BMA Voices: The Enchanting Working of Vija Celmin’s “Galaxy (Cassiopeia)”

Vija Celmins. Galaxy (Cassiopeia). 1973. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Gertrude Rosenthal Bequest Fund, BMA 1991.24. © Vija Celmins

Vija Celmins. Galaxy (Cassiopeia). 1973. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Gertrude Rosenthal Bequest Fund, BMA 1991.24. © Vija Celmins

Lauren Ross, Senior Conservation Technician Paintings & Objects

What I love about this drawing has everything to do with the mystery of the image, and the metaphysical nature of the object itself, describing something that is beyond tactility – a galaxy. It gets translated through the use of another powdery substance, graphite. I think that Vija Celmins is one of the great living artists of my time and someone whose work I deeply admire. I encountered a large retrospective of her work in Cologne, Germany, quite by accident, and feel really lucky to have seen it. There were galaxy drawings, videos, prints of waves, three dimensional “rocks”, images of static, and more. The works are all indefinable but precise, and in all there are definitely the elements of trickery, or at least they leave me feeling a bit tricked and even odd. Peculiar, but mesmerized.

I asked our Head of Conservation, paper conservator Tom Primeau, what he thought about the artist’s technique in Galaxy (Cassiopeia). He thought that perhaps the artist had prepared the paper and then found a way to create a misted resist using something as utilitarian and practical as soap, which then created the star/cloud formation of the galaxy over and around which she could form the negative “space” with the graphite. She uses a common artist material to execute highly finished resonant images, something of a strict challenge, and what I really enjoy in her work. In an interview in 1992 with Chuck Close from the book Between Artists, Celmins talks with him about the magic aspect in her stone sculptures:

Well, the best part is that they do have a little bit of a magic quality to them. I think that the impulse to make these was so complicated that I can’t say much about them without sounding silly. They’re really something to experience, I think.

It is no wonder that Celmins was included in the Magician Ricky Jay’s Magic Magic Book, a two-volume edition also in the collection here at the BMA. The first volume is all about magical “blow books”, wherein Jay has researched the history and technical varieties of blow books. In these, a reader manipulates the pages and astonishing things happen. In the second volume, the works of several artists are presented scattered throughout, but with the correct manipulation of the book, one can see examples of the trancelike repetition of Celmins’ engravings of ocean waves.

I think in some way the idea of the magic book being manipulated in such a way is somewhat a metaphor for her works. A simple repetitive motion employed in the art-making process can arrive in a mysterious and enchanting result that may seem otherworldly.

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: James McNeill Whistler’s “Rotherhithe”, 1860.

James McNeill Whistler. Rotherhithe. 1860. From the portfolio "A Series of Sixteen Etchings of Scenes on the Thames (The Thames Set)". The Baltimore Museum of Art: The George A. Lucas Collection, purchased with Funds from the State of Maryland, Laurence and Stella Bendann Fund, and contributions from individuals, foundations, and corporations throughout the Baltimore community, BMA 1996.48.7637

James McNeill Whistler. Rotherhithe. 1860. From the portfolio “A Series of Sixteen Etchings of Scenes on the Thames (The Thames Set)”. The Baltimore Museum of Art: The George A. Lucas Collection, purchased with Funds from the State of Maryland, Laurence and Stella Bendann Fund, and contributions from individuals, foundations, and corporations throughout the Baltimore community, BMA 1996.48.7637

Nicole Simpson, George A. Lucas Cataloguer in the Prints, Drawings and Photographs Department 

A loud crash rang out in Rotherhithe – a shipping district on the south bank of the Thames in London. A brick had fallen from the roof of a building where workmen were doing repairs. Seated nearby on the terrace of a tavern was the dapper young artist James McNeill Whistler. He was in the middle of etching the scene before him when, startled by the noise, he jumped and accidentally left a long, vertical scratch on the copper printing plate. Although he could have removed this unintended mark, Whistler let it remain (it is visible in the center of the print, between the masts).

While Whistler delighted in such spontaneous occurrences, he was also a careful and deliberate artist. He was particularly sensitive to how the selection of paper could affect the look of his prints – here he selected Japanese paper, which is a thin, translucent paper, to add a luminous quality to the outdoor scene. Whistler was so pleased with this piece that he exhibited it at the Salon in Paris in 1863.

