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December 11, 2023

Walters’ Great Illustrations fails to inspire

By NATALIE BERKMAN | September 16, 2010

On the fourth floor of one of Baltimore’s free art museums, the Walters, is Great Ilustrations: Drawings and Books from the Walters’ Collection, a temporary exhibition that has the potential to interest anyone who has ever loved a book, at least in part, due to its pictures.

While people typically discourage judging a book by its cover, it is certainly appropriate to judge this exhibition in that manner, especially considering the content of the books is not the focal point and in most cases is not even present.

The exhibition, which opened at the end of July, features illustrations by various 19th-century artists and delves into the idea of democratizing images in newspapers, magazines and literature.

Filling a single room, the exhibition highlights art that was either created for a book or inspired by a scene from a book. The collection hails from a number of sources.

While all the artists presented are either American, French, or British, their art, sketches, and poetry (in some cases), makes reference to famous novels, episodes from the Bible and in one case even a reader from 100 years in the future.

Represented artists include: American George Henry Boughton (1833-1905), illustrator of Washington Irving’s Rip van Winkle and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow; Gustave Doré (French, 1832-1883), whose works are mostly biblical; and Charles Robert Leslie (British, 1794-1859), who was famous for adorning cabinets with pictures inspired by literary masterpieces.

In some cases, however, a picture is presented that way, and in the center of the room, that same image is displayed in the book in which it would have originally been found.

An even better way to view the art, this allows a museum-goer to see the artist’s work as it was originally intended to be seen — as an illustration, or an embellishment to another work of art.

Along with visual appeal, the exhibit also offers mild instruction.

On the side wall is a description of the rise of illustration: Beginning with lithography — or the process of producing an image using ink impressions — artists were able to make reproductions of their drawings.

This new form, which was invented in the late 1700s, was carried out using an oil-based ink on a specially prepared stone.

The process eventually became facilitated through the invention of wood engravings and steel engravings.

One of the most unique pieces in the exhibition was Samuel Finley Breese Morse’s (American, 1791-1872) “To the Possessor of this Book in the year 1965, written March, 1815.”

The artist and poet (both the same person), “imagines a reader so remote in time as to have neither form nor gender.”

The poem begins: “Oh Stranger, now unborn, whose soul, unhoused of clay . . . ”, and continues to become a rather intriguing narrative.

This was the only piece where the art was not really inspired by a work of fiction but rather, became a work of science fiction in itself.

The ultimate pitfall of this exhibition is its size. Because of its smallness, Great Illustrations is certainly not a reason to trek all the way out to the Mount Vernon area on its own (though, the trip is not a difficult one).

The entire room contains fewer than 20 works of art, and while most are adorable and fun to look at, the whole room takes a maximum of 20 minutes to peruse.

It is nice to go to an exhibition at a museum to see something out of the ordinary, and Great Illustrations certainly fits that description, as one typically thinks of a museum as a somber, impressive building with old and classical works of art.

The concept of the exhibition itself is unique in that one generally does not think of exhibiting pictures from books.

However, the sheer lack of artwork in the exhibition  proclaims that the Walters’ Collection does not have a very impressive collection of this type of art.

Instead of going to the Walters to see their measly collection of Great Illustrations for a mildly amusing half hour (which, by the way, would be about equivalent to the time it would take to get there and back), go for the museum itself.

The museum is beautiful and huge, and while it’s filled with the typical art museum classics that one would expect, it is all completely free.

When finished there (the whole museum might take a while to peruse, though), head over past the Washington Monument to Peabody to see the gorgeous library or hear a concert performed by tomorrow’s great musicians.

Great Illustrations: Drawings and Books from the Walters’ Collection ends October 24th, so if the art behind the illustrations that once inspired past readers, or books that inspired past artists piques your curiosity, head over to the Walters for an afternoon.

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