Treasures of State: Maryland’s Art Collection
Editor’s note: The Thursday, June 22, preview is sold out.
The Washington County Museum of Fine Arts will present Treasures of State: Maryland’s Art Collection from June 24 through October 22, 2023. Treasures of State provides an unprecedented opportunity to see highlights of the state’s art collection in tandem with the museum’s collection, providing a visual journey of more than 300 years of significant history through more than 90 American and European paintings, works on paper, furniture, and decorative arts.
Together, these works offer a variety of perspectives and narratives about American identity, history, taste, and collecting. Notable artists represented in the exhibition include the Peales, John Kensett, George Inness, Jasper Cropsey, Hugh Bolton Jones, Eastman Johnson, and Thomas Wilmer Dewing.
“This has been an extremely rewarding collaboration,” said Sarah J. Hall, executive director of the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts.“It’s fascinating to see the parallels between our collections, as well as better understand the key role artists and artworks have played in documenting, chronicling, and creating history.”
This year, Maryland celebrates 235 years of statehood. One of the original 13 colonies, Maryland was named in honor of Queen Henrietta Maria, the wife of King Charles I.
A special reception and private preview of Treasures of State will be Thursday, June 22, 6-8 p.m. at the museum. It also celebrates the May opening of Landscapes & Legends: William Singer & His Contemporaries. As of June 21, the Treasures of State preview is sold out.
ABOUT TREASURES OF STATE
The exhibition is organized into a chronology that focuses on key themes, including the Colonial and Federal eras, antebellum America and the Civil War, Maryland landscapes, notable Marylanders, scenes of daily life, and the Peabody Collection.
“We are so grateful to the staff of the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts for collaborating with the Archives to make these works of art, which have rarely left Annapolis, accessible to new audiences,” said Elaine Rice Bachmann, State Archivist.
THE STORY OF MARYLAND
The story of America and its artistic traditions begins with Native Americans, who are represented in this exhibition through the spectacular Maryland State Flag created by Bearclaw of the Cherokee Nation. Made of 74,592 beads the flag was presented by the Maryland Commission on Indian Affairs to the Maryland secretary of state on November 28, 2008, in honor of the state’s establishment of American Indian Heritage Day.
Evidence suggests that Tompkins Harrison Matteson’s (1813–1884) oil painting, Founding of Maryland, 1853 does not depict the moment of the colonization of Maryland, as suggested by the title, but instead commemorates the passing of the Act of Toleration of 1649, 15 years after settlers established the capital of the colony in St. Mary’s City.
Founded by the Calverts, as a place where Catholic families could escape religious persecution, Maryland attracted colonists of multiple Christian faiths. As the community grew, internal disputes compelled the implementation of laws to protect religious freedom. The Act of Toleration ensured freedom of worship for all Christians in the colony.
Like many “history” paintings, the artist has created a fanciful scene including individuals who, were not actually present at the time in early Maryland. The “action” of the painting depicts Cecil Calvert, Lord Baltimore (who never came to Maryland) standing next to Father Andrew White (who had left the colony by 1645) handing over the Act of Toleration to William Stone, the colonial governor. An American Indian family is included in the group witnessing the event, representative of the indigenous people who had populated the area for thousands of years.
Matteson’s painting was donated to the Archives in 1983 and was first exhibited at the Hall of Records building, now the library of St. John’s College. The painting is traditionally displayed in the Senate Lounge of the Maryland State House.
The United States emerged as a new nation when colonists declared independence from England in 1776, sparking the American Revolution. A variety of portraits and historical paintings from this period, included in the exhibition, represent this period and illustrate how artists were influenced by Anglo-European traditions developed in the art academies of London, Paris, and Rome. Artists’ representing these traditions include John Hesselius, Giuseppe Ceracchi, and members of the Peale family.
Interestingly, the exhibition includes two portraits of Maryland Governor Samuel Sprigg, one from the state’s collection by Charles Willson Peale, the patriarch of the notable family, and one by his son Raphaelle from the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts’ collection. The exhibition provides an opportunity to see these portraits together and compare artistic approaches.