This print is part of the collection of George A. Lucas, who amassed nearly 20,000 prints, paintings, sculptures and books. A native Baltimorean, Lucas spent his adult life working in Paris as an art agent for wealthy and respected art dealers and collectors, including Samuel Putnam Avery (whose print collection is now at The New York Public Library), and William and Henry Walters (whose collection is the foundation for The Walters Art Museum). Lucas knew many artists, including Whistler. Whistler was notorious for his cantankerous spirit and could be a difficult friend – he frequently asked Lucas for favors and money, once challenged Lucas to a duel, and embroiled Lucas in his romantic misdeeds. Despite this undoubtedly trying relationship, Lucas continued to admire his work and collected nearly 200 prints by Whistler.

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: The Feast of the Gods. c. 1575.

Diana Scultori and After Giulio Romano. The Feast of the Gods. c. 1575, printed 1613. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Garrett Collection, BMA 1984.81.2632

Diana Scultori and After Giulio Romano. The Feast of the Gods. c. 1575, printed 1613. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Garrett Collection, BMA 1984.81.2632

Thomas Primeau, Director of Conservation and Paper Conservator

The glories of Italian Renaissance painting, frescos by Raphael, Michelangelo, Leonardo, Mantegna, and Romano, were created within the cloistered walls of churches and monasteries, and in aristocratic palaces and villas. Outside of a small audience who were privileged to view the paintings in situ, how was it that artists and connoisseurs from far away came to know and appreciate these great, immovable works of art? Occasionally, artists had the opportunity to travel and see things first hand; in the early 16th-century, Dürer made the long journey from Nuremberg to Italy where he saw works by Leonardo and traded drawings with Raphael, but the primary means of artistic exchange over distance was through finely made printed copies. Masterpieces such as Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel frescos were influential far outside of Rome because of a flourishing trade in engravings after his compositions.

One of the most talented and interesting engravers of the mid-16th-century was Diana Mantuana, also referred to as Diana Scultori. Though it was unusual at the time for a woman to acquire printmaking skills, for Diana the trade of engraving was a family business. Her father, Giovanni Battista Scultori was an accomplished draftsman and engraver who taught the craft to Diana and her brother Adamo. Engraving is a difficult and laborious medium as each line is incised into a copper plate using a fine-tipped tool known as a burin. This requires both strength and control in order to cut lines in metal that will appear to be as fluid and immediate as those of a pen drawing. Diana excelled at creating strongly engraved, yet finely detailed, elaborate compositions.

Diana’s engraving The Feast of the Gods is a condensed rendering of a group of 22 frescos depicting the story of Cupid and Psyche that Giulio Romano created for Federico II Gonzaga’s Palazzo del Te in Mantua around 1528. The murals illustrate the myth as told in Apuleius’s Metamorphosis: Cupid fell in love with the beautiful mortal Psyche, but the two were separated by the gods and Psyche was forced to undergo a long period of wandering and many trials before she was permitted to be reunited with her lover.

In reducing a lengthy narrative told through a cycle of monumental paintings down to a tabletop sized print, some creative editing was required. Rather than attempting to recreate the entire story, Diana selected scenes from the cycle that highlight the luxury of a celebratory spectacle as the gods prepare a banquet for Cupid and Psyche. The print captured the exuberance of the murals and allowed Diana to demonstrate her technical virtuosity. Her skill and control of the engraving medium is on full display as she depicts a sumptuous assembly of classical nude figures and a menagerie of exotic animals set within an expansive garden.

Another remarkable feature of Diana’s engraving is its scale; this is a large print, 44 inches long, and 15 inches high. The size of this engraving exceeded the papermaking and printmaking technology of the day so in order to create an engraving this long, Diana actually needed to engrave and print 3 plates, which were then pasted together. Prints from the Renaissance as large as this rarely survived as collectors often displayed them tacked or pasted onto walls. The BMA impression of the print also has suffered from aging and rough handling, however it was likely preserved because it was folded and tipped into a book for storage.

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: On Richard Diebenkorn’s “Woman Seated in a Chair”, 1963.

Richard Diebenkorn. Woman Seated in a Chair. 1963. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Thomas E. Benesch Memorial Collection, BMA 1970.21.3. © Richard Diebenkorn Foundation

Richard Diebenkorn. Woman Seated in a Chair. 1963. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Thomas E. Benesch Memorial Collection, BMA 1970.21.3. © Richard Diebenkorn Foundation

Katy Rothkopf, Senior Curator & Dept Head of European Painting & Sculpture, discusses Richard Diebenkorn’s Woman Seated in a Chair, 1963, and Diebenkorn’s artistic relationship to Henri Matisse.

