Humble 19th-century art a grand view of everyday

September 23, 1994|By John Dorsey and TC | John Dorsey and TC,Sun Art Critic

Tired of being hit over the head by art that's too big, too loud, too confrontational and too self-conscious? Long for a pleasant hour with modest works that don't demand much of you? Try "Private Lives: 19th Century American Genre Drawings" at the Walters.

It consists of 16 small drawings of everyday scenes -- people reading, doing chores, going about their daily lives -- by artists who by and large were never very well known and have long been forgotten.

It's not a show you go to for moral uplift or visual excitement. You go if you like noticing things such as what people were wearing in the 19th century, or what their clothes and surroundings said about their Felix O.C. Dailey's "Toby Weller," a Dickens character.

station in life, or how an artist manages detail, character, light.

Baltimore's own Richard Caton Woodville, for instance, is represented by "Soldier's Experience," an 1844 watercolor of a subject he was to develop into an oil in his 1849 "Old '76 and Young '48" (hanging in the next-door gallery).

Each of these is an interior scene where a young man in uniform gestures dramatically as he speaks to a family group including a very old man and a middle-aged couple. But in the earlier watercolor, the whole scene is much humbler, a small interior with plain furniture, whereas the later oil features much more luxurious surroundings.

In each, though, Woodville's talent for verisimilitude leads us to believe we are seeing an actual interior, not a made-up one.

We're also drawn into Felix O. C. Darby's wash drawing of the Dickens character "Toby Weller" (1888) by the artist's rendering of detail -- the waistcoat spreading over the enormous belly, the hat hanging on the wall, the pipe and tankard. But what makes this image memorable is the character's face. Its droopy jowls under stupid but calculating eyes describe a character that we think we know well from a single look.

In John McLenan's sepia drawing "Urchins Looking at a Lady Lifting Her Skirt" (no date), on the other hand, the leer of the one urchin whose face we can see clearly is so general as to be cartoonish.

There are other small pleasures here, including the way the blue paper adds to the feeling of coldness in William John Hennessy's pencil drawing "Woman and Boy in Snow" (1859), the breezy vitality of Felix Octavius Carr Darley's ink and wash "Farmer With Horse, Dog, and Pigeons" (no date), the rich color and soft light of Charles Felix Blauvelt's two oils on paper, "Looking for a Job" and "Man Pouring a Drink at a Bar" (both about 1859).

Don't expect big-time art, and you won't be disappointed.

In an adjacent passageway are 10 drawings from a scrapbook of 19th-century Baltimore artist Alfred Jacob Miller. Mostly intimate and humorous, they're an appropriate complement to the other show.

ART REVIEW

What: "Private Lives: 19th Century American Genre Drawings"

Where: The Walters Art Gallery, 600 N. Charles St.

When: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays, through Nov. 6

Admission: $4 adults, $3 seniors, free to students and ages 18 and younger

Call: (410) 547-9000

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