A Grand Vision

BMA's new settings have revitalized its works by Old Masters

Art

January 12, 2003|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,Sun Art Critic

Anthony van Dyck's big, splashy painting of the mythical Rinaldo and Armida (1629) is one of the Baltimore Museum of Art's most treasured holdings, so it's hardly a surprise that it occupies pride of place in the central gallery of the museum's newly refurbished Jacobs Wing that reopens today.

Any invitation to reacquaint ourselves with van Dyck and the BMA's Old Masters is a welcome one. And the Jacobs Wing, $1.9 million and three years in the remaking, is a grand place for the visit.

A Grand Legacy: Five Centuries of European Art celebrates the reinstallation of the museum's Old Masters galleries, which house collections donated by Baltimoreans Jacob Epstein, George Lucas and Mary Frick Jacobs, among others.

The refurbished Jacobs wing follows on the success of the Cone Wing renovation, completed in 2001, which substantially redesigned the modern art galleries and reflected the BMA's continuing efforts to present its collections in more engaging, visitor-friendly ways.

As in the Cone Wing, formerly stark white walls have been repainted in warmer, more inviting blue, brown and muted cranberry tones, and oak floors have been restored to their original dark finish.

The exhibition layout of the wing's nine galleries has also been substantially updated, though unlike the Cone Wing, the basic architecture of the rooms has mostly stayed the same, except for a new second-floor entrance next to the main staircase that allows visitors access to the galleries from there as well as from the courtyard.

Entering the wing from the main staircase, a visitor passes first through a small medieval gallery housing art and artifacts from the 13th through the 15th centuries, including a magnificent limestone Virgin and Child and an enameled copper crucifix, both from France.

The medieval gallery gives way to the three main galleries. The long center gallery is devoted entirely to paintings and sculpture collected by Baltimore businessman Jacob Epstein: works by Titian, Veronese, Raphael, Tiepolo, Hals, Reynolds, Gainsbor-ough, Goya and Barye, among others, as well as van Dyck's celebrated painting, which once belonged to King Charles I of England and whose sale to Epstein in 1927 provoked a near scandal among the British public.

The Epstein gallery is flanked on both sides by additional galleries organized thematically around the broad themes of nature and the human form.

On one side, a pastoral scene by Botticelli, views of Venice by Guardi and Canaletto and landscapes by Robert, among others, roughly trace the evolution of portrayal of nature from the 16th century to the 19th.

On the other side, portraits, genre scenes and history paintings by Poussin, Strozzi, van Haarlem and others present an equivalent narrative of depictions of the human form.

Both this gallery and the Epstein gallery highlight the BMA's superb collection of painted portraits. And all three galleries integrate displays of fine decorative arts -- jeweled snuffboxes, Sevres porcelain, etc. -- that complement the paintings and sculpture.

The wing, originally constructed in 1938, is named after Jacobs, a 19th-century society matron whose husband, Henry Barton Jacobs, was a founding trustee of the museum. She bequeathed her collection of paintings from the 15th through 18th centuries to the BMA with the provision that a new wing be built to house it.

Overall, the museum has done a remarkable job in revitalizing the way its classic artworks are presented to the public. The reinstallation of the Jacobs Wing represents a significant milestone in BMA director Doreen Bolger's effort to make the museum more accessible to visitors and to attract new audiences.

About the only caveat I can think of is that the designers didn't alter the scale of these galleries to make them noticeably more cozy the way they did the Cone Wing. One wonders what the impact of the van Dyke or one of Reynolds' large portraits might be in a more tailored space that would truly set off the spectacular presence of these imposing artworks.

But that is a minor complaint. For art lovers, the artworks themselves are always more important than their settings, and the quality of the BMA's Old Masters paintings and sculpture speak for themselves.

On exhibit

What: A Grand Legacy: Five Centuries of European Art

Where: Baltimore Museum of Art, 10 Art Museum Drive

When: Wednesday through Friday 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Admission: $7 adults; $5 students and seniors

Call: 410-396-7100 or visit the museum Web site, www.artbma.org

THE COLLECTORS

George Aloysius Lucas was the son of Baltimore paper manufacturer and book publisher Fielding Lucas Jr., a founder of the Maryland Institute in 1826.

After studies at St. Mary's College in Baltimore and at West Point, Lucas worked briefly for a railroad company before journeying to Paris in 1857, where he lived until his death in 1909.

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