Landscapes in the exhibition reflect regional locations as well as well as more exotic, international locales. American artist Henry Livingston Hillyer (1840–1886) shows the influence of the larger Hudson River School movement in his November, Rock Creek. In this painting, Hillyer represents a bend in the Creek (likely at either Bluff or Boulder Bridge), where haystacks line a hillside, and a sway bridge is visible below the cliff in the distance. On the left, a pathway meanders into the woods while glimmers of sunlight illuminate the single tree, rocks, and ground. With the overcast sky and late foliage, the artist conveys a sense of wistfulness at autumn’s end. Hillyer’s attachment to this landscape is evident in the letters he wrote to local newspapers and his work lobbying Congress to designate Rock Creek as a public park, which eventually occurred through the passage of an official act in 1890.
Hillyer studied in New York with Aaron Draper Shattuck (1832–1928) and like his teacher, he was influenced considerably by Hudson River School landscapes. Because Hillyer’s family-owned land in southeastern Georgia, the artist, along with his wife, established the first schools for young Blacks after the Civil War in Camden County. The Hillyers taught there while Henry completed many watercolors of the surrounding landscape.
Later, while living in Washington, D.C., Hillyer developed a passion for drawing and painting the local scenery, including Rock Creek, a tributary of the Potomac River that runs through what is now Rock Creek Park in the District and Maryland.
Thanks to a generous donation of paintings, drawings, and archival materials in 1970 from Hillyer’s great-grandson, Joseph Brewer, the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts is the largest repository of the artist’s work in the United States.
A bronze bust of Harriet Tubman (c. 1822-1913), 2014, by Brendan Thorpe O’Neill (b. 1942) from the Maryland State Archives collection illustrates the significance of Tubman’s work to both Maryland and national history while also representing the state’s efforts to expand the representation of important Marylanders in its collection. Tubman is celebrated for bringing some 70 enslaved people to freedom through her heroic rescue missions into Maryland and other slaveholding states.
The word “FREEDOM” and broken chains appear on the base of the bust. The custom-made pedestal incorporates wood from the Wye Oak and a sweetgum tree from Dorchester County, Maryland, where Tubman was born.
“I am honored to have been involved in this project to pay tribute with my sculpture to such an iconic figure in Maryland and American History,” O’Neill once said. “I wanted to portray Harriet as a young woman in her 30s as she might have looked at the time of the Underground Railroad and to create an image of a powerful yet simple young woman, humble, yet watchful, and strong in leading her people.”
O’Neill, a graduate of Georgetown University, has been sculpting in bronze for almost 40 years. He studied at the Corcoran and took masters workshops with portrait and figure sculptors Eugene Daub, Paul Lucchesi, and Rick Casali; and was fortunate enough to have been advised and greatly influenced by renowned sculptor Walter Matia.
MORE TO SEE
The exhibition also includes examples of furnishings made for official use in the capitol, genre and still-life paintings, and a section devoted to sketchbooks and intimate works on paper from the storied Peabody Collection. This extraordinary collection was created when philanthropist George Peabody (1795-1869) established the Peabody Institute and its Gallery of Art in 1857. The famed institute included a scholarly library, an academy of music, a lecture series, and an art gallery. In 1996 the State of Maryland contributed to the endowment fund of the Peabody Institute in return for the acquisition of the art collection, ensuring its permanent preservation and public accessibility. A highlight of this section of the exhibition is the quirky and colorful Mardi Gras scene Clowns in a Street Scene du Carnaval dans le Grand Corso by French draftsman Antoine Jean-Baptiste Thomas (1791-1833).
Within this section of works on paper, the museum’s parallel collecting is represented by selected examples of Old Master prints and drawings.
Treasures of State has been organized by the Maryland Commission on Artistic Property, Maryland State Archives in collaboration with the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts. The exhibition has been collaboratively curated by Dr. Daniel Fulco, Christopher J. Kintzel, and Catherine Rogers Arthur. The exhibition is accompanied by an illustrated, interpretive catalogue available in hardcopy and electronic versions.
Treasures of State: Maryland’s Art Collection has been made possible with the support of The John R. Hershey, Jr. and Anna L. Hershey Family Foundation, Heart of the Civil War Heritage Area, Dr. Robert & Marjorie Hobbs, Dr. Joseph Ruzicka, the Waltersdorf Family, Visit Hagerstown-Washington County, and The James & Mary Schurz Foundation.