Tag Archives: John Hesselius

Thoughts on Visibility in Juan Logan’s Ghost and John Hesselius’s Charles Calvert and His Slave

Juan Logan. Ghost. 2009. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Print, Drawing & Photograph Society Fund, with proceeds derived from the 2010 Contemporary Print Fair, BMA 2010.11.1-6 © Juan Logan

A few weeks back, I was exploring the Prints, Drawing & Photographs vaults and came across one of the prints from Juan Logan’s Ghost series (2009). I was completely taken by the depth and mystery of the image – totally up my alley visually – and yet, unsure of the subject matter. I was in hurry and mentally filed away the work as something to revisit. A bit later, I stumbled across the piece again, and Ann Shafer, Associate Curator of Prints, Drawings & Photographs, mentioned to me that the images are ghostings of shackles. Yes, shackles – for necks, arms and feet. In learning this, the piece got a bit deeper and a bit darker.

It is no secret that slavery haunts us. Recent events in Baltimore and across the country have brought race to the forefront of American minds, but race has always been an issue at the fore and at the very foundation of America.

John Hesselius. Charles Calvert and His Slave. 1761. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Gift of Alfred R. and Henry G. Riggs, in Memory of General Lawrason Riggs, BMA 1941.4

John Hesselius. Charles Calvert and His Slave. 1761. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Gift of Alfred R. and Henry G. Riggs, in Memory of General Lawrason Riggs, BMA 1941.4

It makes sense to me to pair Ghost with a painting currently on view in the American Wing of the BMA. John Hesselius’s 1761 canvas Charles Calvert and His Slave depicts Charles Calvert, third baron of Baltimore, at the age of five with another boy kneeling at his right – his slave. I cringe when I see this painting, as I’m sure many of our visitors do. Yet with proper contextualization, it is important to have the painting on view as a reminder of America’s history, and as a reminder of why race and racism is as prevalent a topic today as it has ever been.

The painting also raises the question of whose histories we preserve. Living quite near Calvert Street, which nearly spans the length of the city, I very quickly caught on to “Calvert” as a familiar name after my move to Baltimore. Yet, next to Ghost, Charles Calvert and His Slave can take on a new context and a new gravity. When considering this pair, it is fruitful to think about the concealment at work in both images and how each artist employs this concealment to his advantage. Although Hesselius has foregrounded the young Charles Calvert, when paired with Logan’s work, we are forced to think beyond the boy in his head-to-toe pink clothes to the other boy who has very much been “othered”. We do not know his story. We hold onto a small detail, he holds a drum while the boy Calvert holds the sticks.

Ghost, on the other hand, withholds information through its abstract imagery. To create the series of prints which comprise Ghost, Logan has spray-painted over physical shackles placed on a surface and used the “ghost” image left behind as the basis for his etched polymer plates. This process results in the abstract silvery shapes of the image. The series draws you in and then with new knowledge of its origin the image and its title takes on new meaning.

248 years passed between the time that Hesselius and Logan each created these works and the ghost of American slavery looms still. Yet, it is encouraging to me that collections can challenge us to give these pressing issues thought and much deserved conversation. Through my experience at museums and my time so far at the BMA, I am learning more and more that collection and ownership are tricky concepts, ones that are important to revisit thoughtfully and frequently.

BMA Voices: Beautiful frame meets serious portrait.

John Hesselius. John Hanson. c. 1760. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Bequest of Elizabeth Curzon Hoffman Wing, in Memory of Hanson Rawlings Duval, Jr., BMA 1967.30.37

John Hesselius. John Hanson. c. 1760. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Bequest of Elizabeth Curzon Hoffman Wing, in Memory of Hanson Rawlings Duval, Jr., BMA 1967.30.37

Lauren Ross, Senior Conservation Technician 

While preparing paintings for the BMA’s newly installed American Wing, I’ve come to appreciate some decorative styles in frames in which I hadn’t previously been as interested. I have a great attraction to frames from the 19th and 20th centuries, and frames made by artists, and wood frames from the 17th century in Northern Europe. Honestly, I couldn’t choose a favorite. But the beautifully refined and carved frames for some of our late 18th American portraiture have recently caught my eye, in part because I needed to treat one.

The frame for the portrait of John Hanson by John Hesselius was made c. 1760. The frame seems to be original to the painting, fits it well, and is stylistically contemporary. Prior to installing the framed work in the gallery, both the painting and its frame needed some attention. As I focus on frames primarily, that’s what I will talk about.

The frame had not been examined until recently, and it was discovered that its surface was covered with a layer of soot and grime. There were splits near the site edge of the frame at the mitres, and numerous missing pieces of ornament and losses to the gilding.

Hanson details

Before treatment photograph of the frame.

Gilding is usually topped with shellacs and tonal coatings that over time can be difficult to clean, as the dirt becomes imbedded. It’s a careful task to undertake: gold leaf is very sensitive to many solvents and also to excessive rubbing or handling. The entire frame is carved wood that’s been gilded (more than once). There are no composition ornaments which have been sculpted separately and then added on. The workmanship in the carving of the frames of this period is exquisite, with moments of angularity. This frame is actually quite delicate. There are pierce-carved center and corner cartouche ornaments with leaves. The swept top edge of the profile consists of a gentle serpentine ribbon which is burnished and water-gilded, and terminates in c-scrolls at center ornaments. The rest of the gilding scheme is matte. The site edge of the frame exhibits a gadroon pattern, which radiates directionally from the centers of the rails, drawing the viewer’s eye into the picture plane. There are three large leaves which adorn the center ornaments as well, splayed out in symmetrical fashion. The quiet areas of the profile are adorned with gentle and delicate garlands of small leaves and flowers. Another beautiful feature is the way that the pierced carved negative voids echo the oval format of the portrait on its rectangular ground.

It is a very fine example of mid to late 18th-century American frames, which closely resemble their contemporary English counterparts. Sometimes they are called American Rococo. I have seen these frames referred to as George III (although in this case, that appellation would NOT have gone over well, situated on the portrait of John Hanson. In 1781, John Hanson of Charles County of Maryland became the first President of the United States in Congress Assembled, under the Articles of Confederation and was a great patriot. Part of Maryland’s Route 50 is even named for him.)

The treatment performed consisted of dusting, consolidation of gilding, structural repairs, loss compensations and ornament casting and replication, gesso recutting, in addition to surface cleaning and ingilding.

Hanson MT detailI finished this frame with no time to spare before it needed to be installed.

HANSON no pic

After treatment photograph of the frame.

The framed painting is now hanging in “Salon style” in the newly installed Dorothy McIlvain Scott American Wing, in Gallery 8, along with a large group of portraits in the BMA’s collection.

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.