Home reaches across the Atlantic to make a London impression

March 25, 2006|By JACQUES KELLY

That day in London a few weeks ago was depressing, cold and wet. I was to meet up with an old friend, who suggested that we run indoors to the National Gallery on Trafalgar Square. And there, hanging on the wall of this marvelous museum, there was no escaping the touch of Baltimore.

The museum was packed with visitors, many of whom sought out an exhibition of paintings titled Americans in Paris. My eye soon caught a compelling painting of a Victorian woman stylishly dressed in jet black, seated on a slipcovered chair. I looked once, twice and thought to myself: Isn't she an old friend from the neighborhood? She was, of course, the painting Portrait of a Young Woman in Black, which carries the subtitle, "Portrait of Madame J."

She was indeed ours, as her label informed her many viewers. The painting by Mary Cassatt was the property of the Maryland Commission on Artistic Property and for many years was a star holding in the George Peabody Collection in Baltimore.

I recalled her from my many visits to the Baltimore Museum of Art, where she had been displayed at times throughout my life. She made quite an impression.

I couldn't contain my enthusiasm and called out to a Maryland friend, "That's ours." Soon I was explaining about the Peabody Collection, which is now part of the inheritance of the citizens of Maryland.

A woman with a British accent chimed in about George Peabody's philanthropic contribution's to London and his statue there, a duplicate of the bronze version that sits in East Mount Vernon Place.

When I returned to Baltimore, my friends at the Peabody Institute gave me some details of what they called a "highly discerning acquisition." The picture was bought in 1942 at the request of Adelyn Breeskin, at that time director of the Baltimore Museum of Art, who served on the Peabody's art committee. It was Breeskin who secured the Cone Collection for the city.

I also learned that the painting is an ambassador for Baltimore and Maryland. It has traveled before; in fact, when the London show closes, it will tarry in the National Gallery's collection for a while longer this summer and then go off to Copenhagen, Denmark, where more people will get to get to see our stylish Madame J.

A few days later, I was in a bar near the main railroad station in Hamburg, Germany, where a sign beckoned with cheap and hearty meals. The beer, of course, was superb.

That Sunday night I was alone and digging into a platter of potatoes, cabbage and part of a cow, the kind of dish that my two German-descent grandmothers would have regularly produced. I looked around the place, which will never make it into a Michelin guide, and observed its own version of an art collection.

Hamburg, of course, is a world port. The bar reflected this tradition and was decorated with colorful posters of the great ocean liners of the past century. I looked at posters of the Hamburg-American Line, the Red Star and finally the North German Lloyd Line. And there, in type so large that not even a drunk could miss it, was this steamship's destination: Baltimore.

jacques.kelly@baltsun.com

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