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: How can lace details indicate status and rank?

Milanese Bobbin Lace Flounce for an Alb. Late 17th early-18th century. The Baltimore Museum of Art: The Cone Collection, formed by Dr. Claribel Cone and Miss Etta Cone of Baltimore, Maryland, BMA Sheet 26

Milanese Bobbin Lace, Flounce for an Alb (detail). Late 17th-early 18th century. The Baltimore Museum of Art: The Cone Collection, formed by Dr. Claribel Cone and Miss Etta Cone of Baltimore, Maryland, BMA Sheet 26

Anita Jones, Curator of Decorative Arts for Textiles

In earlier centuries, lace was more than a frilly trim or symbol of feminine seduction. Men wore lace as a sign of status and rank in the Church, as well as in court circles. The need for lace decoration on altar covers, ritual cloths, and liturgical vestments made the Church a major patron of lace-making.

This lace flounce once graced the bottom of an ecclesiastic robe called an alb. It is a continuous band of Milanese bobbin lace over 16 inches high and 144 inches in circumference. In this type of bobbin lace, the cloth work (solid areas) and the ground (net) are made separately, thus allowing the work required to produce such large-scale items to be divided into manageable sections.

Milanese Bobbin Lace Flounce for an Alb. Late 17th early-18th century. The Baltimore Museum of Art: The Cone Collection, formed by Dr. Claribel Cone and Miss Etta Cone of Baltimore, Maryland, BMA Sheet 26

Milanese Bobbin Lace, Flounce for an Alb (detail). Late 17th-early 18th century. The Baltimore Museum of Art: The Cone Collection, formed by Dr. Claribel Cone and Miss Etta Cone of Baltimore, Maryland, BMA Sheet 26

While scrolls and flowers are typical of Milanese lace, sections of this flounce indicate a special commission for a churchman of some status. On one side, the lace makers recreated a dramatic version of The Vision of St. Paul, depicting the moment in which Saul, a persecutor of Christians, has a vision of the risen Christ. The experience results in his conversion to Christianity and eventual martyrdom as Paul.

Despite the lack of color in the lace, the details of clothing, faces, horses, bridles and other elements are discernible through the use of different stitches. This powerful representation of faith may also have had a personal connection to the clergyman wearing it.

Milanese Bobbin Lace Flounce for an Alb. Late 17th early-18th century. The Baltimore Museum of Art: The Cone Collection, formed by Dr. Claribel Cone and Miss Etta Cone of Baltimore, Maryland, BMA Sheet 26

Milanese Bobbin Lace, Flounce for an Alb (detail). Late 17th-early 18th century. The Baltimore Museum of Art: The Cone Collection, formed by Dr. Claribel Cone and Miss Etta Cone of Baltimore, Maryland, BMA Sheet 26

The other side of this flounce reveals an elaborate coat of arms, a privilege shared by the aristocracy and the Church. Coats of arms are not infrequent in Milanese laces, but required special designs and resulted in increased cost. Unfortunately, the identity of the owner remains a mystery. Claribel and Etta Cone, who purchased the alb flounce in Paris in 1926, believed the arms to be those of a Cardinal. However, according to the rules of ecclesiastical heraldry, 12 tassels (fiocchi) on each side of the hat (galero) and of a different color than the hat (indicated here by the use of different stitches) indicate a cleric of a different rank. Other secular motifs, such as the crowned eagle, signifying imperial power, and the lion passant (walking), associated with royalty, seem to indicate a connection to a powerful family, who might have sought to cement their social and political status by positioning one of their members in the Church hierarchy.

Milanese Bobbin Lace Flounce for an Alb. Late 17th early-18th century. The Baltimore Museum of Art: The Cone Collection, formed by Dr. Claribel Cone and Miss Etta Cone of Baltimore, Maryland, BMA Sheet 26

Milanese Bobbin Lace, Flounce for an Alb. Late 17th-early 18th century. The Baltimore Museum of Art: The Cone Collection, formed by Dr. Claribel Cone and Miss Etta Cone of Baltimore, Maryland, BMA Sheet 26

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: Assembling Olafur Eliasson’s “Flower observatory”, 2004.

