- The Washington Times - Friday, June 17, 2005

Many Americans scorn France for saying no to the war in Iraq and a constitution for Europe.

Not so long ago, though, our nation revered all things French, especially in the realm of art. Wealthy collectors routinely traveled to Paris and environs seeking drawings and paintings that eventually would become the foundations of our own museums.

Some of the most ardent of those Francophiles came from Baltimore. From the early 1800s to the early 1900s, patrons such as Early American merchant Robert Gilmor Jr., tycoon William T. Walters and sisters Claribel and Etta Cone amassed works by the leading French artists of their day. Together, their holdings impressively chronicle the march from neoclassicism toward modern art.

What is more remarkable is that their collections have remained intact in Baltimore. A rich selection of French drawings from this trove has been assembled at the Baltimore Museum of Art and the Walters Art Museum in a joint 150-piece exhibition celebrating “The Essence of Line.”

The two-part survey might well be titled French Art 101. Scattered throughout are works by the great masters of the 1800s — Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, Eugene Delacroix, Edouard Manet, Paul Cezanne, Edgar Degas and others — as well as by their less famous contemporaries, who are responsible for some of the most arresting pictures in the show.

Sketches and studies concentrated at the Walters Museum reveal the ways in which drawing was used for visual note-taking. More finished presentation drawings, many of them rendered in pastels and watercolors, are the focus at the Baltimore Museum of Art. (A new online catalog of about 900 French drawings from both museums is available at www.frenchdrawings.org.)

Within this loose framework, collections from both institutions are intermingled. The exhibit also includes pieces from the Peabody Art Collection of the Maryland State Archives. Portraits, landscapes, genre scenes and illustrations represent a staggering variety of styles and techniques.

Of the two venues, the Baltimore Museum’s portion is the more satisfying in presenting meatier drawings that stand out as artworks in themselves. Among the treats are Ingres’ precisely penciled head of an architect; Jean Francois Millet’s moody, charcoal-blackened sheepfold; and Mary Cassatt’s brightly stroked pastel of a mother and child.

In terms of technique, some of the academic artists outshine the innovators in achieving more unusual effects. The large charcoal landscape by Theodore Caruelle D’Aligny, for example, is so carefully worked over that it resembles an oil painting.

The exhibit is shaped by the tastes of the collectors who originally purchased the drawings, and the Baltimore Museum spells out their preferences more clearly through its thematic displays. Indeed, we learn more here about the collecting habits of William Walters than at the museum he founded.

Walters, a Confederate sympathizer, spent the early years of the Civil War in Paris. While living there, he purchased drawings by French artists fashionable at the time who have since fallen into relative obscurity. One of the greatest pleasures of this exhibit is becoming acquainted with their work.

Among Walters’ favorites was animal sculptor Antoine Louis Barye, whose intense watercolors of snakes, lions and elephants look as if they were painted in the wild but actually were based on studies at a Paris zoo. Another was Leon Bonvin, a meticulous realist painter of interior scenes and horticulture.

The Baltimore collector also liked the illustrations of Paul Gavarni, who delineated both satirical and social themes. The Walters Museum’s segment of the show ends with an entire gallery full of Gavarni watercolors, each depicting a lone farmhand or working man to symbolize a different month of the year.

A compulsive collector, Walters liked to paste his drawings into leather-bound albums for contemplative, sequential viewing. After his wife, Ellen, died of pneumonia during a trip to London in 1862, he assembled books full of images related to prayer and devotion, some of which end the Baltimore Museum display.

Tucked into one of his drawing albums were four works by Honore Daumier, discovered after Walters died. One of these humorous social commentaries, “The Omnibus,” is shown along with other Daumier drawings collected by art agent George Lucas, who advised Walters on his purchases. The most winsome, which depicts a pompous artiste and his amateur admirers, aptly represents the collecting aspect of this show.

An engaging sidelight to the drawings at the Baltimore Museum are vitrines of watercolors, graphite, crayons, charcoal and the rolled paper “stumps” used to smudge it. These displays explain how the more expressive, vibrant drawings of the later 1800s, well documented in the exhibit, were made possible by increasingly sophisticated art supplies.

It’s unfortunate that they aren’t part of the Walters segment, which more fully focuses on the process of drawing. Here, the works are more fluid and unfinished, and, for the most part, less appealing.

Many of the sketchy drawings show the artists merely warming up their skills: Degas trying out different poses for his ballet dancer, Cezanne copying a marble sculpture at the Louvre and Delacroix observing a young Arab on a trip to Morocco.

Not all the experiments made it onto canvas. Before undertaking “Raft of the Medusa,” Theodore Gericault drew three self-portraits to study the facial expressions of the naval officers he planned to paint, but he eventually omitted them from his masterpiece.

Viewing many of these drawings, which were never meant for public consumption, is like watching a star athlete doing push-ups before the game. You admire the effort but can’t wait for the main event.

Still, there are some beauties in this section of the show, including two that bookend the French art of the 1800s: a softly chalked Cupid by Pierre Paul Prud’hon on unfaded blue paper and Georges Seurat’s darkly crayoned figures in a field.

The Walters exhibit culminates in colorful, modeled drawings rendered in watercolors and gouache, a more solid, water-based paint favored by the French. Several are mounted next to canvases and etchings for a direct comparison of preparatory and finished works. A particularly striking pair by Prosper Marilhat titled “Beneath the Archway” shows how the artist translated his pale watercolor into warmer, darker oils to capture the same scene in evening light.

Marilhat is one of several “Orientalist” French artists in the exhibit who expressed a fascination with the Middle East and northern Africa in drawings of praying Arabs and other “exotic” people and landscapes.

Another is the great draftsman Alexandre Bida, whose dramatic religious scene “The Ceremony of Dosseh” is a showstopping closer at the Baltimore Museum. The large drawing and others related to the Muslim faith form an interesting and timely subtheme within this ambitious survey, which reminds us just how good the French could be.

WHAT: “Essence of Line: French Drawings From Ingres to Degas”

WHERE: The Walters Art Museum, 600 N. Charles St.; Baltimore Museum of Art, 10 Art Museum Drive, Baltimore

WHEN: Tomorrow through September 11. Walters hours: Wednesday through Sunday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Baltimore Museum hours: Wednesday through Friday 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.; first Thursday of every month, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.

TICKETS: Walters: $10 adults; $8 seniors; $6 students; $2 children. Baltimore Museum: $7 adults; $5 seniors and students; free for children 18 and younger.

PHONE: Walters: 410/547-9000; Baltimore Museum: 410/396-7100

WEB SITES: Walters (www.the walters.org); Baltimore Museum (www.artbma.org)

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