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Raoul Middleman, famed Baltimore painter and longtime MICA instructor, dies at 86

Raoul Middleman, a renowned and prolific Baltimore painter whose work is included in the collections of some of the nation’s best-known museums and who taught for decades at the Maryland Institute College of Art, died around midnight Friday. The Baltimore native and longtime Mount Vernon resident was 86.

Ben Middleman said Saturday that his father “died very peacefully.” He wasn’t sure of the cause of death but said his father had been battling pancreatic cancer for the past several months.

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“He had a good life,” Ben Middleman said. “He lived longer than he ever expected and he enjoyed it.”

The elder Mr. Middleman, widely viewed as one of Baltimore’s most important contemporary artists, joined the MICA faculty in 1961 and shaped generations of students during his nearly six decades of teaching. A passionate and energetic artist, Mr. Middleman produced thousands of paintings during his life.

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“He was great. He was a lot of fun to hang out with,” his son said. “He was very dedicated to painting. That was his life, really; it revolved around that. He would paint every single day of his life, right up to the very end. … He got to do what he loved.”

In 1974, Baltimore artist Raoul Middleman stands in front of a collection of self-portraits.
In 1974, Baltimore artist Raoul Middleman stands in front of a collection of self-portraits. (Clarence B. Garrett, Baltimore Sun)

Born in Baltimore on April 3, 1935, Mr. Middleman grew up in the Ashburton neighborhood, raised by his father, Paul Middleman, an engineer and later salesman, and his mother, Elizabeth Middleman, a homemaker. Mr. Middleman graduated from Baltimore Polytechnic School and was drafted in the U.S. Army in 1957.

He developed a fascination with horses at a young age, spending much time around Pimlico Race Course and even working briefly as a cowboy in the 1950s after earning a degree from the Johns Hopkins University, according to an article in The Baltimore Sun profiling a 2015 exhibition of Mr. Middleman’s self-portraits at MICA. He later painted large-scale murals with students at the racetrack.

Paid for by the G.I. bill, Mr. Middleman attended Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Skowhegan and The Brooklyn Museum Art School before returning to Baltimore. He was hired at MICA shortly after arriving and continued to teach for nearly 60 years before retiring in recent years.

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Mr. Middleman referred to himself and his energetic, even frantic, style of painting as an “impatientist” and practitioner of “impatientality” in a 2020 interview with The Sun’s Dan Rodricks. The New York Times once referred to his style as “expressionistic in a hurly-burly way that suggests a rather Whitmanesque personality.”

Painting for months from his 19th-story home studio during the pandemic hadn’t worn the views of Baltimore from his windows down to boredom, he told Mr. Rodricks.

“Baltimore skies are fantastic. Summer storms, lightning, the sunsets,” Mr. Middleman said. “There’s always a surprise, and when you paint there’s always a discovery. Your identity is always shifting, and nature is always shifting, changing tangentially to a prism of varying insights.”

Mr. Middleman met his wife, Ruth Middleman (nee Channing), a painter and printmaker, in Paris in 1970 while he was on sabbatical and she was working odd jobs at a second iteration of the Beat Hotel, named for its popularity among beat poets.

Artist Raoul Middleman poses for a photo with some of his brushes.
Artist Raoul Middleman poses for a photo with some of his brushes. (Kim Hairston, Baltimore Sun)

He had come to Paris “with only the clothes he stood up in” and “two enormous suitcases of paints,” Ruth remembered. The night of their first date, she took his clothes to the laundromat for a wash.

“He lived through painting,” said Ms. Middleman, who goes by Ruth Channing in her artwork. “He loved to paint and he experienced things through painting.”

They married one year later after Mr. Middleman moved back to Baltimore, bringing Ms. Middleman with him. Their home on Calvert Street (purchased for $1 in the dollar house program) teemed with life. Mr. Middleman’s studio brought models who dined with the family for dinner after a day of posing. Their children earned allowances by dressing in costume and posing for elaborate paintings.

“He inspired my way of seeing things,” she said. “I had a conventional idea of beauty before … then he showed me that Baltimore was very beautiful.”

Mr. Middleman’s fervor for painting also came across in his teaching, said Fred Lazarus IV, who served as president of MICA from 1978 to 2014. Mr. Lazarus recalled several visits to the Delaware Water Gap, where Mr. Middleman ran a program for art students, and watching Mr. Middleman stay up late into the night eagerly discussing work with younger artists.

Mr. Lazarus said Mr. Middleman, a former philosophy major, took “a broad humanistic approach to painting that was just fabulous.” He was known to quote poets and philosophers, cite historians and past painters from the top of his head, and several profiles of Mr. Middleman describe him drawing out his thoughts with the same energy and urgency with which he painted.

“He was just amazing, a real character and a wonderful person,” Mr. Lazarus said. “I was unbelievably fond of him.”

Mr. Middleman’s work was “a continuum of this exorcism, this need to express whatever he was confronted with,” said Ray Allen, former provost and vice president of academic affairs at MICA, who met Mr. Middleman in 1971.

“I think that was a spirit that he imbued in the students: The sense of freedom, the sense of directness,” he said. “That’s a rare commodity.”

One of Baltimore artist Raoul Middleman's self-portraits, as seen in MICA's Meyerhoff Gallery.
One of Baltimore artist Raoul Middleman's self-portraits, as seen in MICA's Meyerhoff Gallery. (Kim Hairston, Baltimore Sun)

Gary Vikan, the former director of the Walters Art Museum, first met Mr. Middleman in 1995 while posing for a portrait not long after getting appointed to the post. As Mr. Middleman worked in his overflowing studio in unseasonable October heat — wiping paint off on his trousers, puffing away on a pipe — Mr. Vikan said the intensity for his art was obvious.

“Raoul was gifted at making powerful images and he just went on and on and on and on,” said Mr. Vikan, noting Mr. Middleman’s remarkable output. “Whether or not anybody saw them or bought them, who cares? He was just expressing himself — that’s the way I understood it at least. He was just an amazing person. We’ve lost somebody very special.”

James “Buzz” Cusack, owner of The Senator Theatre and The Charles Theatre, said Mr. Middleman’s death is “a major loss to the city and to the art world.”

The pair met in the 1970s when Mr. Cusack, whose construction company was then in its infancy, was hired to renovate the Middlemans’ city home. They kept in touch throughout their lives with regular lunch dates.

“He was remarkably non-judgmental about people,” Mr. Cusack said. “Just a wonderful friend and wonderful person.”

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In addition to his wife and son Ben, also of Baltimore, Mr. Middleman is survived by two other children, Nathaniel Middleman of Baltimore and Raphael Middleman of Ventura, California, as well as five grandchildren.

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Services are being planned.

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