Olafur Eliasson. Flower observatory. 2004. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Fanny B. Thalheimer Memorial Fund, and Collectors Circle  Fund, BMA 2003.233. © Olafur Eliasson

Olafur Eliasson. Flower observatory. 2004. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Fanny B. Thalheimer Memorial Fund, and Collectors Circle Fund, BMA 2003.233. © Olafur Eliasson

 Mandy Runnels, Associate Registrar for Loans & Exhibitions

One of the greatest things about working at the BMA is the special relationship we have with objects in a way that is so different from simply viewing them. The secret history and experience of museum staff is unique to our field. We take care of an object from the time it enters a collection. We work with the artist’s studio to build a work, protect it, make sure no one touches it, and lastly and often most importantly, document anything that happens to it along the way. We help build giants and can tell you every detail of their lives.

This work came to us from Denmark completely disassembled. It was daunting to look at the artist’s cad drawing of engineering specs of what the approximately 2,860 lb. piece was supposed to look like; all in pieces spread out on the floor. How could so many steel pieces with corners sharp as blades create something so beautiful? A huge number of staff worked to assemble this work over many days. Multiple people had to lift each pyramid structure while others screwed it together. Everything had to align perfectly or you would have to take parts off and start over.

Olafur Eliasson. Flower observatory. 2004. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Fanny B. Thalheimer Memorial Fund, and Collectors Circle  Fund, BMA 2003.233. © Olafur Eliasson

Olafur Eliasson. Flower observatory. 2004. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Fanny B. Thalheimer Memorial Fund, and Collectors Circle Fund, BMA 2003.233. © Olafur Eliasson

Olafur Eliasson. Flower observatory. 2004. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Fanny B. Thalheimer Memorial Fund, and Collectors Circle  Fund, BMA 2003.233. © Olafur Eliasson

Olafur Eliasson. Flower observatory. 2004. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Fanny B. Thalheimer Memorial Fund, and Collectors Circle Fund, BMA 2003.233. © Olafur Eliasson

Documenting this process becomes part of the life of the object. A structural engineer had to determine if the floor could hold the weight. Slowly, every inch of the work was examined and every component accounted for. Every mirrored surface was carefully buffed to remove fingerprints that could oxidize the surface, all scratches noted, and every speck of dust removed. The seemingly insurmountable task had to be recorded and photographed of archival purposes.

Olafur Eliasson. Flower observatory. 2004. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Fanny B. Thalheimer Memorial Fund, and Collectors Circle  Fund, BMA 2003.233. © Olafur Eliasson

Olafur Eliasson. Flower observatory. 2004. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Fanny B. Thalheimer Memorial Fund, and Collectors Circle Fund, BMA 2003.233. © Olafur Eliasson

The inner kaleidoscope makes me think of memory and permanence; every angle makes you see something different. What permanence is there, really? The only permanence in a museum is the one those that work here create by watching over the works to preserve the artist’s intent. When I walk by the work, I feel a silence that seems to drown out any sound of media based works in neighboring galleries. Why is that? Maybe it is the monumental size or the ever-changing mirrored interior or simply, after all the activity in its construction, the work finally stands with as a monolith of hushed reflection. I personally have a secret joy in knowing I helped bring this work to actuality at the BMA and safeguard the integrity of the artist’s work to share with visitors in perpetuity.

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: May Wilson and the art of reinvention

May Wilson. Head of a Clown. 1953. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Gift of Jeffrey Davison Case and Raymond B. Case, Jr., Baltimore, BMA 1991.63

Rob Morgan, Collections Database Administrator

As the Collections Database Administrator, I have access to tens of thousands of records stored in our database. Every now and then, an object catches my eye due to its uniqueness. The first time I spotted one of May Wilson’s pieces, I knew there was a story behind it. Researching her life proved to be just as interesting as her art.

A native daughter of Baltimore, born in 1905, May Wilson didn’t start painting until 1948 at the age of 43. Married to William Wilson, himself a lawyer and state legislator, the Wilsons lived on a ten-acre farm north of Baltimore. Whilst there, Wilson took correspondence courses in painting. During the early 1950s, she exhibited and sold paintings at taverns such as the infamous Martick’s on West Mulberry Street. Head of a Clown is from this period, painted in 1953 as a Christmas present for a friend’s son.

