Herman Maril: Baltimore artist painted what he saw

Herman Maril had two worlds, and each provided him what something the other lacked.

The artist, who was born in Baltimore in 1908 and died here in 1986, spent his life painting some of the grittier aspects of the city. Invariably, his astute and affectionate eye discovered the aesthetic appeal of even the homeliest objects. But for nearly every summer of Maril's adult life, he took his family to the beach in Provincetown, Mass., filling canvases with the ever-changing interplay of water and light.

Both worlds are on display in Herman Maril: An American Modernist, a 27-painting exhibit that opened last week at the Walters Art Museum and that celebrates the centennial of the artist's birth.

"He was one of the few Baltimore-born artists of his generation to earn a national reputation," says the exhibit's curator, William R. Johnston. "He was very much part of the second generation of modernist artists in this country who worked to develop an American style."

Maril's paintings are owned by about 75 museums, including the Smithsonian American Art Museum and Renwick Gallery and the Phillips Collection in Washington; the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and the Baltimore Museum of Art.

The Walters exhibit contains the highlights of an 88-painting show last fall in the Provincetown Art Association & Museum curated by Christine M. McCarthy. In an article selecting the show as one of the Top 10 exhibits in New England in 2008, Boston Globe correspondent Cate McQuaid wrote that Maril "delved beautifully into space, tone, and surface."

The artist achieved his effects through the judicious use of an "extremely limited" palette of just six or seven colors, Johnston says.

"A contemplative artist, balancing intellect with intuition, he created on canvas what he saw, eliminating all but the barest essentials," Johnston writes in the wall text accompanying the Walters exhibit. "In many of his mature works, his compositions on first glance seem to have been reduced to juxtaposed fields of color."

Though Maril's interest in abstraction is apparent to even casual viewers, the objects he's portraying are readily recognizable.

For instance, a 1970 painting titled Dialogue at Five depicts an outdoor cafe in Provincetown. The facial features of the people in the canvas are obscured and their limbs are elongated, but the canvas, nonetheless, conveys an almost palpable mood of peace and well-being. "Even though we can't see their faces, we can imagine what the people he painted are talking about," Johnston says.

An exhibit showcasing a contemporary painter with a taste for the conceptual might be seen as an unusual choice for the Walters, which is known for its collection of medieval art. But executive director Gary Vikan says the museum and artist had a lifelong, mutually beneficial association.

"The Walters played a formative role in Herman Maril's life," Vikan says. "This exhibit demonstrates the role that a historic museum can have in shaping even an artist who works outside those traditions."

The Walters owns one massive Maril painting - Near Chama No. 2, a 6-foot depiction of a New Mexico landscape that the artist painted in 1970. For nine years, Vikan passed the oil painting every time he entered or left his office. Before long, he developed a strong attachment to it.

"Look at that painting long enough, and eventually those soft fields of color start to influence how you feel about the world," Vikan says.

"It's such a gentle piece, such a quiet and calm piece, and it was created during a decade that in other ways was so ugly. The 1970s was a brutalist decade, but Herman was not a brutalist painter."

Maril was born in 1908 into an Orthodox Jewish family that lved in Park Heights. The boy, the youngest of six children, was expected to study engineering.

"The family lived a rigid religious life, and was very poor," says the artist's son, David Maril.

"But one day when my father was still in high school, his class toured the Walters before it opened its doors to the public," Maril said. The elder Maril apparently was mesmerized by the so-called "Italian primitives," a group of painters from the 13th to the 15th centuries. One - the painter and architect known as Giotto - became a particular favorite.

"Many of these are portraits of saints on gold backgrounds, and they almost have an abstract feel," Johnston says.

The teen was hooked. He abandoned his engineering studies and took odd jobs as a janitor and a sign painter to pay his tuition at what is now the Maryland Institute College of Art.

"He was inspired by what he saw, and decided he wanted to be an artist," David Maril says. "His family thought he was crazy."

While the budding artist was in his 20s, he visited the Eutaw Place apartment of the collector Etta Cone, where he encountered the works of the French Fauvist painter Henri Matisse, an experience he later described as being a "valuable addition" to his development.

If Baltimore was instrumental in helping Maril to discover his life's work, Provincetown supplied a regular dose of stimulation.

In 1934, Maril, then in his mid-20s and unmarried, visited Cape Cod and found a foreclosed studio without water or electricity that he rented for the summer for $10 a month. He was so charmed by Provincetown that every year he returned. It was in Provincetown that he found his first great patron, Duncan Phillips, who founded the Washington museum that bears his name. One day, the collector walked into Maril's ramshackle studio unannounced and bought one or two paintings.

The town has been a magnet for America's most creative minds since the late 1800s, attracting such talents as artists Edward Hopper and Jackson Pollock and playwrights Eugene O'Neill and Tennessee Williams.

For one summer in the late 1950s, Maril, who married Esta Cook in 1948, lived next door to Mark Rothko. The abstract expressionist painter quickly became fond of Esta Maril's cooking, and often came to dinner.

David Maril has a vivid memory of one particular meal:

"After dinner, Mark told my father, 'I'm envious of you.' He said, 'I watch you paint, and I can tell you really enjoy what you're doing.'

"My father asked, 'Don't you enjoy painting?'

" 'No,' Mark Rothko said. 'Sometimes, I can't stand it.' "

Most of the artists and writers who summered in Massachusetts went back to their apartments in New York once Labor Day passed. But Maril resisted his friends' entreaties that he relocate to America's unofficial cultural capital.

Instead, Maril returned to his home in Mount Washington with his wife, son and daughter, Nadja.

The artist earned the money to pay his bills by teaching three days a week at the University of Maryland, a job he loved and which he held for nearly four decades. On the days he wasn't in the classroom, Maril retreated to his studio, full of ideas for paintings that had come to him during his seaside sojourn.

He painted not just the beaches and rowboats of the Cape, but also such familiar Baltimore sights as a construction crane or a view of rooftops in Charles Village.

Maril once wrote a newspaper article about his decision to remain in Baltimore that was published in The Sun on July 3, 1977.

"I was born here and have my roots here, but there were other reasons why I stayed," he wrote.

"Many gems of architecture are hidden away in narrow streets in the inner city. The Formstone cannot hide their former beauty. ... I find that I can work here and truly concentrate. The quiet of the place is conducive to the digestion of one's ideas."

Maril might have gone to Provincetown for its exciting company and views, and because it encouraged him to try out new ways of seeing. But he always looked forward to coming home.

"Baltimore," David Maril says, "allowed my father to be himself."

If you go
Herman Maril: An American Modernist runs through Aug. 30 at the Walters Art Museum, Charles and Centre streets. Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Wednesdays through Sundays. Free. Call 410-547-9000 or go to thewalters.org.