Laura Albans, Curatorial Assistant for the departments of European Painting and Sculpture and Conservation
Although I work in the Curatorial Division at the Museum, I do not always have the opportunity to walk through the galleries and truly study the installations, as I would if I were visiting another museum. I am very fortunate to work for two departments within the Museum—European Painting and Sculpture and Conservation. Working in the European Painting and Sculpture Department allows me to fully learn a collection, while working in the Conservation Department introduces me to new works, allows me to become familiar with objects from other departments, and, most importantly, opens my mind to works or styles I may not otherwise notice.
Thomas Coke Ruckle’s small painting came into the Conservation Lab several years ago, where, as an amateur birder, it immediately caught my attention. Prior to working in the European Painting and Sculpture Department, I had worked closely with the Senior Curator of Painting and Sculpture Sona Johnston, but I was not familiar with this image from the American paintings collection. The painting stayed in the Conservation lab for several months, and I was able to see it on a daily basis. It wasn’t just the bird motif that captured my interest, but rather, it was the style that intrigued me, as well. I love how Ruckle captures the identity of the birds with such detail, yet he does not give any indication to the birds’ surroundings or landscape. This simple composition, with its naïve feeling, is fastidious in a painterly manner, creating quite a beautiful little masterpiece.
I am also continually surprised at the early date of Ruckle’s composition. I have to remind myself that it was completed in the middle of the nineteenth century, and yet it looks so fresh and modern! However, this example of these familiar North American birds was painted just one year after Ruckle’s return to Baltimore after studying at the Royal Academy from 1839-1941, nine years prior to the death of John James Audubon (1785-1851), and several years after Audubon’s publication of The Birds of America (1827-1839). I am very curious to know as to whether Ruckle referenced this illustrated tome for his artistic study.
Like Audubon, Ruckle captures the birds’ identity in great detail, but in using a bit of artistic license, he places all the birds on branches of a budding and blossoming apple tree, while seemingly depicting each with individual personalities. I am happy to note that all the birds seen in this composition are common visitors to my Baltimore backyard. Illustrated from top to bottom, left to right are (all males, most likely for the use of vibrant color and immediate identification): a Ruby-throated Hummingbird, a Northern Cardinal, American Robin, Baltimore Oriole, Northern Flicker, and an Eastern Bluebird.
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.