Historian Carl Bode has observed that in the 18th century and, "to a smaller H extent," in the 19th century, Maryland "was almost like another country." This is just the feeling one gets after only a minute or two inside the exhibition "350 Years of Art and Architecture in Maryland," on view in the galleries of the art and architecture departments at the University of Maryland.
The first object one encounters in the art department gallery is a magnificent Chippendale high chest standing in splendid isolation against a barren wall. Made in Annapolis more than 200 years ago at a time of great building activity that, we are reminded by decorative arts curator William Voss Elder III, transformed the "small village capital on the Severn . . . into a fashionable town," the piece is a fast-track ticket to another time, another place.
Nearby is a portrait of William Buckland begun in 1774 and completed in 1789 by Charles Willson Peale. Buckland, who died shortly after the portrait was begun, was the best of the builder-architects whose great late Georgian works established the solid, prosperous architectural character we still admire in Annapolis. Peale, among his many other claims to distinction, was the best painter born in Maryland during the 18th century.
In basic form and in ornamental detail (note the realistic dogwood blossom carvings on the uppermost drawer), the high chest exemplifies the excellence of the "Annapolis school" of furniture-making in the final half of the 18th century. Thus this superb piece of furniture, installed as if it were a free-standing sculpture, which in a way it is, tells the story of the increasingly ambitious and sophisticated local economy almost as emphatically as a visit to one of Buckland's extraordinary town mansions would do. And the portrait, showing the likable, self-confident architect pausing while at work (note the unfastened button in the middle of his vest) on plans for the Hammond-Harwood house, his most famous building, adds richness to the tale.
"The key to art from Maryland before the 20th century is the particular," observes Elizabeth B. Johns, associate professor of American Studies, in her catalogue essay titled "Pride of Place." The key to this remarkable exhibition is the authentic, made-in-Maryland quality that we see in the high chest, in Peale's portrait of Buckland and in almost all of the other pre-20th-century objects on view. The show, in short, is a history lesson taught in the most fascinating, if episodic, way, with tangible objects. In it we are able to sense, with an immediacy not possible even in the best verbal histories, what it was really like to live in Maryland 100 or 200 or, in lesser degree, 300 years ago.
For nearly a century after the first Europeans arrived on the eastern shore of the Chesapeake Bay, living in Lord Baltimore's colony, despite its justifiably touted natural beauty and abundance, was no picnic. Colonists of necessity had to concentrate on security and building a basic, agricultural economy. Buildings, therefore, were bare-bones frame structures, very few of which survive, and luxury goods, such as they were, came from England.
Consequently, the exhibition is short on 17th-century materials: Two of the half dozen or so remaining buildings are represented by photographs or measured drawings from the Historic American Buildings Survey, and there is a model of an aboriginal long house with its framework of pliable saplings. Even so, one is able to sense something of the hardship and the romance of the lives of the first generations of colonists by contrasting this absence of materials to the relative richness of what was being done shortly after the turn of the 17th century.
In 1700 (or very close to it), for instance, some proud parents commissioned an artist to paint portraits of their two sons. Although the painting may have been brought over from England (the catalogue is totally confusing on this score), the awkward depiction nonetheless tells a lot about the Maryland gentry of the time: The boys, posed in an idyllic, generalized natural setting, are dressed as Roman heroes. The principal buildings of the first half of the 18th century, larger and with masonry walls (bricks in the clay-rich east, fieldstone in the mountainous west, with its strong Germanic traditions), confirm this image of growing wealth and social aspiration.
If Maryland remained a basically rural, agricultural state well into the 19th century, the growth of Annapolis and, more dramatically, of Baltimore provided the foundation for an increasingly complex culture. Painters, sculptors, architects, cabinetmakers, silversmiths and other artisans of great skill were nurtured by the broadening clientele. There are carefully selected examples from each of these traditions in the exhibition, and each offers a specific glimpse of a particular place and time. Even a still-life of succulent oysters by Andrew J.H. Way, which under ordinary circumstances would not be seen as a history painting, conjures, in this context, a vision of sitting down to a delicious meal in the great port city during the Civil War.
Native sons and daughters who achieved distinction in painting included John Hesselius; Charles Willson Peale (and his many sons and daughters who, though born in Pennsylvania, did important work in Maryland); the slave-born portraitist Joshua Johnston; and Richard Caton Woodville, the great mid-19th-century genre painter, and his colleagues from Baltimore, Francis Blackwell Mayer and Alfred Jacob Miller. Notable outside artists such as Thomas Sully also were attracted to work in Maryland.
Among the more potent images in the show, because they say something about the arts of painting and architecture simultaneously, are the topographical paintings by the English-born painter Thomas Guy, and views of Baltimore by the Italian-born Nicolino Calyo and Fitz Hugh Lane, the American luminist. Guy's 1805 paintings of Perry Hall, at once realistic and idealized, are visual novels about life on a Maryland plantation early in the 19th century. The Baltimore views, painted from almost precisely the same spot 13 years apart (Calyo's in 1837, Lane's in 1850), are beautiful essays about the 19th-century city, with its busy harbor and outstanding architectural landmarks (such as Benjamin Latrobe's great Roman Catholic Cathedral and Robert Mills' Washington Monument).
The exhibition, by necessity, changes focus when it reaches the 20th century, becoming less a documentation of the history of a place than a show about the history of art. But it does touch most of the important bases in Maryland's lively, if provincial, artistic scene, with works by Lee Gatch, John Graham (a delightful pencil portrait of Dr. Claribel Cone, one half of the team of Baltimore sisters who put together one of the country's outstanding collections of modern painting), Herman Maril, Eugene Leake, Clyfford Still, Morris Louis, Anne Truitt, Grace Hartigan and Tom Green.
The architecture section, relying primarily on contemporary photographs, does not suffer from this problem, although, overall, it is somewhat less enticing than the part of the show devoted to the fine and decorative arts. One always wants to know more about a building than a photograph can tell: what it looks like on the other sides, the layout of its interior spaces and their de'cor and, perhaps most important of all, what surrounds the structure, be it a forest, a landscaped park, or other buildings. Nonetheless, the materials have been admirably selected to tell the essential geographical and chronological tale.
The fact that the two sections are installed in separate buildings presents no problem, since the buildings are situated next to one another on the College Park campus, but one should perhaps visit the art department gallery first for the sheer visual excitement of the installation. The exhibition is a collaborative enterprise between the art and architecture faculties. The catalogue ($25), with essays and notations by Elder, Johns and Josephine Withers on the fine and decorative arts, and by Mary A. Dean, David P. Fogle and John W. Hill of the School of Architecture, is a most excellent document.
The exhibition continues through Dec. 1. It can be seen between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. Monday through Friday (to 9 p.m. on Wednesday), and from 1 to 5 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday.