Author Archives: David Curry

About David Curry

Dr. David Park Curry, senior curator of Decorative Arts, American Painting & Sculpture at the Baltimore Museum of Art, specializes in American and European art of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He holds a PhD in the history of art from Yale University. He has lectured widely in the United States and England, and published on Homer, Whistler, Sargent, Hassam, American Impressionism and Realism, folk art, Victorian architecture, world fairs, and period framing. Dr. Curry is currently working on a contextual study of the Hayes presidential china as well as a short book on William Merritt Chase’s still life paintings of fish. He also writes an occasional blog for the Huffington Post.

When Wishes Are Horses

A sculpture of a man riding a bucking horse.

Frederic Sackrider Remington. Bronco Buster. 1895; this cast 1906. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Jeffrey A. Legum, Baltimore, BMA 2012.585

“If wishes were horses, beggars would ride.” So goes a 16th century nursery rhyme advocating hard work. Artists have been knowing that for some thousands of years, working to create stirring images of horses from cave paintings to contemporary art. I wish readers would come have a look at three horses on view in the American Wing at the Baltimore Museum of Art.

Consider the American cowboy, arguably one of the most powerful mythic beings to appear since the pantheon of Greek gods peered down from the Acropolis in Athens. Recently, the BMA acquired an example of Frederick Remington’s first bronze sculpture, Bronco Buster [above]. Remington was already established as a painter and magazine illustrator when he copyrighted the piece in 1895. The Roman Bronze Works in New York cast ours in 1906, while Remington was still around to manipulate its metal surface, creating individualized textural effects as he did with each of the casts made while he was alive. Remington tackled a rousing subject – a bucking horse testing the rider’s strength by doing its utmost to land him in the dust. So well did the artist capture an ideal of rugged individuality that more than 300 authorized casts of the Bronco Buster were made over a twenty-year period during and after the artist’s life-time. You might occasionally glimpse one in the Oval Office at the White House when the nation’s President appears on television.

Sketching the Bronco Buster in a note to Owen Wister, who pioneered American Western fiction, Remington wrote, “my oils will all get ‘old mastery’ [like] molasses, my watercolors will fade – but I am to endure in bronze.” Once the mythic cowboy gained traction in popular culture, he, too, has endured – providing unlimited material for Hollywood producers and actors. Some of the early programs might seem tame in an entertainment world crowded by pneumatically muscled action heroes wearing stretchy revealing outfits, carrying bizarre attributes, equipped with supernatural powers, and always open to futuristic options for intergalactic transport. But I still recall being transported by a 1950s black-and-white television series featuring a masked man in tight (for then, anyway) pants and a matching cowboy hat, rearing up on a colorless-coordinated white stallion. He’d just dispatched the baddies, distributed a silver bullet (symbol of law and order; also effective against werewolves…), and declaimed, “Tonto, our work here is done,” before galloping off to a resounding “Hi Yo Silver, Awaaaaaaaaaaaaay!”

Woodlawn Vase, 1860                                                Silver Maker:  TIFFANY & COMPANY, New York, 1837-present The Maryland Jockey Club, Baltimore, on extended loan to the Baltimore Museum of Art, BMA  R.15873

Woodlawn Vase, 1860, Silver. Maker:  TIFFANY & COMPANY, New York, 1837-present. The Maryland Jockey Club, Baltimore, on extended loan to the Baltimore Museum of Art,BMA R.15873

The BMA stables numerous silver horses.  Not called “Silver” – made out of it. They embellish racing trophies from the 19th and 20th centuries.  An elegant racer named Lexington tops my favorite, the Woodlawn Vase [right]. Tiffany & Company created the three-foot-high trophy for the now defunct Woodlawn Racing Association of Louisville, Kentucky.  Anticipating the elaborate presentation silver of America’s Gilded Age, the vase is covered with inscriptions and racing emblems, including horseshoes, saddles, jockey caps, a stallion, mare with foal, and even tiny engraved signboards bearing the rules of the original 1861 Kentucky race for which the vase was named. Ridden by a jockey, Lexington is poised at the top of the vase above four winged victories. In 1870, a thoroughbred named Preakness, sired by Lexington, won the first stakes race ever held at the Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore. Given to the Maryland Jockey Club in 1917 as the trophy for that annual event, the enormous silver vase still makes its yearly appearance at The Preakness Stakes held at Pimlico. Like I said, “Hi Yo Silver, Awaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay!’

