Down through the 19th century some of America's best-known artists were portraitists to one degree or another, from Copley, Stuart and Charles Willson Peale to Sargent and Eakins. The same cannot be said of the 20th century.
So, unsurprisingly, there are not many well-known names represented in the Maryland Historical Society's new exhibit "Living Likenesses: Twentieth Century Maryland Portraits" (through Aug. 31). Those who know artists active locally will recognize Alfred Partridge Klots, Camelia Whitehurst and Thomas Cromwell Corner, but will the general public? And even experts may not have heard of some of the artists here. Who remembers Louis P. Deiterich or Henry R. Rittenburg, Paul Hallwig or Helen Journeay?
If these artists aren't household names like Copley and Stuart there is one excellent reason why: They weren't as good. But there are some quite respectable artists here, and their works are among the show's several points of interest.
Corner, for instance, was polished and to a degree insightful; in the pose of his "Sherlock Swann" (1916) there is much of the immediacy of a living person, and his "Col. Richard Malcolm Johnson" (1892) is a sympathetic portrait of a man who appears sad, kind and vulnerable. A.P. Klots had a flair for the trappings of portraiture, especially rich fabrics, as in his "James Cardinal Gibbons" (1910) and "Mrs. Robert H. Stevenson (Alice Lee Thomas)" (1911).
If those artists are relatively well-known, the show has its surprises, including Eric Haupt, whose "Mrs. Columbus O'Donnell Lee and Daughters" (1917) combines a striking group with a tour de force of whites. Grace H. Turnbull was one of the best-known local artists of her generation, but not primarily for her portraits; here she weighs in with a sensitive pastel of her father, "Lawrence Turnbull" (1910).
Then there are the subjects we know from our history -- the poet Lizette Woodworth Reese, the entrepreneur Max Hochschild, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, former Governor T.R. McKeldin, Eubie Blake.
There are intriguing relationships -- "Max Hochschild" and his wife "Lina Hamburger Hochschild" (both about 1930) by their daughter, Florence Austrian; a marble bust of "Arunah S. Abell III" (1915) by Edward Berge just across from Camelia Whitehurst's appealing portrait of Berge's twin sons, "Henry and Stephens Berge" (about 1915), who both also became artists; portraitist Trafford P. Klots' informal tribute to Alfred P., "Father Painting" (no date); and the intriguing non-relationship, the bust of Baltimore industrialist "Jacob Epstein" (about 1950) by British sculptor Sir Jacob Epstein.
There are interesting juxtapositions, such as Haupt's multiple portrait with Joshua Johnson's early 19th century multiple portrait. And there are curiosities, of which perhaps the most curious is the nice portrait of Van Lear Black (1957) by Trafford Klots, right next to the same artist's awful, vacuous rendering of "The Duke and Duchess of Windsor" (1964). Or maybe it's not so awful; maybe Klots was making a statement.