A Meal with art on the side New surge of popularity for paintings that grace Haussner's walls

March 05, 1992|By Linell Smith | Linell Smith,Staff Writer

At Haussner's, art is the house specialty.

So it's an understatement to say that Frances Wilkes Haussner is happy to have one of her 19th century paintings from the restaurant on display at the Walters Art Gallery.

"I'm so proud because I paid so little for it,you know, and here to wind up in a museum!" says the 82-year-old owner of the Eastern Avenue restaurant that has become a Baltimore institution.

Until last fall, "Entrance to a Roman Theater," an 1866 oil on canvas by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, greeted patrons at the restaurant. (It will be on display at the Walters through April 5, part of a show of the works by the Victorian painter known for his highly detailed and romantic scenes of daily life in ancient Rome and Greece.)

Widely known for an art collection with 780 paintings (and just as many statues and bronzes), a menu with entrees ranging from crab cakes to caribou steak, and a staff which tends to stay for 40 years or so, Haussner's is a novelty which remains novel. And it presents quite a spectacle.

But over the years, the art has weathered unkind remarks as well as compliments.

"Two young fellas came in one day, kind of spoiled brats, and one said to the other, 'Have you ever seen so much junk in your life?' " Mrs. Haussner recalls.

"I said, 'Why do you call this junk? Can you do something like this?' I got them quiet. I shouldn't have, but I couldn't help it. Them calling it junk."

In fact, as the art world begins to reconsider the merits of 19th century academic art, another generation of art experts has begun visiting -- and taking seriously -- the collection of Frances Wilkes Haussner.

"For the first part of the 20th century, Impressionism dominated our vision. Now we can look at artists like Alma-Tadema and appreciate them -- as the 19th century appreciated these artists -- more for their sense of light, the narrative element, the romantic mood and the technique that's so superb in some pieces," says William Johnston, associate director of the Walters and curator of the gallery's 18th and 19th century art. "Some of these artists are virtuosos."

Of course, Mrs. Haussner has known this for years.

"I like pleasant things," she says. "Something you can relax with."

She's very pleased to have her Alma-Tadema painting at the Walters -- she bought it from the collection of William H. Vanderbilt -- and enjoys the attention it has received.

"You're just amazed that an artist could produce something so beautiful," she says.

Alma-Tadema's reputation has undergone reappraisal during the past few decades. In 1960, a painting which had brought $20,000 in 1888 sold at auction for $260. Recently, however, Newsweek reported another Alma-Tadema to be worth $500,000.

Mr. Johnston recently visited Haussner's to note some of the merits of its "hodge-podge" art collection. Strolling through the cavernous restaurant/museum, he pointed out some 19th century artistic turf which William and Henry Walters claimed as well.

Along with the work of Alma-Tadema, there's the work of Fritz Thaulow, Gauguin's brother-in-law, an artist known for his Impressionist river scenes. There's Adolphe Schreyer, known for his ability to paint dramatic scenes with horses. And William Bouguereau,whom Mr. Johnston calls "the consummate French figurative painter from the second half of the 19th century."

Mrs. Haussner -- her staff calls her Mom -- will turn 83 in July. Her clear eyes and skin, her fine hair coiled into a bun, her stately posture bring to mind one of her classical statues. Despite a fall which broke her hip two years ago, she still visits the restaurant a couple of days a week, checking in with cooks and waitresses, tasting stock, chatting with life-long customers.

The Walterses bought many of their paintings in Europe. Mrs. Haussner bought all but two of her paintings in the United States, mostly from auctions -- "That's how you get good buys," she says.

Born near Dusseldorf, Frances Wilkes came to Baltimore in 1924 when she was 15 and married restaurateur William Henry Haussner 10 years later.

She and her late husband bought their first painting, "Venetian Flower Vender" by Eugene de Blaas, on their fifth wedding anniversary. She recalls winnowing the price down to $1,000.

It didn't take long to become hooked on collecting.

"Our limit was $15,000 a year, that was it. No more. After a while, my husband was saying, 'If you buy any more, you don't have to come home.' It was getting a little heavy, by the truckload it was coming in. But I hated to pass up a bargain.

"I had to hide some of it. I would hide paintings in the basement -- we had beer crates and boxes and all -- with the paintings stuck in between.

"My daughter said, 'Mother, I'll bet you're still hiding things at home, too!' And right she is!"

Some years ago, Mrs. Haussner stopped buying art. There is simply no room left in the restaurant. Or in her house, for that matter.

"The best is here," she says, gazing around the restaurant. "Here is our living. This is our bread and butter."

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