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Patronage of Beauty

George Lucas' Extensive Collection Gets Feted In All Its Idiosyncratic Glory

CITY OF SIGHTS: Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot's "Sèvres-Brimborion, View Towards Paris" (above); Norbert Goeneutte's "View Of Lazare Station, Paris" (below).

By Deborah McLeod | Posted 11/1/2006

A View Toward Paris: The Lucas Collection of 19th Century French Art

Through Dec. 31 at the Baltimore Museum of Art

George Aloysious Lucas has provided a consummate example that a few of us might still consider following. His vast art collection, now presented in large measure by the BMA, proves that a life devoted to conscientious art patronage is a life full of vicarious adventure, creative satisfaction, the continuous redefining of beauty, and, ultimately, a respectable immortality. Does it get any better than that?

Lucas was neither a millionaire by birthright nor industrialist by career. Rather, a civil engineer by trade and the son of a successful paper manufacturer and publisher, he was an astute and sensitive man of comfortable 19th-century means. He moved to Paris following the death of his father, Fielding Lucas, in 1857 and undertook to transform the moderate advantages of his circumstances into an unparalleled empire of inspiring, historically important objects. He was simultaneously becoming a friend and benefactor to then-rising French art stars and a connoisseur and consultant to a few of the Industrial Age's magnates--men who would found the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Corcoran Gallery. Lucas' remarkable collection--20,000 works--now belongs to Baltimore through the BMA, where it has generally been meted out in small, succulent curatorial morsels in themed exhibitions.

A View Toward Paris is the BMA's most comprehensive exposition of the Lucas collection in our generation and marks the 10th anniversary of its acquisition from the Maryland Institute College of Art. For this event Sona Johnston, BMA senior curator of painting and sculpture, has divided the galleries into the artistic movements that transpired during Lucas' 50-year Paris residency. From a Romantic-era start, which would come to include a host of greater and lesser-known artists, Lucas appears to have possessed an initial particular fascination for Eugène Delacroix. Lucas' preference for paintings, and some interestingly fiendish etchings and lithos, offers a glimpse into a young man's wilder spirit. Johnston's curatorial organization then guides visitors though rooms devoted to Realism, Naturalism and the Barbizon School, and up to Modernism.

Wandering the six galleries of the exhibition, the strongest feeling is one of familiarity. Lucas' taste in art is practical and inclusive, his collection aesthetic comfort food. His selections don't appear to have a particular lopsided drift, no eccentricity that you might seize upon to analyze some peculiar muse within him. His practicality comes from selecting art out of admiration and friendship, patronizing artists for whom he developed a fondness, and purchasing smaller paintings and etchings, for the most part. The scale he appears to favor falls generally into the 16-by-24-inch range. He likes a pretty young woman, he prefers nature to urban settings, he's apparently just as satisfied to have a social scenario as a solitary sitter, an allegory as a satire or trompe l'oeil. The characters populating Lucas' salon are a mixed neighborhood with peasantry and aristocracy side by side, betrothed to one another by their mutual gold-leaf frames. He loves the cool land and the warm sea.

A very lovely selection of works represents another of Lucas' favored artists, Barbizon member Jean Baptiste Camille Corot, the gentle introvert's artist of choice. Disputing any accusations that Lucas might be nailed as one of those, however, enters with the works right around the corner. Animalier sculptor Antoine Louis Barye was obviously Lucas' favorite artist. There are many, many, many of his bronze lions in the collection, along with a few hippogriffs and other such mythological beasts, posing nobly or engaging in contorted two-party frenzies of eating disorderliness--robust consumption and panicked self-preservation.

Barye must have been quite the personality to have won Lucas' attention over the acquisition of another Théodore Rousseau or even a Gustave Courbet. And, too, the psychological imprint of a lesser beast submitting to the greater power (read Empire here) was a popular theme during this era with the Victorians, inclining them toward rather graphic mementos of the theme. A bit of this sentiment must no doubt have spilled over into France as it, too, colonized and ruled distant lands--and surely into America, where Barye was able, through Lucas' help, to market his leonine forms to the lions of industry.

Toward the end of Lucas' life, Paris, the nerve center of momentous artistic change, was reluctantly preparing to accept Impressionism. Lucas never quite embraced the movement, leaving it underrepresented in his collection, but for a few artists--Édouard Manet, the least glib and most political of them all, being the collector's notable preference.

One of the introductory labels at the entrance to this show quotes S.G.W. Benjamin from an 1877 tome, Contemporary Art in Europe. He celebrates Paris as the art capital of the world, identifying "the vigor of [Paris'] art schools, and above all, the long established . . . patronage of French art as a matter of national pride . . . give her rivals a long race yet." This expressed--and demonstrated--understanding of the vital relationship between making great, advancing strides in art and the support and committed patronage of those artists who might enable a city to become great is the object lesson that George Lucas offers us as students and sightseers into his fine life's work.

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