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Maryland Historical Society exhibits works by late Baltimore artist Jacob Glushakow

Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun
For decades, Baltimore artist Jacob Glushakow captured the city's everyday life and changing history.

Abandoned rowhouses, their dark windows like unblinking eyes, suggest a line of condemned prisoners awaiting execution by the demolition equipment looming a block away. From across the street, a lone boy witnesses a slice of Baltimore slipping away.

That striking image, painted decades ago — exact date unknown — by the late Jacob Glushakow, is just one of the attractions in an exhibit of about 40 of his realist landscapes and portraits that just opened at the Maryland Historical Society.

The show, drawn from 50 paintings and hundreds of drawings and sketches donated to the museum this year by the artist's family, is at once a retrospective on Glushakow's career and a window into the place he called home.

"It really is like a history of Baltimore, a wonderful opportunity to be reminded of Baltimore as it used to be," says the artist's sister, Helen Glushakow, who helped arrange for the gift to the museum.

In addition to scenes of urban decay or transition, the artist captured ordinary people, white and black, doing ordinary things in various neighborhoods, especially East Baltimore, where the artist grew up.

The exhibit includes scenes of dock workers at the pre-prettified harbor; a construction site in front of a pool hall or at a triangular spot where narrow Fells Point streets converge; a poultry shop advertising chickens "killed and dressed"; secondhand stores.

"So much was going on in those streets," says Helen Glushakow, who lives in Pennsylvania. "Jacob never went to fancy places to paint."

Alexandra Deutsch, the Maryland Historical Society's chief curator, finds an example of that in a painting of a Fells Point street scene. A faded building bears the sign "Port Mission," a holdover from an 1880s effort to clean up the area.

"That building was a fixture of the neighborhood," Deutsch says. "Glushakow gravitated to things like that, things people saw every day, not special landmarks. His city was the everyday city."

The artist, who created more than 1,000 works before his death in 2000 at the age of 86, won local recognition early in his career. A mid-1940s Baltimore Sun article noted that Glushakow's art was "familiar to every Baltimorean who has attended a group showing during the last few years."

His output continued to be showcased in various exhibits around town, including an extensive one presented in the early 1990s by the Jewish Historical Society.

Along the way, several museums acquired his works. The Baltimore Museum of Art has nearly a dozen. Others are at the Jewish Museum of Maryland and the University of Maryland, University College.

"The Metropolitan Museum in New York has one," says Ben Engel, Glushakow's nephew. "And the Imperial War Museum in London has some of the drawings he made during World War II."

Now the largest collection of the artist's output is housed at the Maryland Historical Society.

When asked years ago by family members where he hoped his art would be permanently housed one day, "Right off the bat, Jacob said the Maryland Historical Society. We always kept that in mind," says Helen Glushakow. "For us, it's certainly a tremendous honor to have him and his work remembered there."

"Images of a Vanished Baltimore: The Art of Jacob Glushakow," which runs until March, is spread out in two gallery rooms. A few paintings, showing the Baltimore harbor, are located on another, high-foot traffic floor.

"The exhibit is just the first glimpse of what we're going to do with this collection," Deutsch says. "For us, as a historical museum, this is an incredible resource."

Adds Maryland Historical Society President Burt Kummerow: "Our 20th-century holdings have not been very strong, and with this collection, we're really moving in that direction."

The vibrant sampling of Glushakow's works provides a rich introduction to the artist and a welcome opportunity for longtime admirers to savor his talents again.

Glushakow did not always title or date his works. Deutsch and Kummerow expect museum visitors to help identify some of the scenes depicted. One caveat: The artist acknowledged that he sometimes put buildings from one block into the painting of another, while preserving "the flavor of the street."

Vacant, vintage rowhouses don't look any different now than those Glushakow was drawn to over the years. Scenes of urban decay or transition that he captured so tellingly have obvious echoes today, when so many neighborhoods are still going through changes, for better or worse.

