Deft drawings, heavy-handed sentimentality


Does the name Theophile-Emmanuel Duverger fail to ring a bell? Is Andre-Henri Dargelas not exactly a household name chez vous? Was the imposing name of August-Frederic Albrecht Schenck somehow never mentioned in your art history class?

Well, no need to feel stupid. These virtually forgotten artists and some 30 of their French, German, English and American colleagues made their reputations in the mid-19th-century when they created an artists' colony north of Paris in a town called Ecouen. Their quaint depictions of domestic life in Ecouen were popular with middle-class collectors in the big cities, as well as with such American collectors as William and Henry Walters. These artists also were praised by critics as lofty as John Ruskin.

But tastes change, and work as modest and sentimental as that done in Ecouen eventually receded. Impressionism and other modern art trends in France made these realistic village vignettes seem hopelessly old-fashioned.

Remembering all the Ecouen School artwork in its own vaults, the Walters Art Gallery has put together a quietly rewarding drawing exhibit that's tucked away in a fourth-floor gallery. An anti-blockbuster show if there ever was one, it aims to please with small drawings of kids tossing snowballs, a herd of goats walking down the street and rustic types serenely tending to their cottages.

If you're searching for family values, this show indicates that many 19th-century artists, wary of the social changes effected by the industrial revolution, felt a similar nostalgic longing for villages filled with happy homes, well-attended churches and children so joyously at play they'd never dream of driving their parents crazy.

Directly affirming the sacredness of the family is Pierre Edouard Frere's "Mother and Children," in which the Ecouen mother cradling a small child is invariably associated with traditional images of the Madonna and Child; an older child kneeling beside them as if in prayer reinforces this notion just a bit too obviously.

Equally content are the mother and two children silently absorbed in their repetitive task in Paul Seignac's "Interior: Mother and Children Shelling Peas." Stylistically, this drawing is typical of the Ecouen School. The principal figures are drawn in some detail and placed in the middle distance for our contemplative regard, while other domestic trappings and the background are sketchily filled in. A gentle light suffuses a scene so self-contained that we have no inclination to wonder what the world outside their door is like.

Among the numerous drawings celebrating the calm innocence of childhood, a good example is Andre-Henri Dargelas' "School Children in a Storm." Huddled under an umbrella as the storm rages through the streets, three children have such peaceful faces they almost seem like dolls. Equally self-absorbed and well-behaved are Dargelas' "Boys Playing Marbles."

It's easy enough to dismiss the near-greeting card sentimentality of such pictures, but these are technically accomplished drawings with some genuinely charming narrative moments. In George Henry Boughton's delightful oil on paper "Boy Skating," the wide-eyed apprehension on the child's face makes it clear he may lose his balance at any moment. If the spectators behind him smile in anticipation of that fall on the ice, today's spectators at the Walters can't help but smile at a village so wholesome it makes Norman Rockwell and Frank Capra seem degenerate.

"Ecouen School Drawings"

Walters Art Gallery, 600 N. Charles St.

11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays; through Feb. 6

Admission: $4 for adults; $3 for senior citizens; free for members, students with ID and those age 18 and younger. Free admission Saturdays between 11 a.m. and noon.

Call: (410) 547-9000.

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