Thanks in large part to Baltimore-born George A. Lucas -- who spent the second half of the 19th century in Paris as an art agent and collector -- the Baltimore-Washington area has the largest as- semblage outside France of works by the French animalist artist Antoine-Louis Barye (1796-1875).
Lucas encouraged Washington collector William Corcoran and Baltimore collector William Walters to amass Baryes; his own art collection came to the Maryland Institute, College of Art, which put it on extended loan to the Baltimore Museum of Art in 1933.
As a result, there are several hundred Barye works in this area, of which the Lucas holdings alone number about 125. About a third of them are now on public view in the choice BMA exhibit "Beauties and Beasts: Barye From the George A. Lucas Collection."
Although he was known primarily as a sculptor and perhaps pre-eminently for his extremely complex groupings, Barye is revealed here as more than that. For one thing, there are only seven sculptures, and of them only one, "Roger Bearing off Angelica on the Hippogriff" is in the tour de force category. In this concoction of two characters flying off on a mythical horse/eagle, all supported by a strange sea creature, every tiny detail is delineated down to the hinges of Roger's armor and the feathers of the beast's wings. The piece is a triumph of technique, but dullish art.
How much more lively and interesting are the other sculptures, involving one or two animals. We wince to see the lion's claws tearing into the horse's flesh in "Horse Attacked by a Young Lion." The "Lion Crushing a Serpent" captures a moment of high drama with both creatures' mouths open, the lion's mane and backbone reflecting the dynamism and tension of the moment. (For an enlightening comparison, see the larger and more static version of the same sculpture in the old masters wing).
Most of the works here are two-dimensional; many of them are small and informal, not big set pieces, and we can really get close to the artist in them. In the little oil "Python Killing a Deer" the landscape around the two animals echoes, in almost abstract terms, the violence of the central subject. In the watercolor and gouache "Boa Coiled in a Tree," the creature seems to appear out of an incomprehensible gloom, heightening its mystery. In "Bird of Prey on a Tree Branch" the undulations of the landscape take on an organic life of their own. The chalk drawing "Dead Young Elephant" is done with great delicacy.
There are also a number of rare proofs of early states of Barye prints in this show, which gives us a good taste of Barye but leaves us hungry for more. And there is lots more around. Barye's bicentennial comes up in just four years -- how about a major show drawing on all the area's sources?
The show runs through Aug. 30 at the Baltimore Museum of Art, Art Museum Drive near Charles and 31st streets. Call (410) 396-7100.