Around 1956, Wilson began to focus more on assemblages of found objects. A decade later, with the dissolution of her marriage, she moved to the Chelsea Hotel in New York City. No longer obligated to be a housewife, she pursued art full-time. Wilson continued to make assemblages by arranging found objects, and spray-painting her final creation in a single color. An example of one of her assemblages is Untitled (twin dolls in sneakers), n.d.. By wrapping and mummifying the dolls, I get a sense of the conflict Wilson must have felt between her past obligations as a mid-20th century housewife and her artistic pursuits.

May Wilson. Untitled (twin dolls in sneaker). n.d.. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Gift of William S. Wilson, New York, BMA 2003.115

May Wilson. Untitled (twin dolls in sneaker). n.d.. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Gift of William S. Wilson, New York, BMA 2003.115

There was a sense of circus in much of Wilson’s work. For a series of “Ridiculous Portraits”, Wilson would walk to Times Square and take her portrait in a twenty-five cent photo booth. Bringing these portraits back to her apartment, she would superimpose her face over famous icons or works of art. Below is a work after Goya’s Dona Maria Martinez de Puga. There is a little bit of spectacle in these pieces; the absurdity of superimposing your face on a famous icon, or, creating a “Ridiculous Portrait” to comment on beauty and sexism.

May Wilson (American, 1905-1986). Untitled. n.d.. From the series 'Ridiculous Portraits'. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Gift of Betty Jane Wilson Butler and William S. Wilson, BMA 1991.312

May Wilson (American, 1905-1986). Untitled. n.d.. From the series ‘Ridiculous Portraits’. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Gift of Betty Jane Wilson Butler and William S. Wilson, BMA 1991.312

Wilson continued to create into her seventies, filling up her studio apartment in Chelsea with hundreds of portraits and assemblages. She was an incredibly unique artist – a woman over the age of 60, during the Age of Aquarius, living an artistic, bohemian life in NYC. Instead of withdrawing after the dissolution of her marriage, Wilson reinvented her life. She died in New York City in 1986.

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 Royal Man’s Mask (Mukenga) from the Kuba kingdom

Artist Unidentified. Kuba kingdom (Democratic Republic of the Congo). Royal Man’s Mask (Mukenga). 1970s. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Gift of the Friends of the Arts of Africa, the Pacific and the Americas, and Amy Gould and Matthew Polk, Gibson Island, Maryland, BMA 2013.363

Artist Unidentified. Kuba kingdom (Democratic Republic of the Congo). Royal Man’s Mask (Mukenga). 1970s. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Gift of the Friends of the Arts of Africa, the Pacific and the Americas, and Amy Gould and Matthew Polk, Gibson Island, Maryland, BMA 2013.363

Artist Unidentified. Kuba kingdom (Democratic Republic of the Congo). Royal Man’s Mask (Mukenga). 1970s. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Gift of the Friends of the Arts of Africa, the Pacific and the Americas, and Amy Gould and Matthew Polk, Gibson Island, Maryland, BMA 2013.363

Artist Unidentified. Kuba kingdom (Democratic Republic of the Congo). Royal Man’s Mask (Mukenga). 1970s. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Gift of the Friends of the Arts of Africa, the Pacific and the Americas, and Amy Gould and Matthew Polk, Gibson Island, Maryland, BMA 2013.363

Aden Weisel, Curatorial Assistant of Arts of Africa, the Americas, Asia & the Pacific Islands, discusses a Royal Man’s Mask (Mukenga) from the Kuba kingdom (Democratic Republic of the Congo).

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: Hearing Art

Nick Cave. Soundsuit. 2013. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Fanny B. Thalheimer Memorial Fund, and Ellen W. P. Wasserman  Acquisitions Endowment, BMA 2013.325. © Nick Cave. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York

Nick Cave. Soundsuit. 2013. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Fanny B. Thalheimer Memorial Fund, and Ellen W. P. Wasserman Acquisitions Endowment, BMA 2013.325. © Nick Cave. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York

Kristen Hileman, Curator & Dept. Head of Contemporary Art

I wonder what people hear when they see one of Nick Cave’s Soundsuits, like the BMA’s example from 2013. Can a silent piece of visual art really elicit an auditory response? In order for me to imagine what the artist’s suits might sound like, I have to invoke a third sense…that of touch. I think about how it would feel to put a suit on and move around, perhaps even dance the way that the artist himself and others have in Soundsuit performances.

