Author Archives: Melanie Harwood

About Melanie Harwood

Soon after graduating from Wellesley College with a BA in Art History and marrying a Baltimorean, I joined the staff of the museum and have happily worked with the collections for many years in the installation department and as Senior Registrar.

Dressing Degas’ Little Dancer

 

degas-dancer

One of the most popular works in the BMA’s collection is Little Dancer, Aged Fourteen by French artist Edgar Degas. The BMA recently received a query about her attire and we are delighted to share BMA Senior Registrar Melanie Harwood’s answers to these questions.

How frequently are the skirt and ribbon changed?
Only when necessary. It’s occurred twice for the skirt and once for the ribbon since the work entered the collection. The skirt that came with the figure in 1943 (presumably the original from the 20’s) deteriorated over time and was augmented with more fabric, cotton wadding and wire in an attempt to keep it somewhat tutu-like. The decision was made in 1979 to replace it entirely and to replace the ribbon which the BMA cast had been missing for some time. The fabric and color of skirt was matched as closely as possible to the remains of the original. The use of a green ribbon is based on a contemporary description of the wax original which refers to the color as “leek green.” Time has caused the green to change to more of a golden hue.  The only change was to lengthen the skirt to more closely resemble Degas’ sketches and the common tutus of the time. Classic short tutus were an invention of the 1880s and not commonly in use when Degas sculpted the figure in 1881. 
The skirt was replaced again in 1998 due to deterioration but the ribbon was not.

Where does the fabric come from?
The fabric is a cotton “tarlatan” (gauze) dyed to a greenish brown and the ribbon is silk. The tarlatan is generally available through theatrical suppliers.

Do all Degas “Little Dancers” have skirts and ribbons?
All Degas “Little Dancers” have skirts, but not all have ribbons. In 1979 I conducted an informal survey of the “Little Dancers”. Out of eleven institutions contacted, four had the original skirts (in deteriorated condition, short, and augmented with cotton and wiring) and six had ribbons of varying colors. The only ribbon that was thought to be original was described as “yellowish” (also interesting as ours has faded from green to “yellowish).

 Who changes the skirt and ribbon?
In 1979 the museum did not have a conservator of sculpture so the designer and I took on the project with the oversight of the curators. The second change was handled by the conservators and they would direct any future re-dressings as well.

 Are there specifications regarding the way the skirt hangs or the ribbon is tied?
The bronzes were cast from the original wax (now in the collection of the National Gallery in Washington) after Degas’ death and Mlle Jean Fevre, the niece of the artist, dressed the figures in skirts to resemble those on the wax. I’ve never seen images or a contemporary description of these skirts and ribbons.  By this time the wax figure was forty years old and I’ve always wondered if the skirt Mlle. Le Fevre was imitating was shortened by age. It’s an interesting exercise as Degas never saw the bronze, but our aim has always been to maintain an appearance as close to the original wax of 1881 and his other dance images as possible.

Edgar Degas. Little Dancer, Aged Fourteen. Original model 1881; this cast 1919-1921. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Alice Morawetz Bequest Fund. BMA 1943.1

BMA Voices: Sweet Pea

Ellsworth Kelly. Sweet Pea. 1960. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Thomas E. Benesch Memorial Collection, BMA 1970.4.20. © Ellsworth Kelly

Ellsworth Kelly. Sweet Pea. 1960. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Thomas E. Benesch Memorial Collection, BMA 1970.4.20. © Ellsworth Kelly

Melanie Harwood, Senior Registrar

Ellsworth Kelly has called his plant drawings “a kind of bridge to a way of seeing that was the basis of the very first abstract paintings.” He is better known for the large abstract works to which he refers, such as the BMA’s Diagonal with Curve II (1978), or Untitled, the steel sculpture in the Levi Garden. They are large flat planes of canvas and metal with very defined edges. Kelly’s drawings of leaves, branches and flowers are not large, but they are comprised of white shapes whose contours are drawn in spare and elegant lines. The drawings are not abstractions of shapes in nature as each one is a very identifiable plant. Kelly has managed to convey shape, substance and even a sense of motion using little more than a thin outline. I’ve always loved sweet peas and find this drawing astonishing as it captures the delicacy and beauty of these flowers with absolutely no color or shading and only minimal line. He has reduced the plant to its intrinsic form and although detail is removed, the essence is there.

