In sculpture class, the art students stand in front of wooden pedestals delicately molding the features of human faces in wet clay.
The busts are remarkably lifelike. Two eyes, a nose and a mouth -- all where they should be -- and expressions that make the faces look like real people, not department-store dummies.
Clear north light streams down from huge skylights. Below, the students work under the patient tutelage of an instructor who offers quiet advice and encouragement as he strides across the studio floor inspecting their work.
It is a scene out of time, as if the atelier of some 17th-century Dutch master and his apprentices had been magically transported to metropolitan Baltimore. And in a way, that is what it is.
Welcome to the Schuler School of Fine Arts, where the traditions of the old masters are carried on as they were centuries ago, with barely a nod to fashion or the triumph of 20th-century modernism.
"This is a school where we all think the same," says Ann Didusch Schuler, who founded the school with her husband, Hans Schuler Jr., more than 40 years ago.
Before that, the couple had taught for many years at the Maryland Institute, College of Art, where Hans Schuler Jr.'s father, Hans Schuler Sr., also had taught and served as director from 1925 to 1951.
The Schulers prided themselves on being from a long line of German artists and artisans spanning at least six generations in Europe and the United States. Ann's family, the Didusches, also had an illustrious history as artists in Germany.
But by the late 1950s, fashions in art and art education were changing. The formal traditions in which the Schulers had been trained -- drawing, anatomy, perspective -- increasingly were called into question by a younger generation enthralled by modernist abstraction.
"We were just heartbroken to see it all go," Ann Schuler recalled. "They only wanted us to work with the abstract, not with the tradition we had been trained in. So we decided to start our own school."
All in the family
Schuler and her husband wanted to continue to train students in the tradition that had been handed down by their forebears. They started in 1959 in a house that had once served as Hans Schuler Sr.'s studio, at 5 E. Lafayette St. The elder Schuler built it in 1906, and in 1912 he built a house adjoining the studio for his family home. The first Schuler School students attended classes in those buildings, and the school has remained in the Lafayette Street location ever since.
Today Ann Schuler, 82, is the white-haired doyenne of the classical-realist style in Baltimore and head of an unusual art school that is still very much a family affair.
Though Hans Schuler Jr., a painter and sculptor, died last year, the couple's daughter, Francesca Schuler Guerin, 49, teaches sculpture at the school; their grandson, Andrew Schuler Guerin, 25, teaches painting; and Schuler's nephew, Frederic "Fritz" Schuler Briggs, 63, teaches drawing and watercolor.
The work of all Schuler artists is regularly exhibited in Baltimore. The family's next big show will be this summer, when the school presents its annual student-faculty exhibition on June 4. In past shows Ann Schuler has contributed still-life oil paintings in the style of the Dutch old masters, while daughter Francesca has exhibited portrait busts. Schuler's grandson Andrew has shown still lifes, portraits and trompe l'oeil oil paintings, while nephew Fritz weighs in with sensitive watercolor seascapes and harbor views.
None of the Schulers seems particularly concerned that his or her kind of art is out of step with the world of contemporary art museums, dealers and collectors.
"When you grow up in a family that's been in this kind of art for generations, it's just more what you like," says Francesca, who grew up in her parents' studio and was drawing and painting by the time she was 2. "A lot of it was just by osmosis."
And some Schulers think their brand of art may be making a comeback, despite the art market's century-long romance with abstraction.
"If you look at the art magazines, they're showing more realistic art these day," Andrew says. "In fact, many of our former students are doing very well. I don't think modern art is leaving, but representational art may well be coming back in vogue." Both Francesca and her son Andrew point to the record prices paid at auction last year for the classical-realist-style paintings collected by Baltimore's Haussner family.
"Just think that for thousands of years we've had representational art, and that for this tiny blip of time we've had abstract art," Francesca argues. "You have to wonder whether it will last. We're going to do what we're going to do. I never try to figure out what the market wants because that's useless."
"Anyone who wants to be an artist should have the basic skills," Ann Schuler says. "Having the basic skills gives you many more options, without which you are limited as to what you can do."
'All art is abstract'
On the table in front of her lies a tall, slim volume of drawings by Tiepolo, one of her favorites. She also loves Rubens, Rembrandt and, of course, Leonardo and Michelangelo.
Schuler recognizes the achievement of modernist masters such as Picasso and Matisse, though she respectfully declines invitations to jump on the avant-garde bandwagon.
