Baltimore's greatest hits The experts have been consulted and we've made our picks: Here's a guide to the city's greatest art treasures.


The ancients made do with seven wonders of the world, but that wasn't enough for art critic Thomas Hoving.

So Hoving, a former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, has made his own list, "Greatest Works of Art of Western Civilization," a sumptuous coffee-table volume that includes no fewer than 111 objects. The book arrives in stores this month, just in time for the holiday season.

Hoving includes most of the usual suspects: Michelangelo's "David," Goya's "The Third of May, 1808" and Botticelli's "Primavera" would be prime candidates for any such compendium.

Alas, there's not a single one from Baltimore.

Does this mean there are no noteworthy things wondrous and beautiful this city can call its own? Of course not, which is why we offer our own guide to Baltimore's greatest art treasures, culled from the opinions of some of the city's foremost art experts.

Each of our experts -- Baltimore Museum of Art curators Jan Howard and Sona Johnston, Walters Art Gallery director Gary Vikan, American Visionary Art Museum director Rebecca Hoffberger and Contemporary Museum director Gary Sangster -- submitted their choices of not-be-missed masterpieces that can be seen in Baltimore. (For the complete lists, see page 3E.)

Their picks reflect their individual interests and tastes. But when all the submissions were collated there was a surprising amount of overlap.

The 15th-century painting by an anonymous Italian artist, "View of an Ideal City," at the Walters, for example, appeared on several experts' lists. So did the beautiful African "Female Dance Headdress (D'Amba/Yamban)" at the BMA.

There were also some less conventional candidates for the masterpiece label. A couple of panelists proposed the B&O; Railroad Museum on Pratt Street.

Perhaps the quirkiest entry was AVAM director Rebecca Hoffberger's choice of 19th-century Frenchman James Bertrand's painting "Aurora," a romantically overblown nude representing the goddess of dawn standing atop a globe representing the Earth.

The painting hangs in the gallery at Hausner's Restaurant in East Baltimore, next to the ladies' room. Curious art lovers will have to wait until after the holidays to see it, however: Currently it's hidden behind the restaurant's oversized Christmas tree.

Of course, no list of "greatest masterpieces," here or anywhere else, is cast in stone. "Works shift in and out of historical significance, and history may change our judgments," says Sangster.

Keeping that warning in mind, we present, in no particular order, a list of works that could be considered the creme de la creme of Baltimore's art treasures:

Auguste Rodin, "The Thinker," 1904-1917. BMA.

Probably Rodin's most famous work, the BMA's "Thinker" is one of 13 large bronze casts of the subject made during the artist's lifetime.

"Today this brooding male nude is parodied, plagiarized for second-rate cartoons, dismissed as a cliche by many art historians and ignored by most teachers of art history," Hoving writes of this figure. A smaller version of "The Thinker" appears on Rodin's cast for a monumental set of doors titled "The Gates of Hell," which remained unfinished at the artist's death and which is Hoving's personal choice for Rodin's masterwork.

Yet the large "Thinker" has never lost its hold on the public's imagination, and, as Hoving notes, today it remains possibly "the most most vivid single act of sculpture of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries."

Hugo van der Goes, "Donor with St. John the Baptist," circa 1475. Walters.

This diminutive but masterful oil-on-wood-panel double portrait was commissioned by the wealthy merchant whose likeness it bears, then donated to the church as an object of devotion.

Believing Christians of the period hoped to enhance their chances of life after death by such gifts. And if not, there was always the gratifying illusion of immortality to fall back on in the form of the images of themselves that they left behind.

Paul Gauguin, "Vahine No Te Vi" (Woman with Mango), 1892. BMA.

This famous portrait of the artist's mistress during his stay in Tahiti combines a classical economy of line and form with the brilliant colors that announced the birth of modern painting.

Hoving, who happened to prefer the painter's large oil painting "Whence Come We? What Are We. Whither Go We?" for inclusion in his own book, called Gauguin a "temperamental loner," and an "odd combination of Romantic and realist who just slightly ratcheted up forms and colors taken boldly and directly from the lush scenery of the Pacific islands, where sand really is pink and the foliage almost aquamarine."

Joshua Johnson, "Charles Herman Stricker Wilmans," circa 1804. BMA.

The work of the earliest known African-American painter, this portrait of the 5-year-old son of a Baltimore merchant shows the boy standing with his toy rifle and small white dog.

Although little is known of Johnson's life, he is presumed to have been a former household slave who earned his freedom.

An advertisement that appeared in the Baltimore Intelligencer Dec. 19, 1798, described the painter as "a self-taught genius, deriving from nature and industry his knowledge of the art ... experienced many insuperable obstacles in the pursuit of his studies, it is highly gratifying to him to make assurances of his ability to execute all commands with an affect and in a style which must give satisfaction."

Rembrandt van Rijn, "Woman at the Bath with a Hat Beside Her," 1658. BMA.

