Nancy Proctor, Deputy Director for Digital Engagement and Communications
One of the things I love about the BMA’s renovated American wing is the way stories just jump off the walls at you. You don’t have to know anything about the art to start making connections and weaving your own narratives among the paintings, sculpture, and objects that are often juxtaposed in surprising and even provocative ways.
The pristine white marble sculptures in the Maryland Gallery are no exception, but that doesn’t mean these statues are easy to decode. What are we to make of the silent female figures who share our space – one clothed, one nude – both by native son, William Henry Rinehart (1825-1874)? Neoclassical sculpture has always puzzled me, and no less so now after I spent many years writing a doctoral dissertation on it. It seems to want to imitate ancient Greek and Roman art but never quite manages to look Classical, no matter how skilled the sculptor and his or her studio. Modernists considered much of this “Victorian” art cloying and clichéd, so advocated de-accessioning it or at least burying it in museum storage to make room for more contemporary work in 20th century galleries. Some of it looks almost prurient, and indeed 19th century audiences had strict rules about what made a nude “art” versus pornography: if it was carved in white Carrara marble, it represented a Classical ideal, so would elevate the minds of its audiences; tinted to look like human flesh, it was debased.
But rules are made to be broken, and as British sculptor, John Gibson (1790-1866), pointed out, the ancient Greeks and Romans painted their statues as well as their buildings: generally ancient sculptures are only monochrome today because the color has worn off with time. Nonetheless Gibson’s Tinted Venus caused a scandal when first exhibited at the London International Exhibition in 1862. For the leading London literary magazine of the day, the Athenaeum, the figure was no more than “a naked impudent English woman,” its color a vulgar stain on the purity of the white marble “to destroy all alluring power, and every sign of the goddess.” Sculptors’ fascination with the ancient practice of painting statues has continued to the present day; Italian artist, Francesco Vezzoli, has also researched and ancient sculpture painting techniques and re-painted a number of Classical heads in the exhibition, Teatro Romano, at PS1 in New York.
Rinehart, who had studied at MICA before immersing himself in the Classical tradition in Rome with the support of his patron, William T. Walters, did not push the boundaries of the acceptable so far. An accomplished stone mason (some are surprised to learn that many sculptors, then and now, did not do their own carving), Rinehart made sculptures of Classical subjects and contemporary dignitaries, as well as decorative bas-reliefs. His mythic heroines at the BMA, Clytie and Atalanta, are a study in opposites: one nude, one clothed; one rooted to the spot for her love, the other fleeing from it, literally.
Clytie was a water nymph who loved and was abandoned by Apollo, the sun god. She spent so long looking after him longingly as he passed through the sky overhead that she turned into a sunflower, always seeking the sun. In Rinehart’s sculpture, she has not yet transformed into a flower but the sunflower she is holding bows its head, echoing her sadness.
Atalanta had quite another spirit. She was raised by a she-bear after her father, who wanted a son instead, abandoned her on a mountaintop. Once she became a celebrity for her hunting prowess and participation in Jason’s crew as the only female Argonaut, her father decided to step into her life again to insist she get married. As cunning as she was fleet of foot, she agreed to marry only the man who could out run her. With the trickery of Aphrodite, the goddess of love, one of her old hunting companions managed to win the race and her hand. But Aphrodite is a fickle mistress: she got annoyed with the couple for not paying her proper respect, so caused them to be seized with an uncontrollable passion just when they were passing a temple of Zeus. The angry god cursed them for defiling his house with sexual intercourse by turning them into lions. The ancient Greeks thought that lions couldn’t mate with other lions, so this was effectively a condemnation to a chaste marriage.
When I look at Atalanta now I admire Rinehart’s “wet drapery” technique and use of the figure’s hand gestures to convey movement and – is that surprise that she has been bested for the first time? But I also like to imagine that there is another statue of Atalanta just outside the museum: which one of those lions do you think she might be?
BMA Voices is an insider’s exploration of The Baltimore Museum of Art collection through the eyes of its curators, conservators, and registrars. Featuring a new object every day during the BMA’s 100 Day Celebration, the project will highlight some favorite, amusing, unusual, and obscure objects.