Ellsworth Kelly. Untitled. 1986. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Purchased as the gift of Ryda and Robert H. Levi, Baltimore, BMA 1986.70. © Ellsworth Kelly

Ellsworth Kelly. Untitled. 1986. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Purchased as the gift of Ryda and Robert H. Levi, Baltimore, BMA 1986.70. © Ellsworth Kelly

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: Why does the BMA have a lead drain pipe in its collection?

Pipe and Elbow (#S‑17‑F HOUSE I). Turkey (formerly Syria). The Baltimore Museum of Art: Antioch Subscription Fund, BMA 1940.169

Pipe and Elbow (#S‑17‑F HOUSE I). Turkey (formerly Syria). The Baltimore Museum of Art: Antioch Subscription Fund, BMA 1940.169

Melanie Harwood, Senior Registrar

From 1933 until the outbreak of World War II, Princeton University conducted excavations at the ancient sites of Antioch, Daphne, and Seleucia in Syria (now Turkey). The project was supported by subscriptions from the BMA, the Worcester Art Museum, the Musées Nationaux de France and later, Dumbarton Oaks and Harvard University, with oversight by the Syrian Antiquities Service.

Baltimore’s participation was enlisted and supported by BMA trustee Robert Garrett who was also a Princeton trustee and familiar with the Middle East from travels as a young man. Sadly, the project ended in 1939 due to the lingering effects of the Great Depression, the approach of war in Europe and the secession of Hatay province (location of the sites) to Turkey. As a result of the BMA’s support, twenty-eight major sections of handsome mosaic flooring, as well as a selection of fragments of sculpture, are on display in the Schaefer Court and Cone stairwell of the Museum today.

In addition to these impressive remnants of a long-ago culture there are some amazingly mundane artifacts in storage: buttons, beads, pins – and a four-foot section of lead drain pipe. It is dirt-encrusted, heavy and not the least bit attractive. The first time I encountered it I thought it was funny – a true “ugly duckling” in the collections! And yet, the very ordinary nature of the pipe gives us an immediate connection to the inhabitants of Antioch. We may not have magnificent mosaic floors in our houses, but we all understand the importance of good plumbing!

To my knowledge, the lead drain pipe has only been shown once, in “Diamonds in the Rough”, an exhibition organized by the registrars for the Museum’s 75th anniversary in 1989

A photograph from the Antioch excavation of the water conduits.

A photograph from the Antioch excavation of the water conduits.

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: A most handsome portrait

Thomas Eakins. Jane Dean Kershaw (Mrs. Samuel Murray). c. 1897. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Purchase Fund, BMA 1955.176

Thomas Eakins. Jane Dean Kershaw (Mrs. Samuel Murray). c. 1897. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Purchase Fund, BMA 1955.176

Melanie Harwood, Senior Registrar

I like Jane Dean Kershaw. The Thomas Eakins portrait is a wonderful painting and I’ve always loved portraits, but not necessarily the sitter. In this instance I really like the person depicted. She doesn’t engage the viewer directly but rather gazes off to the side with a thoughtful and slightly bemused expression. The brushwork of the figure and background is loose and expressive while the face has a wonderful structure and translucent skin, the slightly protuberant eyes set off by brushstrokes of red.

When this portrait was painted Thomas Eakins had been teaching at the Art Students’ League for ten years – an organization founded by a group of his former Pennsylvania Academy students. Eakins resigned from the Academy having created a scandal by allowing young female students to draw nude male models. Ten years prior he managed to offend Victorian viewers with his now famous painting, The Gross Clinic – a graphically realistic and bloody depiction of an operating theater. Eakins was interested in realism and his early training with Jean Leon Gérôme and Leon Bonnat in Paris gave him a solid grounding in anatomy. His portraits are straightforward and unflinching and, unlike those of many of his contemporaries, not the least bit flattering.