The BMA’s particularly elaborate piece was not created to be worn. The bodysuit of crocheted doilies is stitched on to a mannequin and the stunningly ornate headpiece is too heavy and fragile to allow any mobility if a person could manage to lift it onto his or her head. Nevertheless, if it were possible to dress in this sculpture, the lively rustling of the many beads would proclaim one’s presence. And being suited in such fantastical garb might give the wearer the permission and audacity to say things that he or she might otherwise keep silent. An old-fashioned gramophone speaker seems positioned by the artist for just such a purpose—the annunciation of bold ideas or projecting shouts of joy.

Cave has talked about how the Soundsuits relate to issues of identity and expression. By covering one’s body with such an otherworldly suit, one disguises skin color (and in some cases gender), creating an opportunity to express oneself free from the prejudices of others. The works also suggest the tradition of Carnival—a period during which certain practitioners of Catholicism dress in costumes or masks and engage in mischievous behavior before the arrival of Lent and with it a time of reflection and penance. Other cultures also use masks and dance for performance and rituals. Throughout Africa and the Diaspora, for instance, costumes are employed to transform their wearers into spiritual figures, empowered to covey religious or moral ideas, or into satirical representations of familiar cultural and political personae.

Cave, who has a background in both modern dance and visual art and is a Professor in the Department of Fashion Design at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, only realized the importance of sound to his art after he tried on his first sculptural suit made from twigs that he had collected in a park. That recognition has led to an exciting and unique practice that combines actual and implied sound and movement with Cave’s one-of-a-kind visual sensibility.

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: The noble portrait of Anne-Marie de Bricqueville de Laluserne, Marquise de Bezons.

Jean Baptiste Greuze. Anne Marie de Bricqueville de Laluserne, Marquise de Bezons. c. 1759. The Baltimore Museum of Art: The Mary Frick Jacobs Collection, BMA 1938.198

Jean Baptiste Greuze. Anne Marie de Bricqueville de Laluserne, Marquise de Bezons. c. 1759. The Baltimore Museum of Art: The Mary Frick Jacobs Collection, BMA 1938.198

Rena Hoisington, Curator & Dept Head of Prints, Drawings & Photographs

In 2002, long before I ever suspected that I would work at the BMA, I made my first visit to the Museum. I was a graduate student in the midst of writing my dissertation on eighteenth-century French portraiture. I grew so attached to some of the portraits I was studying that my mother would jokingly refer to their sitters as “my friends.”

Then, as now, Jean-Baptiste Greuze’s beguiling c. 1759 oil painting of Anne-Marie de Bricqueville de Laluserne, Marquise de Bezons, did not disappoint. An image of a refined woman about to play her guitar, it offers us its own sort of visual music. The Marquise is dressed in sartorial splendor in a short, hooded mantle and dress decorated with ruffles, completed, of course, by fashionable accessories, hair, and make-up. A pearl necklace sets off her luminous skin while her powdered hair is adorned with a floral pompon – an ornament popularized at mid-century by Madame de Pompadour, the official companion to King Louis XV of France. As was customary for the time, the Marquise wears white powder and rouged cheeks, heavily applied to make the eyes look brighter.

In eighteenth-century France, musical training was an integral part of the education of women of the upper middle classes and the nobility. The guitar was a particularly popular instrument in the 1750s and here we see the Marquise displaying her musical accomplishment to charming effect. Instead of showing the Marquise merely posing with her instrument, Greuze depicted her tuning her guitar. Her left hand adjusts a tuning peg while her right hand plucks at the strings, her thumb poised on the top strings to balance the hand. Look closely and you’ll see that Greuze inexplicably painted five courses of double strings above her right hand but six courses of double strings at the bridge. The six-course guitar, however, did not come into use until later in the eighteenth century.

Jean Baptiste Greuze. Anne Marie de Bricqueville de Laluserne, Marquise de Bezons. c. 1759. (detail.) The Baltimore Museum of Art: The Mary Frick Jacobs Collection, BMA 1938.198

Jean Baptiste Greuze. Anne Marie de Bricqueville de Laluserne, Marquise de Bezons (detail). c. 1759. The Baltimore Museum of Art: The Mary Frick Jacobs Collection, BMA 1938.198

The Marquise draws toward us with her eyes and smile, even as her attention is pulled toward the sounds she is making as she listens for the proper pitch. This tuning action, combined with her welcoming smile, lend such immediacy to the portrait. It is as if we have interrupted the Marquise in her music-making, from which she turns to engage us; the moment of this encounter appears to unfold right before our eyes as rustling fabrics and vibrating guitar strings send their delicate sounds into the air.

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.