Ask Bud Leake what he thinks of his life, and his answer reveals something essential about the man. "I'm one of the luckiest people who ever lived, I would say."
In fact, Leake is a walking example that people make their luck.
"He's the most positive person I know," says fellow artist Raoul Middleman.
At 82, Eugene W. Leake Jr. can look back on a life of notable accomplishment as artist and administrator. When he became president of the Maryland Institute, College of Art in 1961, it had fallen on sad days. In 13 years, he made it one of the country's leading art colleges. Then, in 1974, he retired to return to his first love -- painting.
In the 20 years since, he has become widely recognized as a landscape painter, and Wednesday the Baltimore Museum of Art will honor him with an exhibition of 34 works from the past three decades.
It's worth noting that of the 33 dated paintings and drawings, chosen by BMA curators Sona Johnston and Jay M. Fisher, two are from the 1960s, five from the 1970s, nine from the 1980s, and 17 are from 1992 and 1993.
This shows that Leake "gets better as he gets older," says Johnston.
"He seems constantly to be exploring new visual possibilities."
"One of Bud's greatest traits is his honesty as a person, and it's always fascinating to see how that honesty translates into paint," says Craig Hankin, artist and art teacher who published the book "Maryland Landscapes of Eugene Leake" in 1986. "He's honest and truthful about what he sees; that aspect of his work has always been there, but it's there moreso now."
Leake's dealer, Constantine Grimaldis, says that in recent years, "the vision became more focused and the hand more sure, by the fact that he spent every day, hours a day, painting."
And, says painter Grace Hartigan: "He's a really truly superb landscape painter. Bud doesn't make a picture of landscape. Bud becomes the landscape. I see comparisons with Corot and Turner."
Leake attributes the improvement partly to age. "Painting's an old man's game, they say. I don't know why, whether the eye gets better or the hand gets better, but I think of late paintings like Titian's great 'The Flaying of Marsyas,' or late Frans Hals."
If this is Leake's "late" period, he shows no sign of winding down. He paints every day in the countryside around his 1790-era farmhouse in Monkton, and in his barn studio. He's a bit slower getting around due to replaced hips, but his back is still as straight as ever, his eyes as penetrating, and, as he reflects on his life, his speech comes as quickly as it did 20 or 30 years ago.
As a child, he recalls, he knew he wanted to be a painter. "I had a grandfather who was a collector and so I was brought up with paintings in the house. We lived in Montclair, N.J., which isn't a cultural paradise, it's a suburb of New York, but [19th-century painter George] Inness was from Montclair and there was a museum and I used to go there.
"Also I've always been energized by going to different places in the summer where my father went trout fishing -- northern Maine, Canada and the far West. The softer, brighter colors of the seashore didn't permeate my beginnings as much as the mystery of the dark lakes and pines."
After a stint in boarding school -- "I was a terrible student," he says -- Leake went to his father with a proposal. "I . . . said, 'Listen, I'm just wasting my time here, and your money and everything else. Why don't I switch right away and go to an art school?' It made him feel better that I went to an art school at Yale University."
He spent four years at the Yale School of Fine Arts in 1930-1934, but left without taking a degree. The rest of the 1930s were spent as an independent artist, and in 1939 he married the former Nora I. Bullitt (she died in 1980; the couple had two daughters, who live in Washington). After serving in the Navy during World War II, he directed a small art center in Louisville, Ky., in the late 1940s and 1950s. In 1959, he returned to Yale, where he got a B.F.A. and an M.F.A from the Yale School of Art and Architecture.
Then he came to the Maryland Institute.
In his 13 years at the school, the facility's space doubled, the faculty tripled, the student body quadrupled, and the budget increased tenfold. But perhaps more important than these impressive statistics was the philosophy behind Leake's actions. Before he came, the institute mainly trained art teachers and commercial artists. Leake wanted it to train people committed to the fine arts.
"A small liberal arts program would back up a fine-arts-oriented school, and by fine arts I mean drawing, painting and sculpture primarily, and printmaking," he says. "I didn't close all the design departments, because it was a great tradition there. But I think the people that I hired were all artists."
