It's the objects people surround themselves with that provide the most telling stories.
The paintings on our walls, our furniture, even the plates we use reveal our aspirations, our values — and, at times, our prejudices and fears.
The Baltimore Museum of Art celebrates its 100th anniversary on Nov. 23 with the reopening of the newly renovated American Wing and the historic columned entrance.
With more than 850 paintings, sculptures and silver on display, the BMA's holdings in American art are considered one of the finest collections on the East Coast, according to museum director Doreen Bolger. About 50 of the objects set to be on view either have rarely or never been shown before now.
"There's nothing more exciting than pulling out a piece of art that's been here all along, hiding in plain sight," Bolger said. "This is a really good collection. I think people will be surprised when they see what we've done."
To mark the reopening, we asked David Park Curry, the museum's curator of decorative arts, American painting and sculpture, to tell us a story about one artwork in each of five categories: most significant, a recent acquisition, most noticeable, on display for the first time, and quirkiest.
Most significant: Thomas Cole's 'A Wild Scene'
There is the moral of all human tales;
'Tis but the same rehearsal of the past.
First freedom and then Glory – when that fails,
Wealth, vice, corruption – barbarism at last.
— "Childe Harold's Pilgrimage"
by George Gordon, Lord Byron
Everywhere that the landscape painter Thomas Cole looked, people were mucking up the world.
It wasn't just that mankind chopped down trees and ruined the environment to build cities. But when humans stopped living in harmony with nature, they became debased and waged wars that toppled centuries-old civilizations.
By 1831, Cole had had enough.
Taking his inspiration from Lord Byron's blockbuster verse, Cole embarked upon the project that would make him famous: five paintings called "The Course of Empire" that charted civilization's rise and fall.
A bunch of donors, including the Baltimorean Robert Gilmor Jr., sent Cole to Italy, where he absorbed European ideas about landscape painting and translated them into American terms.
"America didn't have monuments," Curry says, "so instead of painting old ruins, Cole painted old trees."
"The Course of Empire" is owned by the New-York Historical Society. But Cole also painted a prototype hanging in the Baltimore Museum of Art called "A Wild Scene." With its blasted trees, cloud-shrouded mountain and Native American hunters, the early model is strikingly similar to 1836's "The Savage State," the first installment in the series.
"A Wild Scene" was on view before the BMA's renovation, but it was encased in an unattractive plywood frame. Now, it's surrounded with a replica of a frame that Cole actually used.
"I've come to really love this painting," Curry says. "When I first saw it, it was so poorly displayed that I felt bad. This is a really, really important object because Cole is considered the father of American landscape painting. Just to see these things come to life is part of the thrill of working with this collection."
Quirkiest: Karl L.H. Muller's 'Walrus' beer pitcher
If a 19th-century beer pitcher can be described as being ripped from today's headlines, the blue porcelain "Walrus" jug designed by the German ceramicist Karl L.H. Muller might qualify.
The pitcher, just under 10 inches tall, has a walrus forming the spout, a polar bear crawling up the handle, a lotus blossom on the front and figures on both sides in unglazed white bisque.
Muller's imagery incongruously combines a racist anti-immigration polemic with a lighthearted celebration of the brewer's art.
One side of the pitcher illustrates a poem by Bret Harte in which a pigtailed Chinese immigrant cheats a muscular Irish laborer at cards. The poem, which tapped into the fears that a recent influx of immigrants was depriving American citizens of jobs, was an instant sensation and made Harte famous.
"The poem soon became a manifesto for restrictive immigration policies," Curry wrote for The Huffington Post. "It is perhaps the most politically incorrect object in the American Collection."
The pitcher's opposite side is lighter in tone. It shows the legendary (and mythical) King Gambrinus, the inventor of beer, presenting a keg to Brother Jonathan, the 18th-century precursor to Uncle Sam.
The blue, orange and crimson lotus on the front symbolizes Isis, the Egyptian goddess who taught Gambrinus to make the fermented beverage. Curry thinks the walrus on the spout refers to the Lewis Carroll poem "The Walrus and the Carpenter," in which the title characters entice eight fat oysters to take a dinner-hour stroll — with predictable results.
"Guess what they served in bars with beer?" Curry asks. "Oysters."
And the polar bear?
"Beer is always served cold," the curator replies. "Muller left nothing to chance."
Recent acquisition: 'Bronco Buster' by Frederic Remington
When Frederic Remington cast his first work in bronze in 1895, he wasn't just sculpting a cowboy on a bucking horse. For better or worse, he was depicting America's national character.
Americans have always had the reputation of being plain-spoken, rugged individualists who are suspicious of anything smacking of aristocratic embellishment. We crave freedom and pride ourselves on our can-do spirit when faced with seemingly insurmountable tasks. We think that fences and rules of all kinds are made to be leapt over or broken.
