University exhibit displays a broad range of styles of 19th, 20th century painters

February 18, 1992|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Art Critic

College Park -- All too often we think about art in terms of museums. That is, we see art in museums, so we think of it as having always been in museums. And what we see in museums, usually major works by big names, is what we think of as art.

We tend not to reflect that for every big name from every generation there were many other artists turning out good art, and that much of it is still around. We tend not to reflect that art by and large was (and still is) made not for museums but for people to live with, in their houses, to fill their walls and give them pleasure.

"Images of America: The Painter's Eye, 1833-1925," now at the University of Maryland at College Park, serves as a reminder of all that. Organized by the Birmingham Museum of Art, it is a show of the collection of New York psychiatrist, art historian and collector Frederick Baekeland and his wife, art dealer Joan Baekeland, who have, at least partly because of limited means, specialized in small works by lesser-known American artists.

There are a few big names -- Asher Brown Durand, Albert Bierstadt -- represented by minor works, and a few others that museum goers will recognize: Worthington Whittredge, William Trost Richards, Alfred Thompson Bricher, Jasper Francis Cropsey, Thomas Doughty. But it is not likely most of the names will be known to most of us. How many, for instance, have heard of Carducius Plantagenet Ream, Benjamin Champney, Walter Launt Palmer, Anna Eliza Hardy or John Ross Key?

And we in Maryland should have heard of John Ross Key, grandson of Francis Scott Key, born in Hagerstown in 1832, died in Baltimore in 1920. His "Cherry Mountain, New Hampshire" (about 1875) captures the still warmth of a summer day spread over mountain and valley.

The Key is one of 63 works that constitute a show worth seeing. The Baekelands' good "eye" is reflected in its consistency. If they can't afford great masterpieces, they also avoid the weak and the sentimental, and their collection teaches that one need not buy a famous name to get a respectable work of art.

The collection is particularly good for a teaching institution such as Maryland, for it contains a broad range of the types and styles of painting in the 19th and early 20th century. There are landscapes and seascapes, genre scenes and still lifes. And both the accompanying catalog and the show's texts (though the latter are not long) offer some explanation of movements such as the Hudson River school, the Barbizon school, luminism and tonalism.

It is unusual, and should be, for a museum to let the collector write the catalog for the exhibit of his own works. Yet that is what happened in this case. Baekeland makes himself look foolish with an introductory essay in which self-congratulation competes with belittling remarks about others in the art world including curators, art dealers, auction houses, art historians and journalists. More graceful are his entries for the individual works.

The show continues through March 15 at the Art Gallery, Art-Sociology Building, University of Maryland, College Park. The Gallery is open Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays from noon to 4 p.m.; Wednesdays from noon to 9 p.m. and Saturdays and Sundays from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Call (301) 405-2763.

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