Elie Nadelman. Horse. Original c. 1914, this cast 1967. Bronze 35 1/2 x 28 3/4 x 10 1/2 in. (90.2 x 73 x 26.7 cm.) The Baltimore Museum of Art: Purchase with exchange funds from Bequest of Mabel Garrison Siemonn, in Memory of her Husband, George Siemonn, BMA 1967.46

Elie Nadelman. Horse.
Original c. 1914, this cast 1967. Bronze. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Purchase with exchange funds from Bequest of Mabel Garrison Siemonn, in Memory of her Husband, George Siemonn, BMA 1967.46

A third captivating horse displayed in the American Wing is a riderless bronze by Elie Nadelman [fig. 3].  First conceived as a large decorative plaster for cosmetics entrepreneur Helena Rubenstein’s New York apartment, this sinuous creature sets one delicate hoof on classical tradition, and another on an important French modernist text.  Having read Charles Baudelaire’s The Painter of Modern Life (1863), Nadelman knew the drawings of Constantin Guys who “applied himself to the personal beauty of horses.” Nadelman’s sculpture recalls Constantine Guys’ drawings. Nadelman also studied classical antiquities. Critic Lincoln Kirstein associated his elegantly streamlined steed with the mythical horses that pulled Poseidon’s chariot across the waters, as described in a poem by modernist writer Constantine Cavafy: “Their bodies, their feet, must clearly show/ they do not tread the earth, but run on the sea.” The BMA’s large bronze was cast posthumously, but a smaller life-time bronze casting, exhibited in a New York gallery in 1917, made Nadelman an art star almost overnight.

Like all talented artists whose work resonates over time, Nadelman had wide-ranging interests.  If his modernist equine sculpture reminds you of prehistoric ponies painted on the walls of caves in southern France and Spain, you’ve twigged another of the artist’s inspirations.  Hi Yo—but not necessarily silver…

Tea (Roses) for Two

Childe Hassam American, 1859-1935 Roses in a Vase, 1890. Oil on canvas, 20 x 24 inches. Helen and Abram Eisenberg Collection, BMA 1967.36.3

Childe Hassam. American, 1859-1935. Roses in a Vase, 1890. Oil on canvas, 20 x 24 inches.
Helen and Abram Eisenberg Collection, BMA 1967.36.3

An elegant American impressionist still life by Childe Hassam and a stately oil lamp hand-painted by Celia Laighton Thaxter, now paired in the new American Wing at the Baltimore Museum of Art, signal a change in the way Americans thought about Nature. Each was created during the tumultuous period when—as the United States emerged as a major global economic power—our relationship to the landscape gradually changed.  In the decades preceding American Impressionism, enormous machine paintings of regal mountain vistas by Frederick Edwin Church, Thomas Moran, and others gave way to the commercial viability of the oil sketch and the dominance of closely observed local incident over large national themes. In the face of urban development and attendant pollution, Victorian families used green houses and terrariums to bring nature indoors for study and enjoyment. Objects of decorative art embellished with ornament drawn from nature reinforced engagement with the natural world.   Filled with “the flowers our grandmothers loved,” old-fashioned cottage gardens were planted as a Colonial Revival antidote to the fast pace of modern life. Away from home, Americans experienced nature through the founding of the national park system, the growth of natural history museums and botanic gardens, as well as expanding tourism, and an explosion of articles in the popular press.

Once deemed the most idiosyncratic watering-place in the Union, Appledore—among the Isles of Shoals off the coast of New Hampshire—was the prototype for early 20th-century American summer art colonies. At the Shoals, Thaxter celebrated progressive art, music, and literature in a beautiful natural environment. Hassam was a tourist when he painted the tea roses in Thaxter’s parlor.  His freely brushed still life records the type of monochromatic bouquet she regularly gathered from the garden outside her cottage door. The 15 x 50-foot raised-bed plot became famous when she published An Island Garden (Boston, 1893). Gaining traction as an up-and-coming American impressionist, Hassam became one of Thaxter’s favorite artistic guests.  As his first muse she commissioned the young painter to illustrate her garden book with delicate landscapes and vignettes. A critic observed that Hassam’s paintings gave “the world which cannot get to Appledore Island an idea of the peculiar wealth of color which the marine atmosphere, or else some fairy spell of the place, lends to the [flowers] which grow in the poet’s garden.”

At first glance, Hassam’s luscious impression of somewhat blown roses in a glass vase seems an unlikely battle standard. He was just back from Europe and eager to tailor the lessons of French avant-garde art to his own purposes. His fragile bouquet, a finely tuned orchestration of yellows and greens set against a richly painted yet almost abstract background, hoists the banner of art for art’s sake, signaling firm commitment to light, color, texture, indeed all that makes painting beautiful. Hassam would spend his long career battling for beauty.

As a woman writer with an undependable husband, Celia Laighton Thaxter, too, had battles to fight. Hassam first met the poet and journalist in Boston when she sought watercolor lessons in the early 1880s. Obliged to supplement the income generated by the Laighton family’s seasonal hotel, Thaxter applied her skills to decorative china painting and book illumination, socially acceptable occupations for genteel women at the time. Proceeds from her artistry also supported her own widely recognized but poorly paid literary efforts. Graceful olive branches, her most distinctive pattern, decorate the parlor lamp now in the BMA’s collection. The Greek inscription is taken from Sophocles’s Oedipus at Colonus:  “watched by the eye of olive-guarding Zeus and by gray-eyed Athena.”

