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How some of the world’s most famous art found safe refuge in early-America’s Annapolis

You’d want to know if you were neighbor to a secret treasure of masterpieces.
    So I’m telling you.
    Sixty-three paintings by great Northern European masters — Jan Breughel, Rubens and Van Dyck among them — lived quietly in Annapolis for two years, and Prince George’s County for 16 more years.
    “There was no collection of old master paintings remotely like it in this country,” says Arthur Wheelock curator of northern baroque paintings at the National Gallery of Art. “In fact, in both quality and quantity, no collection of Flemish art in this country would rival it until late in the 20th century.”


    They were here, and then they were gone.
    What were they doing here?
    Where are they now? That’s the mystery that obsesses Susan Pearl.

On the Run
    To unravel that mystery, return in time to 1794, when the newly independent United States of America was a safer haven than war-tossed Europe.
    As ripples from the French revolution threatened Antwerp, art collector Henri Stier fled.
    “He got the paintings and his family out,” recounts historian Pearl.
    By horse and carriage and by sailing ship, family and the art collected by Steir’s grandfather-in-law, Michel Peeters, traveled: 63 paintings protected in heavy wooden crates.
    At the core of the collection were, Wheelock says, “masterpieces by Flemish artists, although it also included paintings by, among others, Jacob van Ruysdael, Rembrandt, Titian and Tintoretto. The collection contained no fewer than 10 paintings by Rubens and six by Van Dyck.”
    The displaced Belgian family and their paintings took up residence for two years in Annapolis, renting the William Paca House.
    At the time “there was good society here, very fashionable, with lots of parties,” says Historic Annapolis curator of collections Pandora Hess. Henri Stier’s young daughter Rosalie and George Calvert met and married there.
    But the paintings remained a secret treasure.

Hidden in the New World
    Stier, an aristocrat who owned three homes in Belgium, had landed ambitions in the New World. He bought 800 acres in the Anacostia watershed, near the port town of Bladensburg. But before his house was finished, he was back in Belgium. In 1803, Riversdale became the home of Henri’s daughter Rosalie and her husband George Calvert, of Maryland’s founding family. The plantation gained renown, but not the paintings. They remained a family secret.
    From 1794 to 1816, the paintings stayed crated, lifted out only to be wiped clean of mold, shown to just a few artists. Only a few of the smaller paintings were hanging in one parlor and seen by visitors.
    Nobody saw them. Nobody enjoyed them.
    Then Napoleon met his Waterloo, and Europe was again safe.
    Send the paintings home, Henri wrote his daughter in December 1815. His letter traveled by ship. She received it in February. Ever dutiful, she planned their journey home.
    They’d have left unseen were it not for the pleas of American painters Rembrandt Peale and Gilbert Stuart. At Paca House and Riversdale to paint the family, they’d had peeks at the paintings. Peale wrote that Stier “had placed before me three excellent portraits, by Titian, Rubens and Van Dyck, as objects of inspiration for a young artist.”
    Convinced by these artists “that it would be a public wrong that such a collection of pictures — the like of which had never been in America — should pass out of the country entirely unenjoyed,” George and Rosalie Calvert opened their house. In the spring of 1816, Washington society mingled with artists and collectors at the first blockbuster art exhibit in this country.
    “Some of the finest paintings ever in America,” they were called by Sarah Gales Seaton, wife of the co-editor of the National Intelligencer.
    On June 2, 1816, the paintings were again crated to repeat their journey by horse-drawn carriage, then by ship from Baltimore to Antwerp.
    They crossed the Atlantic a second time aboard the sailing ship Oscar, subject to tempest, predation and shipwreck.
    They survived the crossing. What became of them then?
    Tracking the 63 keeps Pearl busy.

