19th-century visions of printmakers ahead of their time

March 18, 1993|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Art Critic

In Manet's lithograph "The Races," what first catches the eye is the burst of horses down the track toward the viewer, creating a dynamic impression of motion. But perhaps even more extraordinary are the energetic squiggles at the far right, which depict nothing specific but may express in abstract terms the sense of excitement felt in the crowd as the horses approach.

This is one of almost 100 works in the Baltimore Museum of Art's just-opened exhibit, "Three Master Printmakers from the Nineteenth Century: Eugene Delacroix, Edouard Manet, Mary Cassatt." It debuts in time for the 21st Southern Graphics Council Conference, to be held in Baltimore next week, but it is much more than a selection of prints for an occasion.

The BMA holds some 20,000 19th-century French prints, one of the finest collections anywhere. It is composed of the George A. Lucas collection, on extended loan from the Maryland Institute, College of Art since 1933, and the museum's own collection, which consists in many cases of acquisitions made specifically to complement the Lucas holdings.

Many artists are represented in great depth, as the three currently on view demonstrate, but that is only one of the points made by this fine exhibit and its instructive explanatory texts.

These artists were not selected to make comparisons among their works. However, Jay M. Fisher, BMA curator of prints, drawings and photographs, points out that they were all ahead of their time and influenced succeeding generations although they were not recognized in their own time.

Delacroix, for instance, broke with academic tradition in his freely PTC drawn etchings, but the major ones were not published until after his death in 1863, when they could influence the generation that included Manet.

The latter's work was not only stylistically innovative but politically controversial, and the show includes examples that were suppressed when first produced, such as "The Execution of Emperor Maximilian" (1868) and the moving "Civil War 1871" (1871-1873). Cassatt's experimentations with color prints, based on her knowledge of Japanese prints, are well-represented in the Baltimore collection, especially because the museum's first curator (and later, its director), Adelyn Breeskin, was a recognized expert on Cassatt.

With Cassatt, as with the other artists, one is allowed to see the development of a print through different states or impressions. Cassatt's "Knitting in the Library" (about 1881) is shown both before and after the addition of aquatint. And there are two impressions of "Maternal Caress" (1890-1891), one from the Lucas collection and one from the museum's collection, showing the effects of different inking.

Delacroix executed a daring set of illustrations for "Faust" (1826-1827). Those shown here include several from the Lucas collection and one from the museum's. Among them are two impressions of "Mephistopheles Airborne," one of the print's first state and one of the third, after the inscription at the bottom of the picture was added. Comparing the two, the museum's text points out, reveals the unusual quality of the earlier impression.

In several cases, the museum's curators have striven to fill in the collection of Manet prints to complement the Lucas holdings. The additions include the dramatically lighted etching and aquatint "Dead Christ with Angels" (1866-1867), and a rare state of the etching and aquatint "The Candle Seller" (1861-1862), which was one of Manet's first prints.

Although there was a show of Manet prints in 1983, the Cassatt and Delacroix holdings have not been shown in depth for 20 years or more, so it is as important for Baltimoreans to see this show as it is for those coming to the print conference.

ART REVIEW

What: Three Printmakers

Where: The Baltimore Museum of Art, Art Museum Drive off Charles street.

When: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesdays through Fridays; 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.; through May 30.

Admission: $5.50 adults, $3.50 students and seniors, $1.50 ages 7 to 18, free on Thursdays.

Call: (410) 396-7100.

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