Friday, April 18, 2014

The State House's Artist: Francis Blackwell Mayer

When walking through the historic State House, many visitors do not realize that its appearance today was in great part influenced by one man. From the art in the Victorian Old House of Delegates Chamber to the early twentieth-century restoration of the Old Senate Chamber, Francis Blackwell Mayer (1827-1899) was truly a key player in Maryland’s nineteenth-century art community. It would be impossible to give an account of the State House’s history without mentioning one of its most fascinating contributors to both the building’s preservation and artwork.

Francis Blackwell Mayer's The Planting of the Colony of Maryland, 1893, can be seen hanging in the Old House of Delegates chamber alongside his other work, The Burning of the Peggy Stewart. Maryland State Archives, MSA SC 1545-1125.

Born in Baltimore in 1827, Francis Blackwell Mayer took an early interest in painting, studying in the 1840s with local Baltimore artists Arthur Miller and Ernest Fisher. His study was far from limited to the boundaries of Maryland though, and in 1851, Mayer traveled to Minnesota where he completed several sketches and notes on the Sioux Indians. Between 1862 and 1870, he lived in Paris, studying under Charles Gleyre and Gustave Brion and exhibiting several of his pieces in both London and Paris. Primarily known for his oil paintings, much of Mayer’s work was genre-based, a style of art also known as “figure painting” that was popular at that time.

Mayer’s most famous works often depicted historical themes. In an age where American history was often glamorized to evoke heroism, Mayer sought to pursue a different sort of lens. He largely disliked the glorification of history and viewed life rather as, “a tumultuous crowd swayed by the jangle of fool’s bauble and bells, mingling the sadness of the wise, the mirth of the thoughtless and the stupidity of the selfish.”[1] His interest in history earned him a position as the assistant librarian for the Gallery of Fine Arts at the Maryland Historical Society in 1848.

Francis Blackwell Mayer in With Pen and Pencil on the Frontier in 1851, the Diary and Sketches of Francis Blackwell Mayer, courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society.

In 1876, Mayer purchased a house in Annapolis and began to take a significant interest in the city’s history and preservation. There, he completed several paintings on Maryland’s history, including The Planting of the Colony of Maryland and The Burning of the Peggy Stewart, which still hang in the Old House of Delegates Chamber in the State House.Of the city, he wrote, “This old place is full of quaint bits of old architecture and if the [powers that be] had but the wisdom to preserve them, would become a place of great interest in the future…”[2] Apart from art, Mayer began to develop an interest in Annapolis architecture. In 1882 he sought to improve State House grounds with changes to the fencing and walkways, and in 1884, he formed the Local Improvement Association of Annapolis to work to preserve historic buildings. During his time in Annapolis, Mayer began to conduct extensive research on the historic city -- and developed a particular fascination with George Washington’s time there.

Annapolis in 1750 by Francis Blackwell Mayer, 1876. Maryland State Archives, MSA SC 4680-10-0064.

Mayer’s interest in Maryland’s history and particularly colonial Annapolis eventually got the attention of politicians at the State House. In 1894, the Maryland legislature asked Mayer to team-up with Baltimore architect, John Appleton Wilson, to determine the feasibility of returning the Old Senate Chamber to its eighteenth-century appearance after the 1876-1878 “desecration.” This was not Mayer’s first encounter with the room. In 1856, he completed several sketches of the Old Senate Chamber, probably for the Maryland Senate who was at the time selecting an artist to paint a depiction of the resignation.

Mayer and Wilson worked, unpaid, for six weeks and ultimately decided the room could be restored. Mayer wrote passionately to F. M. Lancaster, then the Chairman on the Committee on Public Buildings, “The restoration of this room to its original appearance is an obligation of duty we owe to ourselves to the country. The mutilation of this hall is looked upon by all visitors as an act of vandalism and tends to bring our historical renown as one of the original thirteen in contempt!”[3]

However, the legislature was slow to take action. Even in the construction of the 1886 Annex for the State House Library, for which he provided some designs, Mayer expressed displeasure. “They went back on me completely in the State House Annex affairs,” he wrote, “and chose a very ordinary design in preference to a really beautiful and artistic plan...Evidently it was all preordained and shameless.”[4] Ultimately, it wasn't until 1905, eleven years after the initial investigations and several years after Mayer’s death, that the restoration of the Old Senate Chamber began to take place.

George Washington Surrendering His Commission by Francis Blackwell Mayer, 1883. Image courtesy of the Mint Museum, 1971.14.

Last year, researchers found a piece in the Mint Museum’s collection called George Washington Surrendering His Commission, painted by Mayer in 1883. Because of Mayer’s extensive study on the Old Senate Chamber, its relics, and the resignation, this depiction is particularly fascinating as an artistic source for those involved with the restoration.

However, there may still be one painting of even more interest to researchers. At the height of Mayer’s research on the Old Senate Chamber, in 1896, he completed a piece called Washington’s Resignation for Henry Walters, founder of the Walters Art Museum. Unfortunately, no one knows what became of the painting that may be one of the most historically accurate depictions of the resignation to date.

If you have any information on the 1896 Mayer painting, please contact us here.

[1] Frank Mayer, unpublished autobiography, "Bygones and Rigamaroles," p.17.
[2] Francis Blackwell Mayer to Brantz Mayer, 3 August 1873. F. B. Mayer Papers, Thomas J. Watson Library, Metropolitan Museum of Art.
[3] Francis Blackwell Mayer to F. M. Lancaster, 22 February 1884. F. B. Mayer Papers, Thomas J. Watson Library, Metropolitan Museum of Art.
[4] Francis Blackwell Mayer to John G. Hopkins, 20 July 1886. F. B. Mayer Papers, Thomas J. Watson Library, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

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