Baltimore's greatest hits The experts have been consulted and we've made our picks: Here's a guide to the city's greatest art treasures.

December 21, 1997|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,Sun Staff

The ancients made do with seven wonders of the world, but that wasn't enough for art critic Thomas Hoving.

So Hoving, a former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, has made his own list, "Greatest Works of Art of Western Civilization," a sumptuous coffee-table volume that includes no fewer than 111 objects. The book arrives in stores this month, just in time for the holiday season.

Hoving includes most of the usual suspects: Michelangelo's "David," Goya's "The Third of May, 1808" and Botticelli's "Primavera" would be prime candidates for any such compendium.

Alas, there's not a single one from Baltimore.

Does this mean there are no noteworthy things wondrous and beautiful this city can call its own? Of course not, which is why we offer our own guide to Baltimore's greatest art treasures, culled from the opinions of some of the city's foremost art experts.

Each of our experts -- Baltimore Museum of Art curators Jan Howard and Sona Johnston, Walters Art Gallery director Gary Vikan, American Visionary Art Museum director Rebecca Hoffberger and Contemporary Museum director Gary Sangster -- submitted their choices of not-be-missed masterpieces that can be seen in Baltimore. (For the complete lists, see page 3E.)

Their picks reflect their individual interests and tastes. But when all the submissions were collated there was a surprising amount of overlap.

The 15th-century painting by an anonymous Italian artist, "View of an Ideal City," at the Walters, for example, appeared on several experts' lists. So did the beautiful African "Female Dance Headdress (D'Amba/Yamban)" at the BMA.

There were also some less conventional candidates for the masterpiece label. A couple of panelists proposed the B&O Railroad Museum on Pratt Street.

Perhaps the quirkiest entry was AVAM director Rebecca Hoffberger's choice of 19th-century Frenchman James Bertrand's painting "Aurora," a romantically overblown nude representing the goddess of dawn standing atop a globe representing the Earth.

The painting hangs in the gallery at Hausner's Restaurant in East Baltimore, next to the ladies' room. Curious art lovers will have to wait until after the holidays to see it, however: Currently it's hidden behind the restaurant's oversized Christmas tree.

Of course, no list of "greatest masterpieces," here or anywhere else, is cast in stone. "Works shift in and out of historical significance, and history may change our judgments," says Sangster.

Keeping that warning in mind, we present, in no particular order, a list of works that could be considered the creme de la creme of Baltimore's art treasures:

Auguste Rodin, "The Thinker," 1904-1917. BMA.

Probably Rodin's most famous work, the BMA's "Thinker" is one of 13 large bronze casts of the subject made during the artist's lifetime.

"Today this brooding male nude is parodied, plagiarized for second-rate cartoons, dismissed as a cliche by many art historians and ignored by most teachers of art history," Hoving writes of this figure. A smaller version of "The Thinker" appears on Rodin's cast for a monumental set of doors titled "The Gates of Hell," which remained unfinished at the artist's death and which is Hoving's personal choice for Rodin's masterwork.

Yet the large "Thinker" has never lost its hold on the public's imagination, and, as Hoving notes, today it remains possibly "the most most vivid single act of sculpture of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries."

Hugo van der Goes, "Donor with St. John the Baptist," circa 1475. Walters.

This diminutive but masterful oil-on-wood-panel double portrait was commissioned by the wealthy merchant whose likeness it bears, then donated to the church as an object of devotion.

Believing Christians of the period hoped to enhance their chances of life after death by such gifts. And if not, there was always the gratifying illusion of immortality to fall back on in the form of the images of themselves that they left behind.

Paul Gauguin, "Vahine No Te Vi" (Woman with Mango), 1892. BMA.

This famous portrait of the artist's mistress during his stay in Tahiti combines a classical economy of line and form with the brilliant colors that announced the birth of modern painting.

Hoving, who happened to prefer the painter's large oil painting "Whence Come We? What Are We. Whither Go We?" for inclusion in his own book, called Gauguin a "temperamental loner," and an "odd combination of Romantic and realist who just slightly ratcheted up forms and colors taken boldly and directly from the lush scenery of the Pacific islands, where sand really is pink and the foliage almost aquamarine."

Joshua Johnson, "Charles Herman Stricker Wilmans," circa 1804. BMA.

The work of the earliest known African-American painter, this portrait of the 5-year-old son of a Baltimore merchant shows the boy standing with his toy rifle and small white dog.

Although little is known of Johnson's life, he is presumed to have been a former household slave who earned his freedom.

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