On Appledore Island poet and painter honed their powers of observation, keeping watch for a personal understanding of the natural world around them. Guided by the influential English art critic John Ruskin, whose ideas were discussed in the cultured atmosphere of the parlor, each artist carefully examined flowers to know them better, but avoided scientific analysis in favor of description that offered a pathway to imaginative sensibility. The careful scrutiny of nature served as a springboard for the imagination, triggering not only poetic language but also painted images that sidestep natural grandeur’s potential to overwhelm or baffle. As Thaxter’s lamp illuminates the concept of a carefully decorated, art- and flower-filled interior, Hassam’s suggestively abstract oil painting favors intimate personal experience, furthered by the relatively small scale of his work from the Isles of Shoals. Layers of pigment form a sensuous surface that takes on an abstract life of its own with colors still bold and fresh, offering us not so much a record of place as an intimation of spirit, communicating what it was to pause for a moment amidst such resplendent blossoms.

Celia Laighton Thaxter, decorator American, 1835-1894 Oil Lamp with Olive Branch Motif, c. 1881. Painted ceramic, metal, glass. H: 27 inches. Purchase with exchange funds from Gift of Ellen Howard Bayard, Gift from the Estate of Mrs. Charles R. Weld, Bequest of Alice Worthington Ball, Bequest of Ellen Howard Bayard, Gift of Mrs. C.C. Felton, Bequest of John M. Glenn, Gift of J. Gilman D’Arcy Paul, Bequest of Philip B. Perlman, Gift of William D. G. Scarlett, Young Friends of the American Wing Fund, and Gift of Lydia Howard de Roth in memory of her sister, Nancy H. Deford Venable, BMA 2006.121

Celia Laighton Thaxter, decorator, American, 1835-1894. Oil Lamp with Olive Branch Motif, c. 1881. Painted ceramic, metal, glass. H: 27 inches. Purchase with exchange funds from Gift of Ellen Howard Bayard, Gift from the Estate of Mrs. Charles R. Weld, Bequest of Alice Worthington Ball, Bequest of Ellen Howard Bayard, Gift of Mrs. C.C. Felton, Bequest of John M. Glenn, Gift of J. Gilman D’Arcy Paul, Bequest of Philip B. Perlman, Gift of William D. G. Scarlett, Young Friends of the American Wing Fund, and Gift of Lydia Howard de Roth in memory of her sister, Nancy H. Deford Venable, BMA 2006.121

BMA Voices: Mirror, Mirror

Anthony Nelme. Dressing Table Mirror. 1691/1692. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Mr. and Mrs. Kenneth S. Battye Fund, BMA 1982.3

Anthony Nelme. Dressing Table Mirror. 1691/1692. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Mr. and Mrs. Kenneth S. Battye Fund, BMA 1982.3

Dr. David Park Curry, Senior Curator, Decorative Art, American Painting & Sculpture, BMA

Ever since the Venus of Willendorf got her hair done, sometime between 28,000 and 25,000 BCE, human beings have given much thought to personal appearance. Venus’s prehistoric curls — the earliest-known conscious hair style — wouldn’t look all that much out of place in a contemporary night club, although her ample form might cause comment in an era marked by trendy concerns over sugar, butter, eggs, red meat, gluten, and so on. As Bernard Rudofsky’s classic text The Unfashionable Human Body (1971) makes clear, beauty is ever in the eye of the beholder. But we still tend to ponder who’s the fairest.

The Venus of Willendorf, 28,000 – 25,000 BCE. Limestone tinted with red ochre. H: 4.4 inches. Naturhistorisches Museum, Vienna

Emblazoned with an applied gilt crest initialed JB and topped with a couple of seated amorini (cupids) flanking a somewhat formidable female bust, the museum’s imposing silver mirror once jostled for space upon the dressing table of Judith Bridgeman, daughter of Sir John Bridgeman, second baronet, of Castle Bromwich in Warwick County, England. It must have been a mighty big table. As befit Judith’s aristocratic lineage, the mirror was part of a lavish toilet service, comprising 21 silver-and-gilt pieces, including tazze (footed dishes), candlesticks, brushes, scent bottles, boxes, and even a pin cushion. In the days before zippers and velcro, a lady of rank and fashion was partially pinned into her layers of clothing. Getting dressed in the morning was something of a production number and unlike today’s private ablutions, the daily toilette was a formalized semi-public performance, attended by various chamber maids and/or intimate acquaintances.

