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New exhibit at Walters Art Museum showcases the statues of Maryland artist William Rinehart

The abracadabra of sculpture's appeal

At a first look and even at a second, you'd swear it was magic.

Those three white towels, two folded neatly and the third rumpled and hanging every which way — surely they're made of terrycloth and purchased at a department store, not carved from white Carrara marble in a stone quarry by the 34-year-old Baltimore artist Sebastian Martorana.

Those two little boys curled up on a mattress, their heads barely heavy enough to dimple a pillow — surely they'll wake up any moment from their nap. But that nap, which was carved in stone by the master sculptor William Rinehart, has been going on undisturbed since 1869.

"Rinehart's Studio: Rough Stone to Living Marble," the new exhibition running at the Walters Art Museum, makes a strong case for the undiluted trickery that lies at the heart of sculpture's appeal.

It's the delight of being fooled into believing something to be true that we know in fact is faked. It's the triumph of our five senses over our better judgment.

And the thrill is not unlike the one experienced when we watch a magician put a beautiful lady into a box, saw her in half, wave a wand and then restore her to life.

Rarely has being snookered been so much fun.

In some ways, the 40-object show is about the way that the magic wand (or perhaps, the magic chisel) is being handed down from one generation of artists to the next.

"Rinehart's Studio" contains about a dozen sculptures, including the one by Martorana, who, like Rinehart, studied at the Maryland Institute College of Art — which in the 19th century was called the Maryland Institute for the Promotion of the Mechanic Arts.

The show also includes a few paintings and drawings, carved cameos, sculpting tools and a five-minute video showing Martorana at work.

"I don't really think there's much of a difference between art and craft," the young sculptor says in the video. "They're all just part of a spectrum."

Martorana has been a semifinalist four times for the Janet & Walter Sondheim Artscape Prize, and also was selected to participate in the "40 Under 40" show held at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in 2012.

"I mean, I'm definitely a craftsman, but I'm also definitely an artist and I'm definitely a sculptor and I'm definitely a painter and I'm definitely an illustrator," Mortorana says in the video. "They're all words for the same thing, really, and they all exist around this amorphous, intangible, impossible-to-define thing we call art."

Marylanders who visit the exhibition might feel a tingle of recognition. They've seen Rinehart's sculptures before, they realize, as they've gone about their daily business. In fact, they're all over the place.

The bronze statue of former ChiefJustice Roger B. Taney is on view at the State House in Annapolis, while a recast of the original adorns Baltimore's Mount Vernon Square. Green Mount Cemetery has at least three Rineharts, the Peabody Institute has one, and there's another displayed in the crypt of the U.S. Capitol.

In addition to the Walters, Rinehart sculptures can be found at the Baltimore Museum of Art, the Smithsonian Institution, the Corcoran Gallery of Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The show is as much about the process of sculpting as it is about the finished pieces.

"Nineteenth-century sculptures are so perfect that they support the myth that the artist just happened to free this beautiful person who was trapped inside a block of marble," said Jo Briggs, the museum's assistant curator of 18th- and 19th-century art.

There's that whiff of magic again.

"Actually," Briggs said, "sculpting is a very laborious process that involved a lot of folks, a lot of dust and a lot of time. We hope that's the take-away for people who see the show."

So there's yet another illusion — that those 19th-century sculptures were created by an individual artist with a single vision.

Rinehart's 20-member crew of Italian stoneworkers did much of the marble work specified in their employer's design. A bust of Ellen Harper Walters, wife of the museum's co-founder, includes a lace head scarf. The minute detail of the fabric rendered in stone reveals a craftsman whose skill may have surpassed that of the master.

So specialized were 19th-century sculpting techniques that a completed statue required one artisan to chisel out the hair, another to do the hands, and a third to re-create the intricacies of embroidery. Yet a fourth was an expert at reproducing Rinehart's signature.

Martorana, who has the not-inconsiderable aid of 21st-century electric power tools at his disposal, does all his own stonework. Still, it's easy to sense the continuity between the living artist's towels and that pillow crafted by Rinehart and his studio.

"I look at that uncarved block of marble and then at Sebastian's work and then at William Rinehart's work," Briggs said. "They're both about turning something incredibly tough into something you want to touch."

There's also another presence in the room whose voice demands to be heard — the bald man with the fierce eyes and walrus mustache depicted in a bust carved by Rinehart in 1867.

It's a portrait in marble of William Thompson Walters, who not only co-founded the museum that bears his name, but was also the artist's great patron and friend.

Jenny Carson, the MICA curator who put the exhibit together, said the two men may have met when Walters hired the young stoneworker to work on a fireplace mantel in the family home at 5 W. Mount Vernon Place.

She thinks there was an immediate affinity between the pair, both men from primarily rural and relatively humble backgrounds who made the most of their opportunities. Rinehart's father was a farmer in Union Bridge in Carroll County, while Walters was born in a small mining town in central Pennsylvania.

Though both men became extremely successful, both were self-conscious about their lack of a formal education.

"I think that William Walters admired Rinehart as another self-made man from a normal background, who came to Baltimore and made good," she said.

Walters commissioned Rinehart's first full-size statue, "Woman of Samaria," and allowed the artist to pick the subject of his choice, and Walters helped fund Rinehart's second trip to Italy, where the sculptor would spend most of his career.

Like many collectors at the time, Carson said, Walters started out with American art. Later, he liquidated his American holdings in favor of investing in European pieces.

"But he always kept Rinehart's sculptures and continued to patronize him," Carson said. "And when Rinehart returned to Baltimore briefly, he always stayed in Walters' townhouse."

In fact, the two were friends right up until William Rinehart's untimely death at age 49 in 1874, possibly from tuberculosis.

As his final act of friendship, William Walters was one of three executors of Rinehart's estate. The sculptor had said he wanted his money to benefit artists in some manner.

Walters used the estate to found the first graduate program in sculpture in the U.S. at MICA, his dead friend's alma mater.

In 2008, Sebastian Martorana graduated with a master's degree in fine arts from MICA's Rinehart School of Sculpture.

mary.mccauley@baltsun.com

If you go

"Rinehart's Studio: Rough Stone to Living Marble" runs at the Walters Art Museum, 600 N. Charles St., through Aug. 30. Free. Call 410-547-9000 or go to thewalters.org. Curator Jenny Carson will deliver a talk about the show at 2 p.m. Sunday, April 12, and artist Sebastian Martorana will lead a gallery tour and talk at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, April 23.

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