A splendid eye for collecting

Art: From a small find grew a lifetime love of Dutch and Flemish paintings for June and Henry Weldon. Their loan to the Walters lets us share what they've appreciated for ages.

June 19, 1999|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,SUN ART CRITIC

A lovely home decorated with Old Master paintings is something most people can only dream about. For Henry H. Weldon and his wife June, however, it is a gift to enjoy and cherish, the culmination of a lifetime of collecting and living with beautiful things.

The Weldons bought their first painting more than 50 years ago, when they were newlyweds and "looking for something to put on our walls," recalled Henry Weldon in an interview this week.

The Weldons were setting up their first home in New York City when, for $16, they picked up an old painting encrusted with grime at an auction in Greenwich Village. Only after the picture had been taken out of its battered frame and cleaned did they learn it had been painted some 300 years earlier by the Dutch artist Willem van Aelst.

That fortuitous purchase sparked a lifelong love affair with Dutch and Flemish painting that eventually blossomed into a collection of 67 small portraits, still lifes and landscapes that will go on display tomorrow at the Walters Art Gallery.

"An Eye for Detail: 17th-Century Dutch and Flemish Paintings from the Collection of Henry H. Weldon" presents a beguiling selection of works that originally were intended to be enjoyed not in grand castles or cathedrals but in the intimacy of one's own home.

Some of the paintings are by famous artists of the period -- Peter Paul Rubens, Anthony van Dyck, Jacob van Ruisdael.

But many others -- including the Weldons' bargain-priced van Aelst, "Peaches, a Plum and Grapes on a Ledge" (1646) -- were painted by lesser-known, even obscure artists who nevertheless created works of timeless beauty and charm.

Part of that charm lies in the intimate scale of the works. Jan Brueghel the Elder's magical "Woodland Road with Wagons and Travelers" (1609), for example, is no larger than a postcard.

Yet Brueghel's tiny scene, filled with peasants, horse-drawn wagons and riders in a bucolic landscape, fairly bustles with activity as the eye wanders from one enchanting detail to the next.

To enhance the experience of these works as objects of domestic pleasure, the Walters has re-created the intimate ambience of a private home for its installation in the museum's second-floor gallery.

Dividers break up the space into areas of room-sized dimensions and the paintings have been hung slightly lower on the wall than usual to allow viewers to peer at them from a more domestic perspective.

In addition, the museum has decorated the space with home furnishings. Viewers are invited to sit at a desk and chair facing a wall hung with portraits by van Dyck, for example, or plunk down in a plush sofa opposite a wall of landscape and flower paintings.

By the 17th century, the Dutch middle classes had grown wealthy on trade with the Americas and the East Indies, and many families wanted paintings to adorn the walls of their homes.

A flourishing school of artists specializing in landscape, still life, and genre scenes sprang up to meet this demand, which was so great that a visiting Englishman noted "it is an ordinary thing to find a common farmer lay out two or three thousand pounds in this commodity. Their houses are full of them, and they vend them at their fairs to very great gain."

Few of these domestic or "cabinet" paintings were intended for public viewing. Even today they are only occasionally exhibited by museums, which tend to emphasize larger-scale works by only the better-known artists.

As a result, it is unusual to find first-rate collections of small Dutch paintings except in the homes of private enthusiasts. The Walters' exhibition is an opportunity to explore this fascinating corner of the art world.

For example, Anthony van Dyck's two portrait sketches, "Woman Resting Her Head on Her Hand" (c. 1616) and "Study of Boy's Head and Hands" (c. 1620), were both probably executed as studies for larger public pictures. But their small size and sensitive treatment of subject make them ideal as objects of private contemplation at home.

Similarly, Jacob Marrel's "Flowers Resting on a Ledge" (c. 1613), with its marvelous profusion of delicate blossoms spilling from an overturned vase, invites the viewer's gaze by reminding us that a lovely bouquet is an object delightful to the touch as well as to the eye.

The Weldons didn't set out to collect 17th-century Dutch and Flemish art. It was, in fact, a compromise between newlyweds.

Dutch-born Henry Weldon, now in his 90s, began his career as an international lawyer in Berlin, where he collected 18th-century English glass and modern art. But with the rise of Nazism in the 1930s, he emigrated to London and set up a successful commodity trading business.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.