The paintings Rembrandt produced during the last five years of his life are among his most accomplished works and certainly his most moving as human dramas.

Prints and Drawings curator Jan Howard finds a similar poignancy in Rembrandt's late etchings, which reveal both the vulnerability and tenderness of the artist's last works.

Henry Matisse, "The Blue Nude ('Souvenir de Biskra')," 1907. BMA.

Matisse helped revolutionize painting at the turn of the century with this famous nude, which employed color and line in startlingly new ways.

Even more extraordinary, Matisse went on to a long and astonishingly productive career of constant creativity that lasted into his 80s, when he at last gave up painting entirely to concentrate on his delightful and profound colored paper cutouts.

Paul Cezanne, "Mont Sainte-Victoire Seen from the Bibemus Quarry," circa 1897. BMA.

"The work of the Post-Impressionist painter Paul Cezanne is that of a most infuriating genius," Hoving writes of this quintessential modern master in his new book. "It seems primitive and bumbling and yet at the same time sensitive, delicate, smooth and sophisticated."

Cezanne's view of Mont Sainte-Victoire, painted in the last decade of his life, certainly fits that description. And yet it is one of Cezanne's most powerful, memorable images, a virtual epic poem of architectural forms that nevertheless possesses a certain lighthearted sense of what architecture means.

Anonymous, "Female Headdress (D'Amba/Yamban)," circa 1938. BMA.

This striking ceremonial mask carved by an unknown African artist represents the idealized attributes of a powerful -- and supremely beautiful -- female deity. Until relatively recently, such masks were still used in in the traditional rituals honoring the Baga goddess, though, ironically, their size and weight meant that her part could only be performed by male dancers.

Vollis Simpson, "Whirligig," 1995. AVAM.

Surely one of the most amazing works of art in Baltimore or anywhere else, Simpson's 55-foot high kinetic sculpture is constructed out of 3 tons of recycled metal. Though reminiscent of some wind-powered industrial or agricultural implement, it in fact serves no useful function whatever other than as an exuberant monument to mechanical inventiveness.

Antioch, Syria, Mosaics, circa third-fifth centuries. BMA.

Not until the Renaissance did the focus shift to the individual artist. Before that, art was most often a collective enterprise, a circumstance exemplified by the stone mosaic floors fashioned by artisans in the ancient city of Antioch, whose lively yet restrained designs still seem perfectly harmonious to our modern eyes.

Anonymous, "View of an Ideal City," circa 1490-1505. Walters.

This imaginary cityscape by an unknown Italian artist provides a road map, as it were, of the Renaissance ideal of good government.

A spacious central plaza is flanked on either side by two large buildings representing the church and the state. In the center, a triumphal arch symbolizes the role of the military in maintaining civic order, while the converging sightlines to a distant vanishing point celebrate the newly discovered scientific basis for perspective drawing.

Andy Warhol, "Silver Disaster," 1963. BMA.

Warhol was possibly the most influential artist of his generation, though history's judgment is by no means secure. Hoving, who lists only one contemporary artist in his compendium of masterpieces, makes no mention of Warhol.

Still, many viewers find Warhol's pop-art creations tremendously meaningful and moving. "Silver Disaster" is a visual comment on the barbaric impersonality of death, a theme that haunted the artist throughout his career.

Anthony Van Dyck, "Rinaldo and Armida," 1629. BMA.

This vivid painting depicting an incident between the mythological lovers Rinaldo and Armida was commissioned by King Charles I of England.

Van Dyck was one of the finest Dutch painters of his era; for many years the picture resided on the estate of a minor peer. When it was bought by Baltimore art collector Jacob Epstein in the 1920s, English art lovers sought -- in vain -- to buy it back rather than lose what was considered a priceless national treasure.

Roman, Dionysiac Sarcophagi (No. 7), second-third centuries. Walters.

These massive, monumental containers were constructed as the eternal resting places of ancient Rome's power elite.

The rows of exquisitely carved figures that cover the front of each sarcophagus may or may not have represented the career of the deceased. But since the Romans entombed their dead above ground rather than burying them, these animated marble creatures clearly were also meant to edify -- and amuse -- the living.

Tina Modotti, "Telephone Wires," 1925. BMA

This quiet meditation on spatial relations has the delicacy of a fine engraving. Long known primarily for being photographer Edward Weston's mistress and muse, Modotti was also an actress, political activist and gifted photographer in her own right. Her achievements left a lasting impression on the avant garde circles in which she and Weston moved during the 1920s.

Baltimore's masterpieces: The experts' choices

Sona Johnston, BMA Curator of Painting & Sculpture Before 1900:

* Anthony Van Dyck, "Rinaldo and Armida," 1629

Oil on canvas, BMA

* Henri Matisse, "The Blue Nude" ("Souvenir de Biskra"), 1907

Oil on canvas, BMA

* Paul Gauguin, "Vahine No Te Vi" (Woman with Mango), 1892

Oil on canvas, BMA

* Edouard Manet, "At the Cafe," 1879

Oil on canvas, Walters

* Antioch, Syria, Mosaics, 3-5th century A.D.

