If many artists rushed to embrace the exciting new movements in 20th century art, others reacted by embracing the old master painters of the past. A leader among the artistic conservatives was Frenchman Jacques Maroger, whose strong Baltimore connection resulted in a host of local pupils who still carry on in his style.
An exhibit at The Life of Maryland Gallery features work by Maroger and 22 other artists who either studied directly with him or who have studied with his pupils. The man they emulate was Parisian-born and worked for years at the Louvre, where he studied the painting techniques of the old master artists so well represented in that collection. After coming to America in 1939, Maroger eventually taught for 20 years at the Maryland Institute. He died in 1962.
Just what is one to make of Maroger and his artistic progeny? Well, frankly it's a yawn-inducing experience to see so many paintings with great technical proficiency but no greatness. Oh, there is plenty of fine technique, but most of these paintings are lacking in inspiration. Learning from the masters is one thing, slavishly imitating them is something else.
Maroger's own classical inclinations are best seen in some first-rate life drawings. There are also paintings like his "Portrait of a Woman After Rubens," in which the woman is as pink-cheeked as one would expect; and his "Portrait: Homage to Holbein," which has the somber frontal view one expects, as well as a carved wooden frame that speaks to the period.
The tabletop still life is a major preoccupation for these artists, as in Maroger's "Venetian Glass, Peach, Lemon Peel." The better examples include Jim Cox's "Steamed Lobster," with a lemon peel and the lobster's claws dangling over the edge of the table; and Ann Schuler's "Tulips in a Tiffany Vase," which achieves rich detail through the reflections shown in a glossy blue vase filled with feathery-tipped tulips.
There is often a fool-the-eye realism in these still life paintings. That aspect is dealt with most self-consciously in Guy Fairlamb's "Lacrosse," which evokes the 19th century "rack" paintings of Peto and Harnett. Here, Fairlamb painted images of lacrosse players that have then seemingly been pinned and taped to a wall in bulletin board style. He also refers to the inside jokes of the "rack" paintings by the painterly incorporation of a message to call John Bannon (another artist in the present exhibit) and a letter from The Life of Maryland Gallery.
Like other French artists of his generation, Maroger had an interest in Oriental themes. This chinoiserie-fixation can be seen in Maroger's "La Chinoise," an oil sketch of an opera star-type head. Among pupils, one sees it in Douglas Hofmann's "Crimson Lady," with its floral-themed kimono, and in the peacock and flowers motif on the black vase in Richard House's "Still Life With Dove."
Where figurative subjects are concerned, the Maroger mentality too often tends toward the sentimental. Mary Streaker's "Afternoon Tea Party" depicts two little girls having tea with their dolls. The painting has enough shades of pink and purple to please any interior designer.
Fortunately, there are artists in the exhibit who have learned from their traditional training and used it toward more individualized ends. Dean Larson's "The Source, Delphi" makes astute use of a looser brush for its landscape effects. Joseph Sheppard's "Orchard Street" manages to be both vivid and restrained in showing the commercial vitality of a New York street.
"Jacques Maroger et son heritage" runs at The Life of Maryland Gallery, at 901 N. Howard St., through March 8. Call 539-7900.