For awhile, Judith’s baroque toilet ensemble belonged to American newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst. After 1918, his mistress was the Ziegfield Follies actress Marion Davies. Backed by Hearst’s Cosmopolitan Pictures, and relentlessly publicized in the Hearst newspapers, Miss Davies eventually starred in 46 silent and talking films. In between engagements, the couple staged a glamorous social life in their 56-bedroom mansion at San Simeon, California, mixing with the likes of Charlie Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks. They also entertained at St. Donat’s Castle in Wales, purchased by Hearst for Davies as a present. On visiting the castle, George Bernard Shaw is said to have remarked, “This is what God would have built if he had had the money.” The resplendent silver toilet set, including the BMA’s mirror, was kept at St. Donat’s. Even when out of Hollywood, a legend of the silver screen such as Marion Davies would want her makeup always to be perfect.

Toilet set, Anthony Nelme, London, 1691/1692, now dispersed. Photograph from Catalogue of the Highly Important Collection of Old English and Foreign Silver. The Property of William Randolph Hearst, Esq. Removed from St. Donat’s Castle, Wales. London, Christie, Manson & Woods, December 1938.

Toilet set, Anthony Nelme, London, 1691/1692, now dispersed. Photograph from Catalogue of the Highly Important Collection of Old English and Foreign Silver. The Property of William Randolph Hearst, Esq. Removed from St. Donat’s Castle, Wales. London, Christie, Manson & Woods, December 1938.

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.

BMA Voices: Souvenir

Columbian Art Pottery (also known as Morris and Willmore). Teapot and Cover. 1893-1905. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Albert H. Cousins Memorial Fund, BMA 2003.45

Columbian Art Pottery (also known as Morris and Willmore). Teapot and Cover. 1893-1905. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Albert H. Cousins Memorial Fund, BMA 2003.45

Dr. David Park Curry, Senior Curator and Dept. Head of Decorative Arts, American Painting & Sculpture

You needn’t be a tea drinker to be charmed by this whimsical teapot with its soft, velvety bisque surface, tinted a blush pink not unlike a good rosé, resplendent with gilding. The teapot turns up at both ends – giving it an optimistic air. It is marked on the underside “Trenton N.J.”

“Trenton Makes – The World Takes.” So reads a large neon sign on an iron bridge spanning the Delaware River between Trenton, New Jersey and Morrisville, Pennsylvania. The manufacture of ceramics, first attempted during the colonial era, burgeoned there during the mid-19th century, establishing Trenton as a major ceramics center with fifty commercial pottery plants – hardly an auspicious moment to start yet another. However, nothing daunted, William T. Morris and Francis Willmore did just that, naming their new firm The Columbian Art Pottery. “Art” in the company title distinguished it from more utilitarian concerns – Trenton manufacturers were less noted for teapots than for potties – sanitary ceramics to furnish the earliest modern bathrooms.

Trenton lies just a few miles down from the spot where George Washington famously crossed the ice-choked Delaware River to mount a surprise attack on the British during the American Revolution, a bid for freedom largely driven by economics. Morris and Willmore’s attack on international markets was more subtle. By including “Columbian” in their company title, they took advantage of celebrity and name recognition generated by the World’s Columbian Exposition at Chicago, visited by more than 27 million people – an instant customer base avid for ceramic souvenirs manufactured by the Columbian Art Pottery.

If we can believe Emmanuel Leutze’s monumental Washington Crossing the Delaware (1851, Metropolitan Museum of Art), the future president traveled in an open boat back in 1776. The actual site, west of Trenton, is a peaceful country glade bordering the river, but Leutze’s exaggerated Delaware conjures the high seas. Leutze hoped his theatrical picture would stir mid-19th-century liberal reformers in Europe who might be inspired by the earlier American patriots.

Washington Crossing the Delaware

Emmanuel Leutze, Washington Crossing the Delaware. 1851. The Metropolitan Museum of Art: Gift of John Stewart Kennedy. 97.34.

Intrepid sailors in an open boat really did cross the high seas heading for the World’s Columbian Exposition. They were Scandinavians, sailing an exact replica of a 9th-century Viking ship, excavated on at the Gokstad Farm in Norway in 1880. With its dragon head and upraised tail-like handle, the little teapot recalls the replica of the Gokstad Viking ship, one of the greatest attractions at the Chicago fair.

Today you can glimpse the Lower Trenton Bridge and its neon sign when dodging heavy traffic on I95. Leutze’s monumental painting of Washington is on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The original Gokstad ship is in the Viking ship Museum in Oslo, Norway. To see the Columbian Art Pottery teapot, visit the new American Wing at the Baltimore Museum of Art.

Viking, replica of the Gokstad Viking ship, at the Chicago World Fair 1893.jpg
Viking, replica of the Gokstad Viking ship, at the Chicago World Fair 1893“. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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.