A historic and controversial piece of Baltimore's artistic heritage is getting a new home next year on the campus of the College of Notre Dame of Maryland, thanks to a local group dedicated to preserving the works of one of the city's most prolific mural painters.
The mural, titled "Baltimore in 1837, When the Sun was Founded," is a 12-by-52-foot painting by Baltimore artist R. McGill Mackall, who completed the work in 1953 for the front lobby of The Sun's North Calvert Street building, which had opened three years earlier. The mural has been covered by a wall since a 1987 renovation of the lobby. When it was uncovered again this year during a new round of renovations, the newspaper decided to donate it to the Mackall Foundation for the Arts, a non-profit group that has arranged to move it to the Notre Dame campus.
"Mackall was without question Baltimore's most prolific public artist," said Robert Peterman, director of the Mackall Foundation. "We are trying to preserve the legacy of this very important Baltimore artist."
But the work, which showed Baltimore's skyline as it appeared in 1837, the year The Sun was founded, drew sharp criticism from black Baltimoreans in the 1970s, who complained that its depiction of an elderly black man doffing his hat to a white couple was demeaning to the city's African-Americans.
Peterman, who is writing a biography of the Baltimore artist, denies Mackall ever intended to disparage African-Americans.
"What he was trying to show was that free blacks were a common sight in the city at that time and that they observed the common courtesies of the day," he said. "I don't believe demeaning blacks was an issue when Mackall painted that mural."
Mackall was born in Baltimore in 1889. After attending the Maryland Institute for two years, he went to New York for further study at the Art Students League before traveling to Europe to complete his training at the Royal Institute of Art in Munich and the Academie Julian in Paris. After serving in the Army during World War I, Mackall returned to Baltimore, where he became one of the city's most renowned artists during the first half of the 20th century.
Over the course of his career, Mackall headed the fine arts department at what is now the Maryland Institute, College of Art and founded the art department at the College of Notre Dame of Maryland.
He also painted 53 large public murals in the city, only about half of which have survived, as well as hundreds of official portraits of public figures, easel paintings and watercolors. He also made stained glass windows.
The Mackall Foundation was created in 1993 to save as many of the artist's murals as possible at a time when many of the buildings which housed them were being torn down or renovated as part of downtown redevelopment. Mackall's largest mural, measuring 14-by-80 feet, is housed in the Great Hall of the War Memorial Building downtown. It was completed in 1927.
Mackall was commissioned to paint The Sun mural by Gary Black Sr., whose family owned the largest block of shares in the business and who was a friend of the artist.
The mural depicts a panoramic view of Baltimore from what is today the corner of St. Paul and Madison streets. In the background, the Baltimore Shot Tower, the domed roof of the Basilica of the Assumption and the Washington Monument are all clearly visible.
Mackall adopted this scene from a contemporary watercolor by an early 19th-century American artist named "T. Tanssen," about whom little is known. The watercolor was discovered later in the century by a Boston sailor in China, who purchased it after mistaking the view for one of Boston's Bunker Hill.
The sailor eventually sold the picture to Alexander Leftwich of Baltimore. It then passed through the hands of several local art dealers and collectors before ending up in the collection of the Baltimore Museum of Art, where it remains on permanent display.
"Gary Black Sr. knew this watercolor and loved it," Peterman said. "It was he who asked Mackall to use it as the basis for the Sunpaper mural, which Mackall did."
Tanssen's watercolor did not include human figures, however. They were added by Mackall, who sketched the figure of a young artist on the left side of the painting as a personal tribute to Tanssen, and created a group of figures on the right to represent the diversity of Baltimore's 1837 population, which included some 5,400 free blacks and 1,800 slaves.
The offending image
Mackall's figures include a young couple and their child and an elderly black man, who is shown bowing and doffing his hat to the lady. Mackall, who often used his friends and neighbors as models, patterned the black figure after an African-American handyman who worked around the artist's studio in Dickeyville.