Faces in a crowd at the BMA

Portraits: A fresh look at how Impressionists saw people -- and how scandalous art evolves.

October 10, 1999

THE CLOSE-UP of portraits by French (and one American) Impressionist artists, organized by the Baltimore Museum of Art, will bring much attention to the BMA, until the exhibition moves on to museums in Houston and Cleveland next year. The show groups paintings from 40 American museums that have much in common but have never been seen together.

Five years in the organizing by Sona Johnston, curator of painting and sculpture before 1900 at the BMA, this show has been nicknamed "Fuzzy Faces," but it comes forth with great clarity.

With the blockbuster interest that Impressionist exhibitions have drawn in this country and Europe in the 1990s, "Faces of Impressionism" is likely to draw many visitors from afar. That will include people under the misapprehension that Impressionists always worked outdoors.

Since this is the museum that Arnold Lehman directed until two years ago, and Mr. Lehman has a success de scandale on his hands at that other BMA in Brooklyn, N.Y., it's worth noting what's high-impact about this show.

There's the full frontal head-and-shoulders, with high neckline, by Edouard Manet, of a woman named Victorine Meurent. This was the model he painted naked in the grass and on a bed, as scandalous in 1860s Paris as the Brooklyn show is today. Ms. Meurent, decorously dressed, is staring straight at the viewer, bold as brass.

Art always had the power to shock. Some art that scandalizes one generation is revered as masterpiece by the next. And, then again, some isn't.

Pub Date: 10/10/99

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