Restored faces of Baltimore

Conservator brings historic mayoral portraits back to life

December 03, 2007|By John Fritze | John Fritze,SUN REPORTER

Former Baltimore Mayor Samuel Brady's portrait hangs on the wall of a City Hall corridor where handshakes and whispers close deals the same way they might have during his term more than a century ago. But his knowing, austere face receives little attention.

That could be because Brady, who served as mayor from 1840 until he resigned in 1842, is getting harder to see. After decades of neglect, the varnish covering his image has darkened and the paint around his head has cracked. Brady is fading into the murky background of his portrait.

Now, years after they were painted, the little-known collection of 26 mayoral portraits hanging in a City Hall meeting room is being restored -- bringing life back into paintings that provide a rare visual link to Baltimore's political history.

"The mayoral portraits are probably the most important collection, because they are a visual record of the city's past leaders," said City Hall curator Jeanne Davis. "This effort is not passing. It's a much more lasting thing."

Most of the paintings hang unnoticed in a second-floor board room where the city's powerful Board of Estimates meets each Wednesday. The former mayors -- from Baltimore's first, James Calhoun, to its first black leader, Clarence H. Du Burns -- hang alongside and atop one another, nearly covering the walls.

"Every time I came in here, I looked at all these -- our mostly departed colleagues in government -- these eyes kind of looking at us from the past, telling us to continue on and to take the city to the next level," Gov. Martin O'Malley said of the portraits in January, during his final Board of Estimates meeting as mayor.

A spokesman said O'Malley has not commissioned his mayoral portrait.

The personalities of recent mayors pop off the canvas. William Donald Schaefer is the only mayor pictured outside, standing along a block of rowhouses where he grew up. The city's growing skyline is in the background. Kurt L. Schmoke, who became dean of Howard University's law school, is seen in a law firm setting, surrounded by books.

Older paintings such as Brady's are more of a mystery -- and in need of more care. Thorowgood Smith, mayor from 1804 to 1808, is wearing unusual eyeglasses, which hang from a headband rather than resting on his nose (some believe that he did not want his nose indented by regular glasses). Smith's portrait is cracked and chipped, its frame mangled.

Robert C. Davidson, mayor from 1889 to 1891, is shown sitting. His dark suit and long sideburns are nearly indistinguishable from the gray wall behind him.

In 2001, Davis decided to try to preserve the paintings. After meeting with several conservators, she found only one willing to take on the project. Eric Gordon, head of painting conservation at the Walters Art Museum, agreed to do the work separately from his duties at the Baltimore museum.

The process can take from a few months to a year, and Gordon usually receives one portrait at a time. He works with the paintings layer by layer, removing trapped dirt, peeling layers of varnish with chemical solvents, restoring flaked paint, repairing torn canvas and rebuilding frames.

The portrait of Joshua Vansant, mayor from 1871 to 1875, was among the first that Gordon restored from the collection. The painting, completed in the late 1870s, shows an expressionless Vansant, his hand resting on a red table, his gold watch chain gleaming across his stomach. A gold button on his shirt appears to rise off the canvas.

When Gordon finishes with a portrait, it appears as if a light has been turned on near the subject. Skin tones brighten and dark colors become more distinct. Hidden details such as furniture appear. Wrinkles become more pronounced.

He looks for clues -- hairstyles and clothing, or a certain type of tie -- to determine when a portrait was painted when the date is unknown. In Vansant's portrait, Gordon found an artist's signature.

The paintings, some nearly life-size, would have held up better if the climate at City Hall had been better controlled, Gordon said. Humidity, temperature and sunlight can do harm. City Hall was not air-conditioned until the 1970s. When it got hot, people opened windows, causing even greater variation in temperature and humidity.

Many of the portraits have been restored before -- some with better results than others.

Gordon stabilizes the paintings to prevent further deterioration. His mission, he said, is to restore the artists' original intention and to ensure that whatever he does to the work is reversible. Gordon started with the paintings that needed the most work and has finished six, including that of Vansant.

The city has spent $33,000 on the restorations so far.

"We try to be as conservative as possible," Gordon said. "These paintings haven't been cared for in the same way as they would have been at a museum. They were considered more history than art, and that's the way they were treated."

Through city budgets and contracts, bids and politics, officials in the room rarely seem to notice the paintings. But O'Malley launched into a surprise speech about them in January, noting that Mayor Sheila Dixon will be the first woman to have a portrait on the walls. He pointed to Mayor Thomas J. D'Alesandro III, who served from 1967 to 1971, and his father, Thomas J. D'Alesandro Jr., who was mayor from 1947 to 1959.

"When I'm gone," O'Malley said, "hang me with young Tommy."

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