Grace Turnbull: an artful life Art: Baltimore Museum of Art will exhibit paintings and sculpture by Baltimore's multitalented artist.


When Baltimorean Grace Turnbull was in her 20s and already had considerable experience as an artist, she felt strongly that she should take a life class -- that is, study from the nude model -- in order to gain an understanding of the human body. But this was in the first decade of the century, and she knew it would upset her parents.

"Mother's objection I felt I could overcome," she wrote years later. "But she told me solemnly that if I carried out my intention of working in a life class it would kill Father."

She hesitated, but went ahead.

"I decided that I must take my life into my own hands then or never. As a matter of fact, my joining the life class appeared to have no malignant effect whatever upon my father."

Born in 1880 to a cultured, local family of wealth "where law, order and tradition reigned supreme," as she later remembered, Turnbull spurned convention to carve a career in art when that was a daring thing for a woman to do.

She led a highly original life as painter, sculptor and author. A small exhibit of her works, titled "Baltimore's Grace Turnbull," opens Wednesday at the Baltimore Museum of Art.

It shows that at her best Turnbull was the creator of accomplished and engaging works, especially in sculpture. It also reflects the fact that, despite her modern leanings in many ways, Turnbull, curiously enough, never embraced the leading movements in the art of her century and remained an essentially conservative artist.

As late as 1953, in her autobiography "Chips from My Chisel," she objected to the Baltimore Museum of Art's showing Matisse's "Blue Nude" of 1907 because in it "the human face and form have been subjected to such indignities with no compensatory gain in pure design or color."

By that time, she was in her 70s, destined to live two more decades, and well known locally for her opinions as well as her work.

As committed to abstinence as to art, she was fiercely opposed to alcohol, tobacco, coffee, tea and cola drinks, and never served anything stronger than apple juice. An inveterate writer of letters to the newspapers, she once declared in a letter to The Sun that alcohol was responsible for 70 percent of crime.

She never married but loved children and young people, welcoming them often to the Guilford house and studio her architect brother Bayard designed to her requirements.

When she was 90, she wrote in another letter to The Sun: "We hear a great deal nowadays about the questionable doings of our young people, about the unbridgeable generation gap, etc. Most of my intimates are of college age or a bit older. I am conscious of no generation gap with them, for they have what most appeals to me, vital interest in some science or the arts, a zest for living and a goal in life too often lacking in the older generation."

She was not only generous with her hospitality, but also with her money. Painter Bennard Perlman, who knew her for the last 20 years of her life, recalls that she helped many young artists and musicians financially.

Charitable gifts

She gave to many charities as well. "The IRS called her in," recalls her niece, Frances Kidder, "because she gave away so much of her income they wouldn't believe it."

That part of her activity was as little known, however, as her crusade for abstinence was advertised, because she refused to discuss her generosity. Perlman once interviewed her on the radio, and brought up the subject, but she cut him short. "I'm not going to talk about that," she said. "You don't give assistance to talk about it."

Her personal life was frugal. She wore old clothes, owned one car -- a 1937 Ford that she drove into the 1960s -- and traveled, her niece says, "in a most unluxurious fashion."

A believer in civil rights, she opposed segregation and lent her support to educational efforts for African Americans.

She was intensely curious about the world's religions. A Christian herself, she studied the scriptures of non-Christian religions and published an anthology of them in 1929, titled "Tongues of Fire." Her niece recalls that at meals at her own house, instead of saying a conventional grace, she would quote a passage from one scripture or another. "She wanted us to think," Kidder says.

An accomplished linguist, Turnbull on a trip to Europe in 1902 kept a diary. In France she wrote it in French, in Germany she wrote it in German, in Italy she wrote it in Italian. Although her parents thought "Latin wasn't necessary for girls," she agitated for lessons until they permitted it.

In mid-life, she became interested in the third century A.D. philosopher Plotinus, taught herself Greek in order to read him in the original, and wrote a translation of his works that the Oxford University Press published in 1934 as "The Essence of Plotinus." A newspaper article related that in the three years of writing the translation, "Miss Turnbull had no social engagements, did no other creative work and devoted her entire time to the book. Miss Turnbull's life is devoted to her work and she begrudges the time necessary for the more trifling activities of life."

Three dimensions

Never afraid to take on new challenges, she abandoned her 30-year devotion to painting when she was almost 50 and became a sculptor, the field in which she did her best work. "I think I was more natively a sculptor," she told Perlman later.

Her earliest serious work was in portraiture -- first miniatures on ivory, and then, about 1900, she turned to life-size portraits of family and friends. She studied with William Merritt Chase at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and subsequently graduated from the Rinehart School of Sculpture of the Maryland Institute, College of Art in 1911. The BMA show of her works is partly in celebration of this year's centennial of the Rinehart School.

