Aspects of Antiquity A passion for classicism at the BMA

June 27, 1993|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Art Critic NTCGR: COLOR PHOTO 1

When the Marquis de Lafayette, hero of the American Revolution, revisited this country in 1824, his tour prompted elaborate, classically inspired tributes. Philadelphia produced 13 triumphal arches for his procession, designed by architect William Strickland. These culminated at Independence Hall with an arch 45 feet high and 35 feet wide, based on the arch of Lucius Septimius Severus in Rome, which had sculptures representing Justice and Wisdom carved by William Rush and the city's coat of arms painted by Thomas Sully.

For his part, Lafayette is said to have brought a number of pieces of elegant French silver with classical motifs to present to his American hosts. In Baltimore there is a covered urn with wreath and foliage motifs said to have been given to Lydia Hollingsworth and a ewer with a caryatid handle that descended in the Ridgely family. Both these pieces of lavishly ornamented French silver are included in "Classical Taste in America 1800-1840," the sumptuous exhibit that opens at the Baltimore Museum of Art today.

In 1824, the year of Lafayette's visit, America was at the height of its love affair with all things classical, inspired by ancient Rome and Greece and filtered through the products of the French Empire and English Regency styles. Rich buyers could have pier tables with elaborately wrought swan and dolphin supports and vases painted with helmeted warriors of antiquity. The middle class sought their chariots and cornucopias and urns on pressed glass salt cellars and iron stoves. The passion for the classical in America went deep.

And this passion was more than just the fashion statement of the moment. It sprang from a deep need in the national state of mind; it responded to the fears and expressed the aspirations of the young American republic, seeking models to follow in its quest for greatness.

That is the principal argument of "Classical Taste in America" and of its accompanying book. Curator of decorative arts Wendy Cooper, who organized the show and wrote the book, says classical taste responded to the aesthetic and moral needs of the American people.

"In order to make America great, Americans wanted to identify with the ancient world," she says. "They saw that the cultures of antiquity were great and identified with them by using models that had won approbation over thousands of years. [Those models] embodied ideas both of ideal beauty and of moral virtue. By presenting images and imitating aspects of antiquity [Americans] were trying to create a moral, upstanding, lasting, great society.

"Politicians and literati put forward these ideas because of an apprehension that American society wouldn't succeed, and would fall into dissolution. Instead of looking to the diverse European culture of the day, they went back to antiquity for a sense of stability." Thus the Roman eagle on a coin, the Greek urn on the mantelpiece, the Egyptian sphinxes supporting the silver presentation vase all expressed the desire not only for greatness but for endurance.

Thus Americans sought to attribute to American heroes the virtues of the ancients, and symbolically clothed modern heroes in the garb of their predecessors. In the background of Chester Harding's portrait of "Daniel Webster" (1828-1830 and 1849-1851) is the representation of a statue of Washington clothed in a toga.

"Classical Taste," then, is different from the traditional show that concentrates on the objects per se - who made them, their forms and decoration, regional expressions, etc. The exhibit does not ignore that aspect of the subject; viewers will find such matters addressed in its central section in particular. But the show also looks at the objects for what they can tell us about the society that produced them. In doing so, it follows a current trend toward treating objects as expressions of what has been called "material culture."

Ms. Cooper dislikes the term, but acknowledges the point of view. In the exhibit, she says, she is "looking at what an object says about the people who owned it and the culture that created it. It's a broad-based cultural and social show with strong aesthetic overtones."

But the aesthetic aspect, too, is of major significance, the curator says. "Since we are an art museum, we wanted to get the most aesthetically significant and beautiful objects." Thus there is furniture by such high-style cabinetmakers as Charles-Honore Lannuier in New York, Anthony Gabriel Quervelle Philadelphia, John and Hugh Finlay in Baltimore; silver by the ,, likes of Thomas Fletcher and Sidney Gardiner in Philadelphia, Obadiah Rich and Samuel L. Ward in Boston, Andrew Ellicott Warner in Baltimore; paintings by Sully, Rembrandt Peale, Gilbert Stuart, John Vanderlyn, Washington Allston.

Spectacular pieces

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