At Historical Society, antiques exhibit fits fine tradition


April 20, 1993|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Art Critic

Some people worry that the currently popular multicultural approach to the arts means the death of a more traditional, aesthetic approach. They should see "Classical Maryland" at the Maryland Historical Society.

In February, "Mining the Museum," Fred Wilson's multicultural-oriented installation about African-American and American-Indian history, closed after an 11-month run. Last Saturday, in the same spaces, the MHS opened a show that's as traditional as you can get in its approach: beautiful objects made for rich people, subjected to scholarly research and installed to please the eye.

The MHS proves with this juxtaposition of exhibits the validity of both approaches. In the cases of both shows (working with The Contemporary in that of "Mining the Museum"), it has pulled off major successes, and in the process has reached out to a new audience without abandoning its established audience.

"Classical Maryland" is no less important than "Mining the Museum." Every city has its day in the sun, and Baltimore's was during the first half of the 19th century, when it was young and growing fast and the place for people to make lots of money and spend it on themselves. And spend it they did -- on their buildings, their furniture, their silver, their portraits. This show is about the pervasiveness of classical influence on the arts here (as elsewhere), but it's also about luxury.

The previous period, known as the Federal period and lasting from about 1785 to 1815, was one of more restraint and, many Baltimoreans have long thought, better taste. That's probably why the Federal period has been studied extensively, and why this later period has not become as well-known: It has been thought just a little bit showy.

Some of the works at the historical society bear that out. All you have to do is look at any of the show's half-dozen bombastic silver services and you know some of these people weren't hesitant at all about saying, "We've arrived." Much of the veneered furniture, too, tends to be big, bold and imposing. The painted furniture, on the other hand, tends to be more delicate in form and line, and gracefully beautiful in decoration.

The show is packed with things -- too packed, if anything, so that at times it feels almost claustrophobic. Furniture is shown in rows, one behind the other, so individual pieces cannot be seen at their best, and in places, the society has exercised its talent for putting labels where they're hard to read.

But the exhibit and its catalog represent a significant contribution to the subject. Most important, of course, are the scholarly discoveries: Curator Gregory Weidman's research has enabled her tosolidly attribute an enormous amount of the best painted furniture of the period to the shop of John and Hugh Finlay, and curator Jennifer Goldsborough found the design book source for one of the most stunning silver services ever made in this country.

The show is imaginatively installed for visual and didactic effect, with sections devoted to individual arts, such as painting and furniture, alternating with smaller areas where there's a mixture -- the porcelain and silver of Betsy Patterson Bonaparte in a dining-roomlike setting, for instance. In a number of places, felicitous juxtapositions create pleasant surprise.

A first-century Roman stone urn sits next to a tall clock from about 1830 whose hood is of the same design as the urn's lid -- no doubt about classical influence there. Rembrandt Peale's portrait from about 1815 of Commodore John Rodgers, hero of the War of 1812, is shown publicly here for the first time; the commodore stares out at the center of the gallery, where a case holds part of a 52-piece 1817 dinner service presented to him by the citizens of Baltimore for his part in the defense of the city.

Oliver T. Eddy's group portrait from about 1844 of the children of Israel Griffith is hung in a room setting furnished with pieces like those shown in the portrait, so it looks as if the portrait is an extension of the room. In the painted furniture gallery are drawings by architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe of a set of furniture he designed for the White House in 1809; it was made in the Finlay shop, and influenced much of their subsequent design, as seen in the show's pieces here.

The painted furniture has been installed in a newly recovered space added to the historical society's third floor galleries: a light-filled area at the front of the building until recently used for storage.

In late June the Baltimore Museum of Art will open "Classical Taste in America 1800-1840," a show that will explore the subject on a national level. The two shows will run concurrently in Baltimore for three months, and together they should make yet another delicious juxtaposition.


What: "Classical Maryland 1815-1845."

L Where: The Maryland Historical Society, 201 W. Monument St.

When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays; 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturdays. Through Sept. 25.

Admission: $3.50 adults, $2.50 seniors, $1.50 students and children 5-18, free for children younger than 5; family rate $8; free to all 9 to 11 a.m. Saturdays.

Call: (410) 685-3750.

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