Key to Leake's success was his commitment as an artist and his ability to relate to artists. "Being a painter himself, he loved artists, whether they were teachers or young people, and that's what the institute needed at the time," says Edwin A. Daniels Jr., who has been a trustee for 25 years.
"He saw the institute primarily as a place where people learned to be artists, totally unrelated to earning a living," says Albert Sangiamo, one of the first people Leake recruited and still a teacher there.
Grace Hartigan, who became the first head of the institute's Hoffberger graduate school of painting, liked Leake's administrative technique. "He was a benevolent dictator. No memos, no long-drawn-out meetings, no ad hoc committees. If you wanted something done you called the main man and got a yes or no. It was a great way to operate."
"You couldn't do it today," Leake says with a laugh. "It was just the old-fashioned way of doing things, and they were all artists with me and I said, 'Let's give them as much salary as we can possibly do and give them time to paint.' "
Retired to paint
Leake always insisted on time to paint himself when he was president, but after a while he wanted more time. So in 1974, at 62, he retired to paint. In his early years he had flirted with abstraction, but a 1969 trip to Europe determined his future course.
"Going to the Prado in Madrid probably changed me more than anything else," he says. "When I saw Goya and Velazquez I just thought, 'My God, I just can't stand the flat world of modern painting.' We had a lot of friends like Clyfford Still and I knew Franz Kline and all those people [the abstract expressionists]. .. Their energy and their terrific power was very inspiring, but it was always this two-dimensional world they lived in. I did a lot of those, but finally after I got back from Madrid I said, 'I don't think I ever want to paint one of those again.' "
And he didn't. From then on he has painted the Maryland landscape, and it has proved an inexhaustible source of inspiration. "When I'm down in the dumps, painting-wise, I get in the old car in the late afternoon and just drive around, and almost inevitably I say, 'Holy Moses, I've got to use that.' "
Heroes in painting
Leake's heroes in painting are mainly from the 19th century -- Constable, Courbet, the French Barbizon painters and the impressionist Monet. His work has been called romantic, realist, impressionist, even expressionist.
It is impossible to pigeonhole him, once you get beyond the label "landscape painter." In recent years, Leake's work has diverged from the light-filled scenes of fields and skies toward a darker palette. The brushwork has become looser; the paintings feel weightier and look less descriptive. He has taken to painting more night scenes.
Speaking of "Smith's Hardware," one of the night paintings in the BMA show, Leake says, "It's far more painterly [than earlier work] and almost completely abstract in passages. It becomes paint. How do you make night out of paint? How do you make that tree out of paint?"
And of the large "Tree by the Water," he notes the "vitality and thickness of paint," the brush strokes "that are calligraphic and yet they suggest water." "I might as well face it, too, this is an abstract painting. I couldn't have done it if I hadn't liked the great abstract paintings of the 20th century."
Leake's late works, then, bring to the fore formal issues of the paintings' making -- such as structure and paint -- without relinquishing the landscape. They increasingly balance abstract and representational considerations.
His old friend Raoul Middleman sees another level to Leake's work. "It's the ultimate description of his own consciousness. Maryland landscape provides the opportunity for dealing with isolation and a kind of intrinsic metaphysical sorrow about the human condition. The issues he addresses are very personal; it's painting as a record of a man of feeling and emotional expression."
It is characteristic that Leake's introspective side would be expressed primarily on canvas rather than to people. He's never been one to lay a burden on you. To the world he is ever courteous, ever cheerful, ever the lucky Bud Leake -- lucky in career, lucky in personal life, lucky in everything.
"At 82, I'm lucky to still be alive and wake up in the morning."
What: "Eugene Leake: Paintings and Drawings"
Where: The Baltimore Museum of Art, Art Museum Drive near Charles and 31st streets
When: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesdays through Fridays, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, opens Wednesday through March 13
Admission: $5.50 adults, $3.50 seniors and students, $1.50 ages 7 through 18, free on Thursdays
Call: (410) 396-7100