To me, his depiction of Jane Kershaw is different. She was only 31 at the time and Eakins’ photograph of her shows a much younger and more timid woman. The eyes are arresting but she could be described as “mousy”. The figure in the painting, however, is of a handsome, older, and more assured individual. Her features are chiseled and the gaze, steady and calm. Thomas Eakins was notoriously difficult to sit for but the Murrays (Jane Kershaw finally married Samuel Murray in 1916) were long-time friends and his portrayal of her seems to reflect that. I hope Jane “grew” into her portrait.

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: When sculptures fly

Ellsworth Kelly. Untitled. 1986. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Purchased as the gift of Ryda and Robert H. Levi, Baltimore, BMA 1986.70. © Ellsworth Kelly

Ellsworth Kelly. Untitled. 1986. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Purchased as the gift of Ryda and Robert H. Levi, Baltimore, BMA 1986.70. © Ellsworth Kelly

Melanie Harwood, Senior Registrar

In the years I’ve been here I’ve moved a lot of art – of all sizes, weights and description. Art handling mainly requires focus, common sense and teamwork. Occasionally though there is an opportunity to install really big art, art that is so large and heavy that it involves specialized riggers and equipment. Relinquishing direct control of the installation process is difficult enough, but the added variables of weather, equipment and municipal permits involved in outdoor sculpture gardens make them particularly memorable adventures. On the positive side, however, there are moments of sheer exhilaration when it all comes together – as happened for me on May 25, 1988.

May began well enough with construction on the Levi Sculpture Garden proceeding on schedule in spite of an April 28 snowstorm. Arrangements were in place for the simultaneous move of works from the Levi’s Lutherville property to the BMA and delivery of new pieces from New York, Connecticut and Vermont. City permits for street closures were obtained as the only 100 ton crane on the East Coast was reserved to lift the largest single piece, Ellsworth Kelly’s, Untitled, from the Charles Street service drive. All was in readiness. Then, sometime in mid-month things got complicated. It began to rain, mostly at night. Work slowed and in one case, newly poured footings were washed down the hill in a downpour. The 100 ton crane blew a gasket and its arrival was delayed – which was just as well as there were last minute adjustments to Kelly’s piece at the Connecticut foundry and its delivery was delayed as well.

Finally on May 25, a cold, windy and drizzly day, we were ready to place two of the largest sculptures in the garden: Tony Smith’s Spitball and the Kelly. Just as the mammoth blue crane began to lift Untitled from the flatbed, Ellsworth Kelly himself appeared with our deputy director, Brenda Richardson. They watched nervously beneath dripping umbrellas as 35 feet of stainless steel wrapped in blue plastic rose 100 feet in the air over the trees. In spite of wind and a daunting tangle of large branches, the crane operator skillfully lowered the sculpture until the waiting crew was able to guide it onto pins submerged in the cold muck and water. Kelly was positively euphoric once the sculpture was safely in place. I know the sculpture was conceived as a fragment of a huge disc but I’ll always see it as an airborne fin!

Ellsworth Kelly’s "Untitled" being lowered through the trees.

Ellsworth Kelly’s “Untitled” being lowered through the trees.

Ellsworth Kelly’s "Untitled" being lowered through the trees.

Ellsworth Kelly’s “Untitled” being lowered through the trees.

The Levi Sculpture Garden opened on June 17, 1988. Visitors strolled the paths enjoying the sculpture and freshly established landscaping. Among the invited guests I saw Ellsworth Kelly and Mark DiSuvero chatting in front of the latter’s sculpture, Sister Lu, Kelly inquisitively sticking his head into the bucket!

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.

Ellsworth Kelly. Untitled. 1986. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Purchased as the gift of Ryda and Robert H. Levi, Baltimore, BMA 1986.70. © Ellsworth Kelly

Ellsworth Kelly. Untitled. 1986. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Purchased as the gift of Ryda and Robert H. Levi, Baltimore, BMA 1986.70. © Ellsworth Kelly