Every once in a while, an exhibition comes along that reminds one of the truly operatic passions that motivated the men and women who assembled Baltimore's great art collections. The stunning collaborative exhibition of French works on paper that opens today at both the Walters Art Museum and the Baltimore Museum of Art is just such an event.
Titled The Essence of Line: French Drawings from Ingres to Degas, the show presents about 150 French drawings, prints and watercolors divided nearly evenly between the Walters and the BMA (the show's curators have construed the term "drawings" broadly enough to include works on paper in all media). The works on view represent just a sampling of the approximately 900 French works on paper owned by the two museums.
Among them are works by famous masters like Honore Daumier, whose scathing satirical portraits like The Amateurs and The Good Friends made him France's most famous caricaturist; Mary Cassatt, the American impressionist (she's represented by one of her characteristic portraits of women); her friend Edgar Degas, whose crayon study Ballet Dancer Standing is one of the loveliest works in the show.
Alongside big names like Eugene Delacroix, Theodore Gericault and Jean-Leon Gerome there are also dozens of lesser-known but no less expressive French masters such as Eugene Deshayes, Pierre-Edouard Frere and the delightful 19th-century genre painter Leon Bonvin.
Bonvin (1817-1887), a village tavern waiter and part-time painter whose realistically detailed landscapes, still lifes and genre scenes were overshadowed even in his own day by those of his more successful brother, Francois, was a particular favorite of Baltimore's William Walters, who became the artist's most important patron.
Bonvin's Cook With Red Apron (1862), for example, is a charming scene depicting a woman in a voluminous vermilion garment chopping a large cabbage on a table strewn with garden vegetables.
This watercolor was one of the first French works on paper that Walters acquired after the death of his wife, Ellen, in 1862, while the family was living in France, and it is probable that it and similar genre pictures represented for Walters a remembrance of lost domestic happiness.
Walters was also an avid horticulturist, and many of the Bonvin works he acquired are flower or plant studies rendered in meticulously realistic detail. (In all, Walters amassed more than 50 works by Bonvin, which, like the drawings of other artists he collected, were carefully assembled in bound leather volumes.)
The Walters' half of the show emphasizes the drawings artists usually made for themselves as preliminary studies for paintings or sculpture. The BMA portion, by contrast, presents the highly worked out, or "finished," drawings that artists created primarily for exhibition or sale. (Paradoxically, Walters himself preferred the kind of finished drawings represented in the BMA show, while most of the artists' preliminary sketches on view at the Walters belong to the BMA's collection.)
Together, the two halves of the exhibition chronicle the astonishing achievement of several generations of art-loving Baltimoreans whose combined efforts resulted in the creation of one of the country's most important collections of French artworks. (All 900 works on paper can be viewed online at the museums' joint Web site, www.frenchdrawings.org.)
Baltimore's great collectors were, if anything, as colorful characters as the artists whose works they acquired.
William T. Walters (1819-1894) and Henry Walters (1848-1931), the father-and-son financiers for whom the Walters Art Museum is named, amassed some 22,000 artworks over a 70-year period of what seems today like a pattern of compulsive buying.
Almost all the drawings in their collection were acquired by William, however; many were purchased to commemorate the death of Ellen Walters a year after the family fled Baltimore for France. (William, who had invested heavily in Southern railroads, evidently feared he might be arrested as a Confederate sympathizer if he remained in Maryland. He returned only after the hostilities had ended.)
George A. Lucas (1824-1909), the expatriate son of a Baltimore businessman who had made a fortune in office supplies, had settled in Paris just before the Civil War, where he became an avid collector of French artworks at a time when contemporary European art was still unfamiliar to most Americans.
Lucas didn't have William Walters' unlimited financial wherewithal, yet he managed to assemble an important collection of around 20,000 artworks, about 18,500 of which were French prints, drawings and watercolors. (His collection now belongs to the Baltimore Museum of Art.)
Lucas also played a key role in introducing William Walters to French art and later brokered many of Walters' acquisitions after Walters' return to Baltimore.
Then there were Baltimore sisters Etta and Claribel Cone, who began visiting Paris in the first decade of the 20th century and became early patrons of Picasso, Matisse and their contemporaries.
Over nearly half a century, the Cones purchased hundreds of works on paper from French artists, including 250 prints and 85 drawings by Matisse and 105 prints and drawings by Picasso.
The sisters' shop-til-you-drop mania for acquiring artworks -- as well as illustrated books, fine furniture, skeleton keys, mortars and pestles, Turkish towels, postcards, travel guides, costume jewelry, fabrics, curios and antique lace -- resulted in the spectacular collection of 161 paintings, 79 sculptures, 685 prints and 398 drawings, now housed at the BMA.
Other Baltimoreans also contributed significantly to the city's extensive holdings of French art.
Robert Gilmore Jr. (1774-1848) was among Baltimore's first important collectors, as were Charles James Madison Eaton (1807-1893) and George Peabody (1795-1869), founder of the Peabody Institute.
One of the earliest works in the show, for example, is a small 18th-century landscape by a now all-but-forgotten artist, Jean-Jacques de Boissieu (1736-1810), a self-taught printmaker who traveled through Italy in the 1760s and returned with a portfolio of delicately shaded drawings.
De Boissieu's exquisite View of the Lac de Garde, (circa 1782) was purchased from the artist by Gilmore, from whom Eaton acquired it in 1845. Eaton in turn bequeathed it the Peabody Institute in 1893; the work now belongs to the Maryland State Archives and is on long-term loan to the BMA.
In a review several years ago of The Triumph of French Painting, a pioneering collaborative exhibition between the Walters Art Museum and the Baltimore Museum of Art, I suggested that given that show's success, the two institutions were likely to undertake even more ambitious joint ventures in the future.
The Essence of Line represents a milestone in the cooperative relationship between the Walters and the BMA that surely will be counted as one of the most impressive examples of the museums' collaborative efforts.
What: The Essence of Line: French Drawings from Ingres to Degas
When: On display through Sept. 11 at these two museums:
Where: Baltimore Museum of Art, 10 Art Museum Dr.
Hours: 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Wednesday-Friday; 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Saturday-Sunday
Admission: $7 adults, $5 students and seniors.
Information: 410-396-7100 or artbma.org.
Where: Walters Art Museum, 600 N. Charles St.
Hours: Wednesday through Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Admission: $10 adults, $8 seniors, $6 students
Information: 410-547-9000 or thewalters.org.