Perhaps that's why the sculpture immediately struck a chord in the American psyche. It was so popular that more than 350 casts were made, many after the artist's death.
"The cowboy is controlling a natural force, and it's kind of an equal contest," Curry says. "It's not entirely sure the rider won't be pitched."
One cast was presented to the original Rough Rider, Teddy Roosevelt. Another has been a fixture in the Oval Office since Jimmy Carter was president. Though each cast is an original, those considered artistically important were made during Remington's lifetime, because the artist subtly manipulated the surface to make each piece unique. The museum's "Bronco Buster" was cast in 1906, three years before Remington's death.
"Bronco Buster" was Remington's first bronze. The curator marvels at the novice sculptor's skill at balancing the weight of his composition on the horse's two tiny rear hooves.
"Remington collected horse paraphernalia and costumes and guns," Curry says. "There's a realism to his work that people forget. There are little rowels on those tiny spurs, and they're sharp. I would not like to get poked by those things."
The bronze was donated last year by museum trustees Jeffrey and Harriet Legum.
"What's nice about this gift," Curry says, "is that sculpture is the area of the American collection where our holdings are the thinnest. Now we have a major work by a major artist."
Never Before Shown: 'Pier Mirror,' maker unknown
A young woman rounded a corner of the Baltimore Museum of Art. What she saw was so startling that she came to an abrupt stop.
There she was, reflected in an extravagantly carved gilt wood frame surrounding a full-length oval of silvered glass. This mirror is crowned with a life-size carved day lily ("It's literally over the top," Curry says) and looks as though it not only could talk to you but wouldn't hesitate to deliver a message you didn't want to hear.
"It's a Snow White mirror," the young woman says.
Her reaction delights Curry, who found the mirror in rough shape in storage and had it restored. Now it hangs above a stairway, where it's flanked by a pair of carved wooden folk-art eagles from around 1830 gilded with gold leaf.
"It's pretty spectacular," Curry says. "People come upon it without expecting it, and they go, 'Oh, my God.' It's fun to watch."
He thinks the mirror probably was made in the 19th century in Philadelphia and hung in a private home between two tall windows. It was bequeathed to the museum in 1939 by Ellen Howard Bayard, who was descended from Baltimore's Gilmor family.
"People here love the decorative arts," Curry says. "It has to do with our history. We forget how rich Baltimore really was.
"At the beginning of the 19th century, there was more money here than there was in San Francisco. We didn't have much nobility after the Calverts, but we had a boatload of entrepreneurial merchant princes, and collectively they built Baltimore's art scene."
The early captains of industry filled their homes with the finest furniture and silver, much of which was made in Baltimore.
"Though the museum has a few paintings from this period, to tell the truth, this collection is virtually all domestic," Curry says. "That's one of the reasons it's so accessible. People lived with these things."
Most Noticeable: 'Baptism of Christ' window designed for the Tiffany Glass & Decorating Company by Frank Brangwyn; flanked by 'Pair of Mosaic Columns,' designed around 1897 by Louis Comfort Tiffany
Frank Brangwyn seems to have been born knowing how to create beautiful things with his hands.
Not only did the Belgian-born artist produce possibly as many as 12,000 works over his long life, but he was largely self-taught. His creations ranged from paintings to murals to posters to woodcuts to designs for furniture and tableware. And when he had a few spare moments, Brangwyn also illustrated books.
One of his most spectacular creations, the nearly 17-foot-tall stained-glass "Baptism of Christ" window, shows the Holy Spirit in the form of a white dove hovering nearby while John the Baptist pours a jug of water over Jesus' head. The window was manufactured by the famed Tiffany Glass & Decorating Company.
The creation showcases one of the key techniques pioneered by Louis Comfort Tiffany. Instead of painting directly on glass, Tiffany's artisans layered multiple pieces of leaded glass to create subtle gradations of color.
"It's just glorious," Curry says.
The window was on view before the renovation. But it was hung over a stairwell and flipped (so that Jesus was the figure on the right instead of the figure on the left).
Now the window stands front and center in its own gallery, which is devoted to works by Tiffany and his contemporaries.
The window is flanked by two mosaic pillars made by Tiffany himself around 1905 from glass mosaic tiles. The columns recall the ancient world, reflecting the Greek democracy and Roman republicanism on which America's government is modeled.
Curry is particularly fond of the "passementerie" design toward the top of the columns that resembles tasseled cords.
"Six of these columns were made," he says. "We are the lucky ducks who own two."
The gallery also includes five smaller Tiffany & Company windows donated by Baltimore philanthropist Mary Elizabeth Garrett. The effect of all that colored glass massed together in one small room is jaw-dropping.
"You can see it from a city block away," Curry says.