Monday, November 2, 2009

A Canal Runs Through It

I was in New York recently to attend the opening of the new exhibition of American genre painting, “American Stories: Paintings of Everyday Life, 1765-1915” at the Metropolitan and had the opportunity to spend some time in one of my favorite places, the American Folk Art Museum on 53rd Street. The museum has on display a feature exhibition on the life and work of landscape and marine painter Thomas Chambers, and the Fenimore Art Museum’s masterpiece by this artist, “Cold Spring and Mount Taurus from Fort Putnam” (above, oil on canvas, 34 1/8" x 49 1/2") is a highlight of the exhibition.

There were two statements by exhibition curator Kathleen Foster in the catalogue that gave me the ideas for this post. Foster rightly points out that Chambers’ bold and colorful painting style would have been right at home in a mid-1840s middle-class interior, and would have “echoed the boldly painted walls, patterned floor cloths or ingrain carpet, and faux-grained finishes of the interior.” This made clear that the availability of fancy goods had a large impact on the acceptance of Chambers’ artwork by his clientele.

The second statement was more speculative but no less compelling. Kathy noted the history of discovery of Chambers’ paintings in upstate New York cities such as Rochester and Syracuse, roughly due west of Albany, where the artist is known to have lived. There is no telling, of course, whether the artist, his paintings, or his clients followed this westward course, but when considered along with the previous idea about the availability of goods it called to mind a powerful historical context for understanding Chambers’ life and work in New York State, for this was the very path of the engineering marvel that transformed the economy and culture of New York; the Erie Canal.

The opening of the Erie Canal in 1825 had a profound impact on many aspects of life in New York State, not least on a wide range of rural artists and artisans who provided artwork and consumer goods deemed essential to any proper middle-class home. A flood of settlers came from eastern New York, New England, and Europe, creating an expanded market and new freedom of expression.

The Canal solved logistical problems for some craft industries, such as stoneware and textiles. Increased economic activity fostered a demand for finer decorative arts as well as for portraits, landscapes, and townscapes. By allowing the importation of fine European goods, and stimulating local industries who could now export virtually anywhere, the Canal was responsible for providing a competitive atmosphere whereby folk artists had to innovate in order to thrive.

Chambers’ large, bold, and colorful works were perfectly suited for this expanded and sophisticated market. And he would not have had to travel far to see similar examples of fancy work being done by the folk artists of his time. This 1848 view of State Street in Albany by John Wilson (above, owned by the Albany Institute of History and Art) shows a profusion of elaborate painted signs, banners, and wagons (see detail at right). Chambers lived and worked on this very street from 1852 to 1857. For him, the wonders wrought by the Erie Canal were right outside his door.


  1. Great painting. Has a modern feel, sort of a Thomas Hart Benton thing in the way the trees in the foreground are lit and the way the sky is composed.

  2. Yes, very true. In fact, the exhibition at American Folk Art Museum even calls Chambers "America's first modern."


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