His Life's Works Art: Baltimore sculptor James E. Lewis' burning passion leaves Morgan State with a rich legacy.

September 05, 1997|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,SUN ART CRITIC

James E. Lewis, the Baltimore sculptor, professor and collector who died last month, was a man of reserve and dignity. He spoke slowly, weighing his words carefully, and was anything but overtly emotional.

Those who only met him and did not know of his long and distinguished career would never have guessed that behind that placid exterior there was a constantly burning passion for art that manifested itself in multiple ways.

He may be best known to the Baltimore public as a sculptor, particularly for his bronze of Frederick Douglass on the Morgan State University campus and his "Black Soldier," just north of the Battle Monument on Calvert Street.

But that was only part of his legacy to this community. As chairman of the Morgan State art department, he built and shepherded the university's art program for 36 years, from 1950 to 1986.

And then, aside from all the rest, there was his collecting fervor. Beginning in 1954 and continuing even after his retirement, he amassed Morgan's collection of more than 3,000 works of world art. The collection and the university's gallery are now known as the James E. Lewis Museum of Art, named for him in 1990.

The remarkable collection includes works by a large number of African-American artists, including many of the most distinguished names: Henry O. Tanner and Hale Woodruff, Robert S. Duncanson and Beauford Delaney, Lois Mailou Jones and Romare Bearden, Gordon Parks and Jacob Lawrence, Elizabeth Catlett and William H. Johnson.

The Lewis museum's holdings also include a major collection of African art of the 19th and 20th centuries.

But what else it has may be more surprising: works by the French artists Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot and Henri de Tou- louse-Lautrec, the British artists John Constable and Sir Henry Raeburn, the Americans Thomas Cole, Thomas Sully, Mary Cassatt, William Merritt Chase, John Singer Sargent, Robert Motherwell and Robert Rauschenberg.

And a group of 53 Japanese prints.

And even a portfolio of Hollywood glamour portraits by photographer George Hurrell, including pictures of Greta Garbo, Robert Taylor, Dorothy Lamour and Jane Russell.

For Lewis, collecting was part of his vocation. He pursued it wherever he was, including his more than 15 trips to Africa. Aside from Morgan State's collection, Lewis and his wife, Jacqueline, amassed a personal collection of hundreds of African and African-American works. Once, they canceled a vacation because they spent the vacation money on a painting by the renowned 19th- and 20th-century African-American painter Henry O. Tanner.

Lewis had scant funds available for buying works for Morgan's collection, but he was skillful in persuading others to send works there. In 1964, he met Abraham M. Adler and Norman Hirschl of New York's Hirschl and Adler gallery, and they subsequently gave the Morgan collection works by the European and some of the American artists named above.

In 1971, Wilbert and Irene Petty put their collection of more than 100 works of African art on loan to Morgan, and it has remained there since. On view at the Lewis Museum are 103 of the Petty works. Among the peoples represented in the Petty collection are the Dan, the Ashanti, the Senufo, the Dogon and the Baule. Gabriel S. Tenabe, Morgan's director of museums, hopes the Petty collection will eventually come to the museum permanently, as a gift or a partial gift and partial purchase.

Other donors include Baltimore collector Lillian Greif, who gave 150 art posters, including six by Toulouse-Lautrec. The Japanese prints were the gift of collector Louis Hillman.

Selections from the art collection are on view in the Lewis Museum's gallery at Morgan's Carl Murphy Auditorium-Fine Arts Building. Aside from the Petty collection, a group of African-American artists is currently on view.

And pieces from the collection have frequently been loaned to exhibits elsewhere, including the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the universities of Pennsylvania and Texas, the Detroit Institute of Arts and the Arts in Embassies program.

But the principal use made of the collection is as a teaching tool, says Tenabe. "The collection provides a cross-section that allows us to teach students from original works instead of looking at slides," he says. "There is always value in the ability to see original works."

Tenabe wants to expand the collection to include more works of African diaspora artists in Latin America and elsewhere in the world, to complement the African and African-American works.

And he looks forward to the opening, probably in the year 2000, of Morgan's new $30 million fine arts center. Ground will be broken next year. The center will contain expanded gallery space, a loading dock and other amenities the Lewis Museum and collection now lacks.

A memorial service for Lewis will be held in Morgan's Murphy auditorium Sunday at 1 p.m.

James E. Lewis Collection

Where: Carl Murphy Auditorium-Fine Arts Building of Morgan State, Hillen Road south of Cold Spring Lane

When: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Fridays, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays

Call: 410-319-3030

Pub Date: 9/05/97

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