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Joint Exhibition Heralds The Purchases Of Early Baltimore Collectors

PUBLIC TRANSPORTATION: Daumier's 'The Omnibus' is just one of 150 French works on paper featured in the new co-op exhibit divided between the Walters Art Museum and the Baltimore Museum Of Art.

By J. Bowers | Posted 6/29/2005

Francophilia was highly contagious and terribly fashionable among Charm City art collectors during the 19th and early 20th centuries, and everyone from the Baltimore Museum of Art’s beloved Cone sisters to William T. Walters got into the act, buying countless drawings, paintings, and pastel works during trips to Paris. The Essence of Line: French Drawings from Ingres to Degas is a collaborative two-part exhibition that combines the BMA’s extensive collection of French drawings with equally impressive holdings from the Walters Art Museum and the Peabody Institute Art Collection of the Maryland State Archives. As the first comprehensive examination of these works and their collective historical significance, Essence of Line has an overwhelming amount of ground to cover—the mania for collecting that seized Europe and America during the period, the evolution of French draftsmanship, the effect of the Franco-Prussian and Crimean wars on artistic subject matter. As usual, the BMA and the Walters display the works elegantly and educationally, with thoughtful historical commentary and vitrines full of antique watercolor sets, pastels, charcoals, and other tools of the trade—an approach that helps make the works more accessible to a general audience without being condescending.

That said, the more than 150 drawings, watercolors, crayon works, and preparatory sketches that make up Essence of Line are pretty darn accessible to begin with, rarely straying from straight-up realism. The exhibit features pieces by several instantly recognizable superstars of 19th-century art, including Toulouse-Lautrec, Degas, Delacroix, Manet, and Morisot—and it’s fascinating to compare and contrast their works with pieces by lesser-known artists.

Several pieces in the collection gently mock 19th-century pack-rat culture. Daumier’s “The Amateurs” caricatures a cluster of well-heeled male dilettantes as they observe the work of an artist, corpulently holding court at his easel. The picture-within-the-picture is hidden from view, keeping the focus on the gentlemen’s faces—and Daumier lends some humorous ambiguity to two in the back, who look more like sculptures than actual people. In pieces like “The Amateurs,” it’s easy to see the lasting influence that these artists and their contemporaries have had on American cartooning and, fittingly, a whole section of the exhibit at the BMA is devoted to French caricatures.

Rosa Bonheur, the first female ever to receive the Légion d’honneur, France’s highest civilian honor, stood out in her day because of her unconventional dress (men’s clothing) and uncouth habits (smoking in public). Her “The Conversation” is a standout here thanks to her command of charcoal—the title refers to a tender moment between a shepherd and his dog, but the pile of sheep and goats at the man’s feet are the real stars of the piece, nudged out of the background with judicious application of white heightening. Léon Bonvin’s watercolor and gouache “Cook With Red Apron” is a shockingly well-preserved study in detail and color, with every candlestick and cabbage leaf nearly popping off of the paper.

Modern-art enthusiasts will find Odilon Redon’s “The Eye” particularly intriguing. A Franco-Prussian war veteran and key member of the Symbolist movement, Redon channeled his post-combat angst into moody, mysterious charcoal pieces that he called “noirs,” a style that sets his work apart from the portraiture and genre scenes of his contemporaries. “The Eye” is just that—a single eyeball, surrounded by stringy black hair and floating in an undefined circular area. Disembodied eyes are a frequent motif in Redon’s “noir” works, which practically presage the surrealists.

Half of the fun of Essence of Line lies in discovering lesser-known gems like Bonvin and Bonheur, but the collection’s major showpieces exert an irresistible draw. Toulouse-Lautrec’s “At the Circus: Free Horses” comes from a series of circus images that he drew during his stay at a mental institution two years before his death. The twisted, unnatural poses of the horses complement the defeated countenance of Toulouse-Lautrec’s black-clad ringmaster. Meant to convince his doctors that he was sane, this image is a sublime allegorical snapshot of Toulouse-Lautrec’s frustration and agitation.

Delacroix’s “Lion and Snake” toys with perspective in a rather unsettling way—a male lion pounces upon a gape-mouthed serpent, but his full attention is on the viewer, providing a strange head-on view of the big cat. The warped foreshortening looks elementary, almost Egyptian in its disregard of space, but it’s an arresting experiment nevertheless.

You’ll need at least an hour at each museum to get Essence of Line’s full impact—there’s almost too much to digest. Still, observant patience is rewarded with a vastly improved knowledge of the period at hand. Baltimore’s art collectors might be over their French phase today, but the BMA and the Walters revisit the craze in high style.

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