The Wide World Over
    Pearl’s quest began in her office. She worked upstairs in the mansion before it was restored as Riversdale House Museum. Her job — researching historic structures for Maryland–National Capital Park and Planning Commission — bumped her into the secret treasure.
    Original letters and papers told her part of the story. The more she learned, the more she wanted to know.
    What had become of them? Where were they now?
    “Finally, I hit the gold mine,” she told me. A genealogist hired by Henri Stier’s fifth-generation descendants shared copies of the “masses of letters” back and forth across the Atlantic.
    With letters, a sketchy packing list — written as family hastened to escape French armies in 1794 — and a catalogue of sales, she set about tracing their post-American journeys.
    Art is long; life is short. The owners died, but the paintings thrived, increasing in value with age.
    Each owner’s death led to an auction that disbursed the paintings more widely. At their sale in 1817, Henri Stier bought his 20 favorites from the collection that had been at Riversdale. His death in 1821 returned one painting to Riversdale. George Calvert — widower of Rosalie, who died three months before her father — purchased Rubens’ Romulus and Remus. That painting crossed the Atlantic a third time.
    Cross-checking list after list with the original packing manifesto, Pearl has successfully traced 20 of the 63 paintings that had long ago found refuge in Chesapeake Country. They are the most prominent and valuable ones, mostly kept in the family.    
    “I find it amazing how much information about that collection one can pull together from the packing list, Rembrandt Peale’s account and descriptions of the works in subsequent sales,” Wheelock said.
    Romulus and Remus continued in the American Stiers’ family and is now in the keeping of the North Carolina Museum of Art.
    Two more are in America: Rubens’ painting of his brother Philippe in the Detroit Institute of Art and Jan Brueghel’s wonderful The Entry of the Animals into Noah’s Ark in the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles.
    The Van Dyck portraits of Philippe LeRoy and his bride Marie de Raet hang in the Wallace Collection in London.
    At the outbreak of World War II, several paintings owned by the European branch of the family found sanctuary in the Royal Museum of Fine Arts in Brussels, where they remain.
    Pearl has seen almost all 20.
    “Twenty out of 63 doesn’t sound like a lot,” Pearl says, “but it actually is, considering what you have to do to track them down.”
    As for the others, she says, “I’ll probably be working on it for the rest of my life.”

See for Yourself
    Here it is 2016, the bicentennial of Michel Peeters’ collection’s departure from America.
    And here they are, 16 of the found paintings of the original 63, on exhibit again at Riversdale.
    “Of course we couldn’t get the originals,” Pearl admits.
    Masterpieces are not loaned to county museums with neither security nor ideal air and lighting conditions. Instead the museum purchased high-resolution digital images that, printed and framed locally, now hang throughout the Riversdale House Museum.
    “The exhibit is a wonderful way to step back in time, envision the original paintings and feel the excitement visitors experienced when world-class Old Master paintings were publicly displayed in Riversdale Mansion in the spring of 1816,” said Carol Benson, director of Anne Arundel County’s Four Rivers Heritage Area.
    Docents lead tours, “electronically enhanced” with hand-held tablets that interpret and enlarge paintings for inspection of detail (though connections are temperamental).
    It’s a sight worth seeing, especially now that you know the story.


    Open Friday and Sunday 12:15-3:15pm thru Oct. 23. (On Sunday, Sept. 18, a University of Maryland quintet plays Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition): $5 w/age discounts: 301-864-0420; riversdale@pgparks.com.
    Copies of the Stier-Calvert correspondence are held in the Riversdale Historical Society archives.

Neighbors joining neighbors to celebrate our independence

Is there anything more fun, more moving and more important than a hometown Fourth of July parade? Whether joining the parade or watching it, we celebrate our independence as a nation and as a people.
    Across the land, communities large and small decorate themselves, their dogs and conveyances from baby buggies to trikes and bikes to convertibles, tractors, fire engines and floats. In a partnership of faith and delight, we join as one entity united by shared purpose.

–Sandra Olivetti Martin

Annapolis Parade

From Amos Garrett Blvd., down West St., around Church Circle and down Main St. Parade at 6:30pm, fireworks at 9:15pm (Main St. and Spa Creek Bridge closed 6-10pm), Downtown Annapolis: www.annapolis.gov.

The state capital bursts with patriotic pride every Independence Day with a parade, music by the USNA Concert Band at Susan Campbell Park and spectacular fireworks over the harbor.
    Marching in the parade is a special honor, says Glenn Carr, a parent volunteer of a Special Olympics athlete who has marched for the last four years.
    “We’d been loving the Annapolis parade for a number of years,” said Carr, “and I started thinking Why can’t we be a part of the parade? We see a lot of other civic groups here and Special Olympics is a great cause that people love to support.”
    Anne Arundel Special Olympics athletes wear their uniforms and medals and march with a banner and wave flags.
    “This year we have a decorated van as part of our procession,” says Carr. “It’s a lot of fun, and we love to expose our athletes to the public.”
    The sight of these smiling marchers draws a lot of cheering and love from the crowds, he adds. “One of our athletes, a young lady who works at a grocery store, saw some customers at the parade that recognized her, and she was absolutely thrilled. I always tell them to ‘bring your flags and spread your happiness’. It’s a great day for our country.”
    Park at city garages and take the Circulator trolley ($1) to the top of Main Street. The trolleys run 8am-midnight. Shuttle service ($1) is also available from Gate 5 at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium to Lawyers Mall 5pm-midnight.
    The closer you get to downtown the harder it will be to park and the more difficulty you will have getting out of town after the celebration.
    Watching by boat? Because of the anticipated crowds, boaters are urged to select their preferred viewing area anchorage early and are warned to avoid the 1,000-foot safety zone around the fireworks barge.