"Picasso's works are worth billions because he was the inventor of abstract art," she says. "But we're not great followers of his."
In fact, each Schuler seems to have come to terms with the fact that his or her art goes against the grain of modernist orthodoxy.
"I don't want to make Greek mythological figures," says Francesca. "I want to do work that is of my time, and I don't think there's a contradiction there."
"All art is abstract," adds Andrew. "We take a two-dimensional surface and make it look like an object."
These days, Ann Schuler spends most of her time teaching portrait painting, a practical genre that she mastered as a young woman and that she has practiced for decades.
During her long career, Schuler has painted dozens of prominent Baltimoreans, including a portrait of opera singer Rosa Ponselle that hangs in the lobby of the Lyric Opera House and one of former Johns Hopkins University president Milton Eisenhower that is in the Eisenhower Room of the Johns Hopkins Club. During World War II, she painted the portraits of about 200 members of the U.S. armed forces. In one year alone she painted some 80 portraits while holding down her teaching job at the Maryland Institute.
Currently the Schuler School has about 17 full-time students, most of them from the Baltimore-Washington area. Tuition for the year is $3,400, which is comparable to the cost of community college and less than a fifth of the $18,460 annual tuition at MICA. The Schuler School offers a four-year program of study, but it is not accredited by the state of Maryland and cannot confer academic degrees on its graduates.
James Eichelberger, 25, a first-year student, says he enrolled on the advice of his former art teacher in Towson.
"I was painting and dabbling in sculpture," Eichelberger says. "My teacher, Robert Brown, was a former student of Ann Schuler's at MICA. He said if I really wanted to advance my knowledge of how to see forms and train my eye, I should study with the Schulers."
Focus on technique
Students at the school follow a rigorous course of study designed to sharpen their skills. On Mondays, they take classes in sculpture and watercolor. Tuesday features oil painting and life drawing. Wednesday mornings are given over to drawing from casts, then sculpture again in the afternoon. Thursday is oil-painting and life-drawing day, and Friday is anatomy in the morning and life drawing in the afternoon.
"It's a wide range of experience, but everybody goes at their own pace," says Eichelberger, who insists he is not troubled by the fact that the school doesn't offer a degree. "If what you want personally is to improve your skills, it's a pretty good place," he says.
Like many Schuler school students, Eichelberger is financing his art education with a combination of loans and jobs. In addition to his studies he works full time as a cook in a restaurant on Harford Road.
There's a lively debate among Baltimore art lovers over the importance of what the Schulers are doing. Some dismiss the style as mere decoration, while others praise the training the school offers.
Constantine Grimaldis, owner of C. Grimaldis Gallery in Baltimore concedes there is a place for the Schulers' style of art-making, although it's not to his taste.
"There are venues that deal with that kind of art, but obviously those that deal with contemporary work have nothing much to offer these artists," Grimaldis said.
On the other hand, Walter Gomez, owner of Gomez Gallery, says the school fills an important niche.
"A school like that is very important because it focuses on the technical side of painting," Gomez says. "They are about structuring their images in a classical way, so it looks like classical work. But what you end up with is all this structure to play with. That's very different from many schools where you're sort of thrown in and expected to figure it all out yourself. There they are taught the thought processes as well as the technical skills, and that's always valuable."
Gomez also mentions a renewed interest in the human figure in contemporary art. "You can't fudge the figure," he says. "So there's great value in what they're offering."
Bill Steinmetz, a former faculty member at MICA who taught design there for 20 years and now serves on its board of trustees, says the Schulers, and Ann Schuler in particular, have been an important influence on many Baltimore artists who have gone on to highly successful careers.
"What they offer is a fine arts curriculum based on the technique taught by Jacques Maroger, who was Ann Schuler's teacher back in the 1940s," Steinmetz said. "It's a technique that allows for lots of glazing and mysterious buildups of color, and it's really quite amazing if you have a good drawer or painter who has the talent and control to use it."
Steinmetz said that the artists the Schulers helped train include the painters Joseph Sheppard, Melvin Miller, Frank Redelius and Will Wilson, all of whom work in a realistic style that has brought them great success in gallery sales and commissions.
Asked whether the old masters style was still relevant at the turn of the millennium, Steinmetz laughed.
"Oh my, all art is important," he said. "After all, everyone should be able to express themselves, and it might just help make someone else look at things in a different way."