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Ain't nothing like the real thing

Exhibit of masterpieces is a classic

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Masterpiece is one of those words designed to put you to sleep or make you feel stupid. It's the word your parents and teachers spat out to drag you to a museum and it's the word that rings in your head when you find you can't appreciate that old master painting of the Crucifixion. "But it's a Masterpiece." It can put the fear of boredom in our hearts.

But don't let the word scare you away from this show.

Raphael to Monet: European Masterpieces from the Walters Museum, Baltimore opens this Saturday, October 18, at the Mint Museum on Randolph Road. The show will run through January 11, 2004. If you never find the time to go, you'll never know what you missed -- like if you've never tasted chocolate, Hershey's will forever do.

Strap on the audiotape at the Mint Museum and walk through three centuries of the greatest artwork Europe ever produced. Then shed the earphones and wander through with ear plugs and blinkers. It gets no better in Charlotte. Or Baltimore. Or (often) New York.

This show delivers a 350-year overview of painting in Europe, from Raphael's 1513 "Madonna with Candelabra" to Edouard Manet's famed "At the Cafe" from 1879. It's a quick ride from the Renaissance through Impressionism. This short period saw some of the world's greatest artwork produced during unprecedented political and philosophical turmoil in Europe. It was tough evolutionary times for the civilized status quo, and very high times for art.

Fabulously wealthy railroad baron William Walters began collecting in the mid-19th century and his fabulously wealthy son continued and escalated the acquisitive rampage throughout his own life. Father and son shared an unusual gift -- both had great eyes. They could recognize (and afford) the pick of the litter. Their appetites were ravenous, their tastes diverse, and they only bought the best. And now, Mint Chief Curator Charles L. Mo has wrangled 60 of the best for us. Lucky us.

The tour begins with Raphael's "Madonna of the Candelabra." Rafael was the most talented painter of the Italian Renaissance. One of his favorite subjects, and one most coveted by patrons and collectors, was the Madonna. This painting shows the classic, "pure" rendition of the spirit made flesh with oil paint. Raphael's treatment of skin, hair, cloth and candle flame all conspire to evoke the elevated holiness of the subject matter. Is that idea too antiquated to our 21st century eyes? If so, best turn off the rap a little while. How could he paint skin like that?

Guido Reni's "The Penitent Magdalene," painted about 1638, is another example of a holy favorite, Mary Magdalene, redeemed sinner. This composition, the image of a seductive but prayerful woman, was a hot commodity in its time, and Reni obliged his passionate patrons by painting it many times. His lush Baroque use of paint complements the seductive sinner image -- she is both saintly and saucy. She gazes heavenward, exposing naked neck, cheek and hand, discreet and sumptuous flesh. Her hand rests on a human skull and holds a crucifix. Seductive? Not for subscribers to Hustler magazine. For its time, among devout admirers, this image was softly provocative. Is that a stretch? So stretch.

Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres is the best example of the classical tradition in French art during the 19th century. He loved all things Greek and Roman, he revered the High Renaissance, in particular Raphael, whom he idolized. His painting "The Betrothal of Raphael and the Niece of Cardinal Bibbiena" from 1813 illuminates the clarity and precision this ilk of French artist, and in particular Ingres, managed with oil paint. The Cardinal's sheer fabric, pleats in his robe, tendrils of hair and the Cardinal's curious grin are beyond merely photo realistic. The painter devotes such inordinate attention to each brushstroke, we slow down enough to notice each detail more profoundly than we do in a photograph. Ingres' fanatic care is compelling -- "Stay here, look at me!"

Delacroix is less careful. He is not a detail guy. He's a big picture, living large, gushy guy. Delacroix was not a Neoclassicist, but a romantic artist, a sharp counterpoint to Ingres' tightly controlled, sculptural paintings. "Collision of Moorish Horsemen" from 1843 shows the fury and raw emotion of Delacroix's brushstroke, his vibrant invocation of color and his predilection for bizarre subject matter. Two wild-eyed horses clash and battle for no apparent reason. The artist witnessed the clash 10 years earlier and described it in these comically understated words:

"During their military exercises, which consist of riding their horses at full-speed and stopping them suddenly after firing a shot, it often happens that the horses carry away their riders and fight each other when they collide."

Delacroix's curious emotion is contagious, his fervent hand conveys an urgency and vitality popular among expressionist painters of his day, and beyond. This painting and two others here can still pulse the ribcage.

"The Duel after the Masquerade" by Jean-Leon Gerome is an all-time favorite from the Walters collection. It's a macabre and wrenching painting, alluring and stunning, but it's difficult to say exactly why. The painting depicts the outcome of a fencing duel the morning after a masquerade ball. The figures in the painting are all in costume from the night before. A man dressed as Pierrot, the famous French clown, is slumped in the arms of his friends. He is either dying or dead. The victor, dressed as an American Indian, walks away with his comrade, the Harlequin. The white snow is blood-stained, the winter mist shrouds dim skeletal trees in the background. The dying man, dressed in his clownish white costume, still grips his foil. His face is ashen, nearly as white as the snow on the ground. We can feel the profound care and concern of his three attendant friends, their sorrow and his tragedy; at the same time we feel the indifference in careless departure of the victors. It's a riveting painting.

Life is less obviously terminal in Edouard Manet's "At The Cafe," painted around 1879. This is the most recognizable of all the paintings here; I've seen it reproduced everywhere except on the back of my Cheerios box. This painting is set in the Cabaret de Reichshoffen on the Boulevard Rochechouart where men of any class were permitted to rub shoulders with women of a certain class. A prostitute sits next to dapper gentleman who sports a stove top hat and a handlebar moustache. A woman behind these two finishes off a mug of beer as she gazes across the crowded cafe. A singer is reflected in a mirror; other patrons sit in the near distance.

The painting captures the immediacy of the moment with quick, textural and accurate brushstrokes, as if the artist had only that moment to complete his work. Though the canvas is alive with movement of paint and people, there is a quiet deadness about the place, no one speaks to or looks toward those closest to them. The prostitute in particular looks downright depressed. The upperclassman sitting next to her is a posing fop. If this rendition of Parisian nightlife is accurate, it is sad and sobering enough to make anyone thirst for another drink.

Manet, Impressionist and "painter of modern life," was a precursor to Edward Hopper, who made his signature paintings depicting the hollow spaces in American life 50 years later. We may have more in common with the French than we currently like to think.

Lesser-known names are here -- happy surprises that accompany the oh-so-recognizable superstar Impressionists. That's just one more surprise to a show of Masterpieces that will neither put you to sleep nor make you feel stupid. Ain't nothing like the real thing.

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