Cape St. Claire Parade

Parade begins at 10am from the Cape St. Claire firehouse, travels one mile to River Bay Rd., then to the beach; fun continues at the main beach 11am-2pm: 410-757-1223; www.cscia.org/d/July4th-celebration.

The Cape St. Claire community joins together to celebrate Independence Day with a parade down to the main beach area. The atmosphere is family-friendly with lots of youth sports groups passing out goodies along the route. Rhiannon Dunn, coach of the Cape Rugby Football Club, says the kids in her co-ed touch rugby team plan to throw candy and trinkets from their float.
    “This is our third parade,” she says. “I love the Cape. I’ve lived here about 16 years, and I love the parade. It’s a chance for the whole community to come together and enjoy our neighbors. We are like a small town. Even being so close to D.C. and Baltimore, we still have that small town feel.”
    Dunn reports that for the players, it’s a can’t-miss-event. “It’s like one of their favorite things to do even being in the midst of our playing season.”
    Her favorite thing? “There are a couple of really interesting floats. For being a tiny community parade, the amount of effort and enthusiasm that goes into it is interesting. We are working on a float, but I am not sure how floaty it will be since just last week I realized that July Fourth was coming up. Thank goodness for Amazon Prime.”
    Prizes are awarded for the Most Patriotic and Most Creative entries. Games and activities at the beach after the parade include tug of war, a sandcastle building contest, a water balloon toss, spoon and egg races and watermelon eating contest. Grillmasters compete to win the title of best Backyard Ribs in the Cape — guest judges sample entries and choose a winner.


Galesville Parade

From Anchors Way, between Galesville Park and Hardesty Funeral Home down Galesville Rd., turning right onto East Benning Rd., winding until it passes the community center, then out on West Benning and across to the Anchors Way starting point. Main St. closes at 12:45pm; parade at 1pm: 410-867-2648; www.galesvilleheritagesociety.org/July4th.shtml.

The historic waterfront community of Galesville began its Fourth of July parade tradition late, in 1994, with just fireworks, sponsored by the Galesville Heritage Society. A parade was added the next year. Each year the festivities grew a little more, until the fireworks brought in so many people that it overwhelmed the community’s resources. So the fireworks ended, but the parade lives on.
    The Annapolis Drum & Bugle Corps, a Color Guard and Uncle Sam lead the parade, followed by fire engines, antique vehicles, floats of all kinds by individuals, local businesses and civic groups, decorated bicycles and walking, marching and equestrian groups.
    Each year, a contingent from Oak Crest Farm in Davidsonville joins the parade. A dozen or more young riders carrying large American flags sit proud atop decorated horses with braided, beribboned tails. The riders show their patriotism in their American flag-print riding clothes and cowboy hats. Riders and horses march in formation, showcasing their paired skills.
    The parade route is lined with cheering onlookers, along with private and public cookouts and barbeques. Volunteers in white shirts, blue shorts and red bandanas monitor the route, answer questions and hand out water. The parade usually takes about an hour, but there may be delays for accidents, mechanical difficulties or just plain enthusiasm for the day.
    All paraders earn ribbons, with volunteer judges awarding prizes in various categories.


Severna Park Parade

From St. Martin’s in the Field Episcopal Church along Benfield and Evergreen roads to downtown Severna Park. 10am: 410-647-3900.

Severna Park is not an incorporated town like Chesapeake Beach or a city like Annapolis, but the sense of community is strong, especially on the Fourth of July, when Severna Park hosts one of the largest parades in the area, a community highlight for more than 40 years.
    “It’s a way to celebrate our nation’s birthday, the spirit of freedom and our love of country,” says Linda Zahn, CEO of the Greater Severna Park and Arnold Chamber of Commerce, who leads the effort. It takes months of planning and about 70 volunteers to plan and execute a successful parade.
    Just how successful is it?
    “We don’t have an official count, but it must be thousands,” Zahn told Bay Weekly. “Last year it rained through the entire parade. People stood in the rain watching, and almost all of the marchers marched.”
    This year’s theme, Celebrating Harmony in America, seems an appropriate choice for this election year.
    Eighty to 100 parade entries are likely, from simple politicians waving from convertibles to 30 antique cars. As in most hometown parades, there will also be local school bands, fire departments, businesses and community groups.