Natural stone tesserae, BMA

* Anonymous (Guinea Coast), "Female Headress (D'Amba/Yamban)," ca. 1938. BMA.

Wood/metal, BMA

* Thomas Cole, "A Wild Scene," 1831-32

Oil on canvas, BMA

* Hugo van der Goes, "Donor with St. John the Baptist," ca. 1475

Oil on panel, Walters

* Joshua Johnson, "Charles Herman Stricker Wilmans," ca. 1804

Oil on canvas, BMA

* Anonymous (Roman), Dionysiac Sarcophagi (No. 7), 2-3rd century, A.D.

Marble, Walters

Jan Howard, BMA curator of Prints, Drawings and Photographs:

* Rembrandt van Rijn, "Woman at the Bath with a Hat Beside Her," 1658

Etching and drypoint, BMA

* Pablo Picasso, "Two Nudes," 1906

Gouache and charcoal on paper, BMA

* Tina Modotti, "Telephone Wires," 1926

Platinum print, BMA

* Henri Matisse, "The Blue Nude" ("Souvenir de Biskra"), 1907

Oil on canvas, BMA

* Andy Warhol, "Silver Disaster," 1963

Metallic paint and silkscreen ink on canvas, BMA

* Anonymous (Guinea Coast), "Female Headress (D'Amba/Yamban)," ca. 1938.

Wood/metal, BMA

* Anonymous (China), Peach Bloom Vase, c. 1701-1722

Porcelain with copper oxide glaze, Walters

* Sofonisba Anguissola, "Portrait of Marchese Massimiliano Stampa," 1557

Oil on canvas, Walters

* Hugo van der Goes, "Donor with St. John the Baptist," ca. 1475

Oil on panel, Walters

* Anonymous (France), Book of Hours, c. 1425-1430

Illuminated Manuscript, Walters

Gary Vikan, Director of the Walters Art Gallery:

* Anonymous (Roman), Dionysiac Sarcophagi (No. 7) 2-3rd century, A.D.

Marble, Walters

* Hugo van der Goes, "Donor with St. John the Baptist," ca. 1475

Oil on panel, Walters

* Anonymous (Italy), "View of an Ideal City," c. 1490-1505)

Oil on panel, Walters

* Anonymous (Russia), The Gatchina Palace Egg, c. 1902

Porcelaine and gold, The Walters

* Anonymous (French), Head of Old Testament King, c. 1140

Limestone, Walters

* Paul Gauguin, "Vahine No Te Vi" (Woman with Mango), 1892

Oil on canvas, BMA

* Paul Cezanne, "Mont Sainte-Victoire Seen from the Bibemus Quarry," c. 1897

Oil on canvas, BMA

* Anonymous (Guinea Coast), "Female Headress (D'Amba/Yamban)," ca. 1938. BMA.

Wood/metal, BMA

* Anonymous (India), Goddess Picking Mango Fruit, 9th century A.D.

John and Berthe Ford Collection

* Claude Monet, "La Pointe du Petit Allee de Varangeville," c. 1890

Oil on canvas, BMA

* Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Charles Street.

Rebecca Hoffberger, Director of the American Visionary Art Museum:

* Anonymous (Italy), "View of an Ideal City," c. 1490-1505

Oil on panel, Walters

* James Bertrand, "Aurora," c. 1802

Oil on canvas, Haussner's

* The Macht Building (Fayette Street between St. Paul and Charles streets)

* The Engineers Club building, Mt. Vernon Square

* The B&O; Railroad Museum, Pratt Street

* Billie Holiday, "Strange Fruit," song c. 1935

* Vollis Simpson, "Whirligig," 1995

Recycled metal, American Visionary Art Museum

* Auguste Rodin, "The Thinker," 1904-1917

Bronze, BMA

* The Cone Collection

Paintings, prints, sculpture, BMA

Gary Sangster, Director of the Contemporary Museum:

* Mark Rothko, "Black on Red," 1957

Oil on canvas, BMA

* The B&O; Railroad Museum, Pratt Street

* Maryland Institute, College of Art, Mount Royal Street

* Andy Warhol, "Silver Disaster," 1963

Metallic paint and silkscreen ink on canvas, BMA

* Andy Warhol, "9 Jackies," 1964

Synthetic polymer paint and silkscreen ink on canvas, BMA

* Felix Gonzalez-Torres, "Untitled (Water)," 1995

Plastic beads and metal rod, BMA

* Gilbert and George, "Unhappy," 1982

18 panels of photography, Collection of Marvin and Elayne Mordes

* Martin Puryear, "Untitled," 1978

Hickory and Alaskan yellow cedar, Collection of Stuart and Sherry Christhilf

Pub Date: 12/21/97

Copyright © 2020, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad