Explore American Art at the Fenimore Art Museum

Located in the rolling foothills of the Catskills Mountains, Cooperstown is a one-stoplight town, with quiet streets and charming old homes along beautiful Lake Ostego. Its local attractions include, of course, the Baseball Hall of Fame. Cooperstown = baseball, no question about that. But there is more to do in Cooperstown besides baseball, including the Farm Museum, nearby Hyde Hall (about 30 minutes away) and the Fenimore Art Museum, on property once owned by famous American novelist James Fenimore Cooper.

The museum’s core collection is the the country’s most comprehensive and exceptional collections of American folk art and the renowned Thaw Collection of American Indian Art, representing North America’s diverse and rich cultural heritage. Originally called the New York State Historical Association, the Fenimore Art Museum moved into the Fenimore House, a 1930s neo-Georgian mansion; additional wings have since been added to the mansion to house museum collections. In addition to the folk art and American Indian art, you’ll also find 20th-century art, 19th-century photography, decorative arts and a collection of many objects that once belonged to author James Fenimore Cooper and his family on exhibit.

Its existence as an art museum was spurred by extensive gifts from Stephen C. Clark, an important figure in the New York art world in the first half of the 20th century. He was an early adopter, so to speak, of the art of painters such as Henri Matisse, and eventually, his own collection included paintings by Monet, Rembrandt, Picasso and Cezanne; his American art collection included works by Edward Hopper, Thomas Eakins and Winslow Homer. It’s no accident that the Farmer’s Museum is just across the road — that was his brother’s farm, and he orchestrated the New York Historical Association move the museum by donating the mansion, also once belonging to his brother, to the art museum.

The American folk art collection ranges from paintings and ship figureheads to weathervanes and quilts — documenting the everyday life of early America — and includes works by Grandma Moses. There are trade signs, cigar-store figures, carvings and decorated stoneware, all created by self-taught American folk artists.

We really enjoyed the Thaw Collection of American Indian art, housed in a more contemporary addition to the 1930s-era mansion. In 1995, Fenimore Art Museum added a new wing especially to house the extraordinary gift from Eugene and Clare Thaw of their collection of American Indian art.

The objects on display include contemporary works of art, ritualistic objects and pottery and clothing. Each displays the beauty and artistry of and emphasizes the aesthetic power of American Indian art. The American Indian Wing also displays contemporary artwork such as Lightning Bolt Colt by Dyanne Strongbow.

War Record of Custer’s Battle, pencil and watercolor on cotton, ca 1940, by Chief One Bull

I particularly was struck by War Record of Custer’s Battle, by Chief One Bull, who had created several versions of his personal account of the Battle of Little Bighorn (1876). He used basic shapes to represent people and horses present at the battle and those who successfully fought to protect their land.

The museum also exhibits an extensive collection of American fine art, also originally assembled by Stephen Clark. The collection contains some of the best examples of American landscape, history and genre painting, including Hudson River School painter such as Thomas Cole’s Last of the Mohicans and Asher B. Durand’s Hudson River Looking Toward the Catskills.

Like many other regional art museums, the overall collection is small enough you can leisurely enjoy viewing the collection in just 60 to 90 minutes. 

Getting there: 5798 NY-80, Cooperstown, NY
Hours: the museum is open seasonally; please check the website below for specifics.
Website: Fenimore Art Museum

Looking for other things to see and do in or near Cooperstown? Check out the articles below:

  • Hyde Hall — COMING SOON!
  • Farmer’s Museum — COMING SOON!