All the rage is classical and in fine form at BMA

ART REVIEW

June 29, 1993|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Art Critic

About a third of the way through "Classical Taste in America 1800-1840" at the Baltimore Museum of Art, the visitor comes upon a roomlike setting centered on Henry Sargent's 1823 painting of "The Tea Party," a depiction of a fashionable gathering. It shows ladies in high-waisted Empire gowns talking to gentlemen amid rooms filled with the classical taste of the day.

In front of the painting in this little room, curator Wendy Cooper has gathered a group of objects that look as if they have stepped out of Sargent's scene: a center table, vases on pedestals, chairs, a carpet on the floor, even a teacup and saucer placed on the center table exactly where there is one in the picture. This small segment of an enormous, luxurious and handsomely mounted show gives some indication of how everything has been thought out, how carefully works have been chosen for their beauty, for their historical importance and for how well they illustrate the curator's points.

In the exhibit and its accompanying book Cooper seeks to explore all aspects of the rage for classical arts that swept America in the early 19th century -- where it came from, what constituted it, how thoroughly it penetrated the society and what it symbolized: a deep desire to find in antiquity ideals of beauty and moral virtue that could lead a young nation to lasting greatness.

If the show gives us grand and gorgeous objects, it does so with a logical installation that proceeds through a series of high points that lead the viewer on. But what impresses above all, perhaps, is how deeply and complexly some of these objects relate to the show's themes.

One of those themes is the influence of emigres from Europe to America, both the rich and the artisans, on this country's taste; another is the importance of copies of classical sculptures in this country; a third is the significance of the academies and athenaeums begun in the early 19th century. To illustrate all three, there is an early 19th-century copy of an ancient sculpture of Ceres, brought to this country by Joseph Bonaparte and subsequently given to the Boston Athenaeum. John Vanderlyn's painting of "Caius Marius Amid the Ruins of Carthage" (1832) not only has a classical subject; it was painted by an American artist in Europe, and is a smaller version of a painting by the same artist that won a gold medal from Napoleon and toured America for the edification of the public.

The juxtapositions, too, are resonant. In the section devoted to Italian influence on classical taste, Cooper has brought together a center table made in Philadelphia with an Italian marble top (about 1827-1830); a bust of Mrs. John Jones Schermerhorn, classically draped (1837), by Thomas Crawford, an American artist working in Rome; a portrait of American sculptor Horatio Greenough in Florence (about 1839), by another American artist, William James Hubard; a portrait of Boston collector John Sears and his two sons in Rome (1833-1834, artist unknown); a bust of New York governor George Clinton, also classically draped, by Italian sculptor Giuseppe Ceracchi, working in New York.

Cooper has put everything together in a way that's completely understandable. She builds up to the central section on classical forms and motifs by showing where they came from and how they entered the culture; then she goes on to show how widely they were disseminated and what they meant to a new country thirsty for examples of heroism and virtue on which to model itself.

And she explains things with clarity. In a museum not known for its devotion to didactics, here is a show in which the texts and labels do tell us, in simple terms, about what we're seeing and why.

Not in great depth, however; the didactics, in fact, reflect the approach of this exhibit in general. It is primarily for the education of the public, not a scholarly show. And it invites us to look at these objects as reflections of their times and their culture, not to study them in depth as individual objects.

It's not only a beautiful show, beautifully installed, but it's accessible and easy to take. Sometimes it seems a little too easy -- the labels could say a bit more about the works without unduly tiring the viewer, and the video on architecture is once-over-too-lightly.

Nevertheless, this is a formidable achievement on many levels, which no one should miss. As Cooper says, the classical age was a formative period in American history, and she presents its arts in a way that is not only revelatory but relevant.

ART REVIEW

What: "Classical Taste in America 1800-1840"

Where: The Baltimore Museum of Art, Art Museum Drive near Charles and 31st streets

When: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesdays through Fridays, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, through Sept. 26

Admission: $5.50 adults, $3.50 seniors and students, $1.50 ages 7 to 18, 6 and younger free; free to all on Thursdays

Call: (410) 396-7100.

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