature, mind and matter, or nature versus nurture. This painting is a foggy painting, where the skin of the nude blurs into the dark greens of the plant-life, and then into the dark blues of the night sky. Davies has ties at least philosophically to the Symbolists of Europe in the latter 1800’s, but Davies’ conclusion in this painting is more subtle than a strict correspondence between the symbols in the painting and the meaning, and any sort of escapism from harsh industrial cities of the Gilded Age shares a kindred spirit with Winslow Homer’s beaches and landscapes.
A John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) painting, “Head of an Italian Woman” grasps time in a strange way. This is because of the placement of the subject in the painting, and secondly because of the painting-technique the artist employed. In this painting, Sargent painted the woman’s face so that it was pointing left. This crosses paths with the viewer because the way the human eye looks at paintings usually is similar to reading, which means going from left to right. Sargent also uses chiaroscuro, which is dramatic lighting, to illuminate the strange proportions of the woman’s face, such that the Italian woman may have been saying something urgent. It’s a strange play of vanity and death, because it’s a woman’s anguish against a dark black background; but here actually Sargent might be saying something optimistic about drama as such. If she’s passionate, at least she cares about something.
These conflicts with the viewer are immediately similar to Edmund Tarbell’s (1862-1938) “Girl Crocheting” from 1904, where the subject is also facing to the left and bathed in light, just like the woman in the Sargent painting. The lighting here isn’t really chiaroscuro, because the background isn’t black, and because the metaphor of the blackness of the background in the Sargent painting has metaphoric symbolism of death, religion, and drama. Here, the painting doesn’t have a black background so much as other paintings in the background, and this is an introduction to a sort of consideration of the production, like a play within a play. The curator’s notes for this painting say it was based on a genre painting, Vermeer's “The Lacemaker”. “Crocheting” has many similarities to “Lacemaker” in that both paintings show a woman bathed in light, working on a craft. This painting here shows a woman who is older than Vermeer’s character in his painting. This makes Vermeer’s painting of a young lacemaker seem less ruminative, and more excited about the future before her – the very fact this woman is making a crochet, which is often crafted for children in a way similar crafts as quilting and knitting do. So, the young lady here isn’t thinking about herself, she’s thinking about children, who might be her children or her friends’ children. Vermeer’s painting shows the thrills of fantasy and reverie, at home in an individual’s subjective introspection, whereas this painting wonders about the consequences of having-lived-life, and having-made decisions. If this painting is depressed, the colors and shapes don’t show it. This painting is thoughtful and meditative without betraying sadness. The nice thing about thinking deep thoughts while crafting is at the very least you get a blanket out of it.
For that matter, there is a great deal of triumph over adversity in the foundations and philosophies of the Arkell Museum overall. Bartlett Arkell couldn’t have known upstate New York would be economically depressed by Globalism in the late 20th century, but it wouldn’t surprise him. He did see his father’s Globe business burn down, never to be rebuilt; he saw his brother William disfigured and maimed in a factory accident; and the Beech Nut building itself suffered a handful of catastrophic near-fatal factory fires in his lifetime. In William and the Beech Nut corporation there was perseverance, and in the Juvet Globe Company there was peace, that even if it was tragic life went on. In Winslow Homer’s paintings the artist achieved an emotional objectivity about tumultuous waves. In his collection, Bartlett Arkell tried to articulate this same sort of steadfast composure and equanimity. It’s a good lesson and it bears repeating.