Art collection at Baltimore's Peabody Institute gets its due

A Baltimore art historian offers a cautionary tale: Be careful what you cast out.

From the middle 1870s through 1925, the annual art exhibition staged at the Peabody Institute on Mount Vernon Place contained celebrated works, many of them purchased through the benevolence of the wealthy merchant banker George Peabody.

While Peabody’s philanthropy is well known through his conservatory of music and amazing library, both of which thrive, the Peabody Art Gallery and its once-vast collection is another, very different lesson.

“It’s a story that was just left behind,” said Allen C. Abend, who spent two years-plus mining the Peabody Institute archives for his new book, “Maryland’s Treasure & Burden — Baltimore’s Peabody Institute Art Collection.”

“This fact is all but forgotten,” he writes in the book. “The Institute had a gallery of art that served Baltimore as its leading fine arts museum and exhibition space about one-half century.”

Abend, a retired architect and a Summit Park neighborhood resident, explains that George Peabody decided that Baltimore, for all its efforts to be a prosperous city in the 19th century, lacked a place where the fine arts and music could thrive. He gave away millions for his institute, a kind of athenaeum for music, library, fine arts and educational lectures. Other 19th-century donors joined him to buy more treasures.

Check out this photo gallery from inside the Peabody Institute »

Their acquisitions were exhibited in a lovely chamber overlooking Mount Vernon Place that is now Peabody’s Griswold Hall. It remains a knockout room reached by a grand cast-iron spiral staircase. Its holdings include works by painters Mary Cassatt, Winslow Homer and George Bellows, and sculptor William Henry Rinehart.

By the 1920s, after a number of highly attended annual shows, artistic tastes began to change and a group of citizens founded the Baltimore Museum of Art.

Abend said that aesthetics were moving forward and the Peabody collection was rooted in older, Victorian pieces. The Conservatory of Music emerged as the principal focus of the Peabody Institute — the music school was a costly enterprise — and by the 1960s, the trustees of the institution were burdened with the care and conservation of a sprawling art collection that had lost a popular following decades earlier.

Abend details how the trustees made what, in hindsight, appear to be bad choices that cost Maryland some of its arts inheritance.

The trustees, acting behind closed doors, sold off chunks of the collection. One dubious sale in 1965 to art dealers J. Graham & Sons netted the Peabody $39 per painting. A trustee dispatched some religious pieces to the Archdiocese of Baltimore without any restrictions on future sales. Other poorly stored paintings suffered tears and damage.

A magnificent cornerstone of the collection, an 1800 portrait of Thomas Jefferson by Rembrandt Peale, went to industrialist Paul Mellon, who donated it to The White House, where it remains.

“The painting is a great loss,” Abend said. “It is now credited to Mellon and to the White House. Peabody is never mentioned.”

By the 1970s, the wholesale sell-off stopped. After the Peabody trustees hired Richard Franko Goldman as the school’s president, he discovered a valuable Italian painting in a broom closet when he arrived in Baltimore. He was never told he had to administer an art collection as well as run the music school.

He and his successor, Robert O. Pierce, along with Elizabeth Schaaf, a knowledgeable Peabody archivist, became the heroes of the story.

By the 1980s, the pictures and marbles that sat in dusty Mount Vernon Place storerooms began to gain recognition. The state of Maryland assisted the school, and, after Peabody was finally assured of a sound financial partner in the Johns Hopkins University, the state paid $15 million outright for the diminished but still substantial collection. It is now administered by the state archives in Annapolis.

“Even after … losses and deaccessioning, the collection remains an important assemblage,” Abend said. “And its story needs to be told.”

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