On a trip to France in 1913 she had an introduction to Gertrude Stein, and with three friends went to one of Stein's evenings at home, which none of them enjoyed. "The strange, exotic, short-haired women and long-haired men milling about in a mute haze made not a motion to rescue the three young Americans equally strange as we were to them by virtue of mere normality when Margaret, the bravest of our crew, attempted to address one of the transcendental beings and met with no response from her, our only resource seemed to be to withdraw."

Near the end of World War I and just after, Turnbull served with the Red Cross as a "searcher" for the missing wounded and dead at hospitals and recovery camps in France and Germany.

In the early 1920s she traveled widely, including trips to Bermuda, the West Indies and the Grand Canyon. From these trips she produced flower paintings and highly colored landscapes, two of which are in the Baltimore Museum show: "Booby Hill, Saba Dutch West Indies" (1922) and "The Temple Zoroaster" (of the Grand Canyon, about 1923).

In 1925, based on a trip to Woodstock, N.Y., she made a series of paintings of a "Whirlpool," two of which are in the BMA show. In an essay in the 1959 book "Paintings and Sculptures by Grace H. Turnbull," BMA curator James D. Breckenridge noted the similarities of these pictures to Japanese woodcut prints. But he also noted another characteristic:

"The works of the twenties have as their clearest characteristic in common a sense of solid form, of three-dimensional structure held within the dimensions of the canvas. Implicit in all this work is a sculptural feeling which was about to lead to a total abandonment of painting itself."

Wood and stone

In 1928 her Guilford house, partly inspired by an inn in Toledo, Spain, was completed and she moved from the family home to it. It was there -- in a studio "where it would be practicable to carve heavy blocks of stone and marble," she wrote -- that she turned her attention to sculpture for the rest of her life. Occasional works were modeled in clay and cast in bronze, but mostly she carved in wood and stone. It is hard physical labor, and although she was small in stature, she was reported to have unusually strong arms.

Her sculptures fit into several categories -- figure studies, symbolic works, religious works and the animals for which she is best known and which are generally considered her best work. There are three of them in the exhibit: "Rabbit" (1939), "The Bath" (of a cat, 1944) and "Black Cat" (1960-1961).

Capturing the essence

The latest of these veers a little toward cuteness and shows Turnbull at less than her best (she was 80 at the time); but the first two are admirable. Rather than realistically rendered, the forms are abstracted and reduced to essentials, and the artist has as well captured something of the essence of the animals she depicts. "The animals are most successful," says Sona Johnston, curator of the exhibit and the BMA's curator of painting and sculpture before 1900. "They have character and they reveal the humor that some of her work possesses."

Perlman notes another virtue of her work. "She chose materials well, whether it was pink Georgia marble, Vermont marble or black Belgian marble, poplar, oak or ebony," he says. Her "Figure Design" (1937), a bending, semi-abstract figure of a woman that is also in the museum show, is of silver-plated bronze. "The simple, rounded shapes partake of the smooth, shimmering surfaces of the brilliant material itself," wrote Breckenridge.

The BMA show also includes seven works on paper, among them two studies of a zebra, three figure studies and two watercolors, one of which is the deftly colored "Seascape" (no date).

Turnbull lived to be 96 and died in December 1976. She was active into her 90s, until felled by a circulatory disease. It was painful, but, her niece Frances Kidder recalls: "She never complained. She never said, 'Oh, old age is so terrible' or anything like that. She was a stoic."

Art preview

What: "Baltimore's Grace Turnbull: A Commemoration"

Where: 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. Exhibit opens Wednesday and continues through Aug. 4

Admission: $5.50 adults, $3.50 seniors and students, $1.50 ages 7 to 18

Call: (410) 396-7100

Art in public places

Several sculptures by Grace Turnbull are on public view around town.

Of the outdoor ones, perhaps the best known is the female form called the "Naiad" (or water nymph, 1932) in the fountain on East Mount Vernon Place.

Others include the "Good Shepherd Monument" to poet Lizette Woodworth Reese, a semi-circular sculpture of a shepherd and sheep that Turnbull gave to the city in 1939 and that now resides at Lake Clifton High School off St. Lo Drive in Clifton Park.

A "King Penguin" (1956) on the west shore of the Inner Harbor, next to the dock master's office near Light and Lee streets.

And "Of Such Is the Kingdom of Heaven" a statue of Christ with a child at Brown Memorial Woodbrook Presbyterian Church, 6200 North Charles St.

Of indoor ones, "Hippopotamus Head" (1945) and "Elephant Head" (1946) are in the lobby area at the entrance to the fine arts theater, fine arts wing of the main building of Baltimore City Community College, Liberty Campus, 2901 Liberty HeightsAvenue; for information call (410) 462-8000.

Others include "Orpheus" (1962) in the atrium lounge of the New Building, Peabody Conservatory of Music, 609 N. Charles St.; call (410) 659-8257.

"Woman Centaur with Child" (1951) at the Baltimore City Life Museums' Peale Museum, 225 N. Holliday St.; call (410) 396-3523.

Pub Date: 5/26/96

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