If the mayor can do it, why can't I?

Essay: Taking a cue from Martin O'Malley, an art lover decides which of the Walters Art Gallery treasures will look good in her home.

March 22, 2000|By Holly Selby | Holly Selby,SUN STAFF

I was thrilled to hear Mayor Martin O'Malley has borrowed some paintings from the Walters Art Gallery to decorate his office at City Hall. Wonderful idea! I'd like to borrow a few things myself.

When benefactor Henry Walters died in 1931, he left the gallery and his extraordinary art collection -- with its Greek and Roman objects; masterpieces by Raphael, El Greco, Degas and Monet; Chinese porcelains and illuminated manuscripts -- to "the mayor and city council of Baltimore, state of Maryland for the benefit of the public."

By the mayor's reasoning, that entitles him to choose items he likes from the art museum and carry them a dozen blocks south to his second-floor office and adjoining sitting room.

This is a great idea for a number of reasons.

Here's a mayor who cares enough about art to want to see Baltimore's best during working hours. Think of all the visiting politicians and dignitaries who thus will be introduced to some of the fine art objects that make up Baltimore's cultural heritage. Think of the mayoral aides who can admire paintings rather than study notes while waiting for an audience with the big boss.

The largest of the works, painted around 1860 by Italian artist E. Pastina, hangs to the right of the mayor's desk in his inner workroom. Called "View of Castel Tandolfo," it depicts the pope's summer palace set in an sun-drenched landscape.

Next door, in the sitting room, hangs a charming late 18th-century work titled, "Landscape with Figures." It once was attributed to Thomas Gainsborough but now is thought to be by Englishman Francis Wheatley.

The final two works are by Baltimoreans. One is "Rocky Mountain Scene, Wind River Mountains," a narrative landscape by Alfred Jacob Miller, who perhaps is the city's most famous mid-19th-century painter.

The other, a still-life, is titled "Bunch of Grapes." It was completed in the 1870s by Andrew J. H. Way, who painted both in Baltimore and Annapolis.

As soon as I heard that the mayor had borrowed some art, I thought, "Hey, I'm a member of the public," and put in my own request for a loan. (I'm not the only one whose mind works this way: According to museum administrators, city council president Sheila Dixon is considering borrowing a few things, too.)

I'd like Camille Pisarro's glorious winter scene, "Route to Versailles, Louveciennes," (circa 1869) with its luminous whites and evocative shadows. It's perfect for my living room. Edouard Manet's 1878-1879 pub scene, "The Cafe-Concert," is really super, but it doesn't match the sofa. The "Rubens Vase" is lovely, too. Carved from a single piece of agate for a Byzantine emperor and later owned by Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens, it is just the thing for my Ikea bookshelves, though a Faberge egg would work almost as well.

Before finalizing my choices, I decided to seek some advice. After all, the mayor didn't personally choose the art that now hangs in his office, he got help from his mother-in-law, Barbara Curran. She was a member of a delegation sent last month by City Hall to the Walters on an art-picking expedition.

What works for the mayor works for me. I telephoned my mother-in-law and asked: If you were decorating for me, what artwork would you choose?

She didn't miss a beat.

"I'd hang `Whistler's Mother' so you'd think of me always," she said.

What a terrific suggestion! Its shadowy grays and blacks match my kitchen perfectly.

Now if I can just get Mayor O'Malley to twist a few arms for me at the Musee d'Orsay in Paris.

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