What Glushakow did so well was convey a sense of what such scenes mean to a city's heart.

As a 1939 Baltimore Sun review of his work noted, his paintings of "architectural commonplaces" are filled with "emotional perception" and "subtle states of feeling." The review summed up the art as "lucid and direct, never overwrought or declamatory."

That 1939 assessment would hold true for the rest of the artist's life.

"Glushakow said that some artists moved on to different topics, but he liked to explore the same ones, to see the changes over time," Deutsch says. "He returned to this theme of urban renewal again and again."

In his studio (his last one was in Mount Washington), Glushakow painted from sketches he made around town, sometimes while sitting in his car to avoid attracting attention. His applied the same sensitive, observant touch, whether depicting neglected buildings or a vacant tailor shop in the Reservoir Hill area.

"You can really see in his art an incredible ability to show life where there is very little life," Deutsch says. "When he exposed the guts of a building, he showed a sense that life was once there."

The people Glushakow put into his paintings have a way of communicating, too, even when few or no faces are visible.

"A recurring image in his work is a woman who seems to be hurrying with a child," Deutsch says.

The curator sees that figure as a symbol for Glushakow's mother, who encouraged him early on to develop his artistic inclinations.

The exhibit includes one the artist's earliest portraits, a professional model he painted in 1935 while taking a weekend class at Maryland Institute College of Art.

"When he came home from class, he told my mother that someone wanted to buy that painting," Helen Glushakow says. "He was so excited. My mother said, 'Oh, Jacob, please, I'll buy it from you.' I can't remember if she paid three or five dollars for it, but my mother kept it all her life."

Glushakow was an accomplished portrait artist. He made some of his income in his early years through commissions for portraits.

"And some of his most poignant portraits were of his family, particularly his mother," Deutsch says.

A wall in the exhibit contains several of them. Some of Glushakow's self-portraits also are included, revealing a handsome, serious-faced man with dark, penetrating eyes.

"Uncle Jacob was a very perceptive, wise, dignified and witty person," says Engel, a lawyer who lives in Connecticut. "He was very interested in politics and music. He was just someone you enjoyed being around."

Glushakow wasn't born here, but on the way here — his mother gave birth at sea. She and her husband, Russian Jewish emigres, were on a ship heading to America from Europe just as World War I was starting.

The artist graduated from City College and, in addition to studying at MICA, spent three years on scholarship at the Art Students League in New York.

In 1941, Glushakow won a sketch contest held by The Evening Sun — his entry was called "Slum Clearance." He had little time to celebrate. The attack on Pearl Harbor came within days ("It was annoying of the Japanese, I thought," the artist told The Sun years later), and Glushakow went into the Army.

His war years get a reference in the exhibit with a self-portrait in uniform and a painting of an air base.

Other than some foundation-sponsored travels in Europe after the war to further his studies, Glushakow lived and worked in Baltimore until his death. In addition to creating, he taught art classes at the Jewish Community Center.

Various honors came his way, including a nod from the Smithsonian Institution, which featured some of his works in a national touring exhibition in 1962.

In his unassuming way, Glushakow documented Baltimore life — the unavoidable cycles of decay and renewal; the simple chores and pleasures (an especially atmospheric painting shows boys pulling a sled through a snowy spot near railroad tracks, as factories spew smoke in the distance).

Glushakow did this with a consistently deft, sensitive hand, inviting the viewer not to just to see what he saw, but to feel it.

"His paintings always have a little magic in them," Engel says. "It's in the way people interact, and how the buildings sometimes seem to have personalities. He was so interested in his city.

"The Maryland Historical Society appreciates his place in depicting the history of Baltimore. This is now clearly the principal collection of Glushakow art. It's where it belongs."

tim.smith@baltsun.com

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If you go

"Images of a Vanished Baltimore: The Art of Jacob Glushakow" runs through March at the Maryland Historical Society, 201 W. Monument St. Admission is $6 to $9. Call 410-685-3750, or go to mdhs.org.

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