High art with gravy Haussner's collection: Baltimore restaurant's other claim to fame is its artwork, admired by experts here and abroad.

March 03, 1996|By Jacques Kelly | Jacques Kelly,SUN STAFF

A local art scholar looks at the walls full of Alsatian soldiers, Tyrolean landscapes, French cardinals and female models draped in diaphanous gowns. He likes what he sees. Very much.

The scholar is not in a museum -- not the kind most people think of anyway -- but Haussner's Restaurant, where waitresses walk past the picture-heavy walls with trays heaped with turkey croquettes, crab imperial, pig's knuckles and Wiener schnitzel a la Holstein.

For the many years that Baltimoreans have been sopping the gravy from their plates here while wondering about the scene of ancient Rome near the cream pitcher, there has been little public assessment of the artwork's history and place in scholarship.

The local curator gives his judgment: "This collection is extraordinarily comprehensive of the second half of the 19th century -- other than the impressionists," said William R. Johnston, the Walters Art Gallery's associate director and curator of its 19th-century art holdings. "It represents all the painting categories of that period.

"Haussner's has one of the most outstanding collections of German academic paintings in the country," he said.

The Haussner Restaurant, at Eastern Avenue and Clinton Street, opened 70 years ago and serves a menu of 112 entrees that lean heavily toward seafood, beef, veal and pork. Its founder-chef, the late William Henry Haussner, was born in Germany. So was his wife, Frances Wilke, who at age 86, lives at the Church Home not far from the restaurant. Herr Haussner was trained as a master chef in Germany; his menu retains a Bavarian accent.

His institution remains open five days a week, Tuesdays through Saturdays. The art exhibit is free to all diners. A typical meal of sauer braten, served with two Tyrolean or potato dumplings and fried eggplant, goes for $10.60.

The restaurant is as ageless as its art, a picture gallery arranged with tables but without track lighting or expert advice. Your eyes don't always know what to look at first. It has the comforting feel of a German aunt and uncle's dining room on their wedding anniversary. The most popular pictures are invariably those with dogs or kittens.

"My mother was really the first art collector," said Mrs. Haussner's daughter, Frances Haussner George. "She loved auctions. Sometimes she bought paintings because she felt sorry for them."

At the time the Haussners were amassing their art collection in the late 1930s and 1940s, tastes had shifted away from the huge canvases and gilt frames, the dark bronzes and heavy marbles associated with the era of the German kaisers and Queen Victoria. Homes were equally big, and wealthy art patrons had servants to tend their collections.

"When the big houses got broken up, the value of tapestries dropped precipitously. And when people saved the large pictures, they often threw away the gold frames or dipped them in acid to pickle them and turn them gray," Mr. Johnson said.

By the 1940s the progressive art establishment was championing the impressionist painters who took their easels into the open air to get the benefit of natural light. The so-called academic artists who worked in formal studios with models drifted out of favor, but not with Frances and William Haussner.

They bought the oversized and shamelessly old-fashioned paintings whose value had collapsed in the late 1930s and 1940s. The art itself had been dismissed, the way a dinner of pork chops, buttered peas and creamed onions would be at certain chic restaurants today.

"One generation traditionally rebels against the preceding generation. It is obvious that the Haussners bought for the sheer love of art," Mr. Johnston said one recent afternoon.

"It could really sting my mother when people would belittle the art she had bought," said her daughter.

The change in art taste came slowly, Mr. Johnston said. "I saw the first inklings of it in 1967, when the Walters had a show of Jean-Leon Gerome. People were embarrassed that they were actually enjoying themselves."

Baltimoreans who have used the restaurant to celebrate wedding anniversaries or have post-christening lunches often take this collection for granted. It has, however, achieved a must-see status for some art professionals interested in the period.

"I love to take curators here from the Louvre in Paris and the Berlin and London museums. They are always intrigued and fascinated by the place," said Mr. Johnston, who has assembled many shows of European and American art of the 19th century, including a 1993 tribute to artist Alfred Sisley.

Mr. Johnston singles out several works for their importance within the collection.

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