Foray into high culture: the early days of the arts in Baltimore

On Maryland History

December 10, 1990|By Peter Kumpa

HIS TWO NIECES persuaded John P. Kennedy to attend a ballet. It wasn't just any ballet. It was one performed by the pupils of Monsieur A. H. Durocher, the most fashionable dancing master in Baltimore. Durocher was a French refugee from Santo Domingo. He arrived here in 1824, and within a few years was one of dominant figures in the world of belle artes.

Kennedy remembered little about the music or the performance of the "Ballet of Telemachus" on that artistic adventure in 1827. PeterKumpaIt was the audience that enthralled him.

"There were belles in bonnets too large to be forced into a flour barrel," he wrote. "There were ladies in ball dresses, denuded and trinketed, some only half-dressed from the waist upward; there were fat, unwieldy women dressed ludicrously tight in the abortive thought to appear small; thin and haggard dames wrapped all in shawls, like silkworms . . . and more than once the sight of a big, fat woman carrying a heavy press of feathers in her bonnet, jerking a shriveled pattern of a husband after her, like a frigate dragging her anchor."

Kennedy wondered why many of the guests bothered to come. He found some who "looked wild and frightened, as if they were trespassing on forbidden ground." He saw others who did nothing but "gaze inquisitively at the lamps, the mirrors and the ceiling, and still others who looked as if they lost their way and could not tell how they got there." He thought the most "bewildered" were the gentlemen "with countenances of horrible vacuity."

Perhaps the audience was dragged there to be sacrificed on the altar of presumed high culture. "Everyone seemed silently marveling at what brought the other there," concluded Kennedy.

What brought them was competition of pride. Baltimore's swift clipper ships could be found on every ocean. Its economy was expanding. It was to be a pioneer in the promising world of steam and railroads. Baltimore was looking ahead to a brighter future. And it had to keep up with its competitors, New York and Philadelphia, in the field of cultural prestige. It would show itself off in arts and entertainment.

Baltimore had its share of wealthy merchants. And they took pride in elaborate dinners and parties, sophisticated affairs that were to be the match of any in the country.

One account of a garden party given by Gen. Robert Goodloe Harper and his wife at their country home ("Oakland") on Falls Road was typical. For two hours, the carriages trotted in to unload well-dressed ladies and gentlemen. "I hardly ever saw so much beauty assembled together as appeared on the grassy turf under the shade of the trees, dancing and promenading," wrote a visitor. "About 5 o'clock the ladies all sat down at a long table under the trees and regaled themselves with strawberries and cream, cherries and ices. The dancing continued till after sunset and then was resumed in the house where we all prepared to take our coffee."

Robert Gilmor described one of the monthly meetings of the Baltimore Library Association that exuded high culture. Directors were served champagne and old madeira then went to dine "on venison, with an excellent dinner besides." Gilmor's entertaining was elegant. His diary records one "supper" where the "menu included pheasants, canvas back ducks, partridges and terrapin, with madeira, champagne, whiskey, punch and curacao."

There was a suspicion that the fling into the arts by many Baltimoreans was a slide into gentle hedonism. One newspaper, the Companion, started in 1804, worried constantly about where the city was going culturally.

"In this flourishing city, which has risen to the third [most populous] of the Union, there is not yet heard a whisper to lead the taste and fashion," it complained. "Many of the citizens lack interest in the arts; others see them as appendages of luxury and vice."

For those who loved music, there were concerts during the winter at the Athenaeum, as well as the weekly concert meeting of the Anacreontic Society. This group was limited to 60 members, men only. A season ticket cost $10. It met at Barnum's Hotel where, during the musical evening, "brandy and water and hot whiskey punch were prepared in an adjoining room." After the concert, a cold supper was served.

On special occasions when women were invited, Barnum's put on a special feast. One guest recalled 102 ladies seated at one elongated and high decorated table and served "a splendid supper."

In several Baltimore newspapers critics tried to improve the tastes of the city. The Companion ran long and instructive essays on the arts, drama, the novel, painting and music. It stated that its chief goal was to widen "the intellectual horizon of Woman." And it warned against ladies taking to shallow and "voluptuous" music that would divert them from their role as "sacred balm to man's sorrows."

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