Art: Maxim's Mission

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Maxim Karolik, 69, the opera tenor from Petrograd who emigrated to the U.S., married a proper Bostonian millionairess and became the most conspicuous collector of 19th century American art, divides most of his time these days between his late wife's summer mansion in Newport and the Ritz in Boston. At the Ritz he usually lunches alone, but every few bites he springs across the room to greet in heavily accented English some acquaintance at another table. In Newport his batonlike index finger waves to the accompaniment of an avalanche of talk, which is usually about Maxim Karolik. In both places he is like a character out of an old Russian novel—a tall, exuberant figure with a penchant for astrakhan-collared coats or pea jackets with mink collars and cuffs. "In Newport,'' he says in a typical Karolik maxim, "I am prominent. In Boston, I am important."

What Didn't Exist. He is indeed important in Boston, and he began being so in 1928, when he flabbergasted Beacon Hill by marrying the rich (in shipping) and prominent Martha Codman. Among the things the two had in common was an admiration for the Codman heirlooms, mostly Early American furniture. The furniture led Karolik to a taste for American art of the 19th century—a period that, except for its folk art, other collectors were studiously ignoring.

The Boston Museum of Fine Arts also had a taste for such things, and the Karo-liks and the museum soon formed one of the most remarkable partnerships in the history of art collecting. If the museum would accept them. Karolik said, he would find, buy and donate works of the neglected period. As Critic Brian O'Doherty has noted, "Mr. Karolik must have been the first collector anywhere to offer a museum a collection that didn't exist and who then went out and got it."

Actually there are three collections—one predominantly of furniture, which went on display in the museum in 1941; another of American oils painted between 1815 and 1865, which was put on exhibition in 1951; and the third of watercolors, prints and drawings, which was on view last week, ending Karolik's 28-year mission. The 3,000 items in the show, all dating from 1800 to 1875, form the most appealing of the collections (see color}. Good or bad, naive or sophisticated, these sketches and paintings reported the youth of the country with far more freshness than the century's more formal oils.

What Was Neglected. Some of the artists studied in Europe, but the show as a whole has a made-in-U.S.A. quality. The artists recorded cozy villages and awesome mountains, bustling ports and empty plains, the nation at peace and at war with itself. Their brushes could catch a moment in the life of a town, as in L. J. Cranstone's Street, or impose upon an ordinary scene a kind of theatrical grandeur, as in A. Z. Shindler's Cemetery. One English visitor observed that "the country seemed to swarm with painters," and as the artists headed West in search of new wonders, another commentator said that he "doubted if the brush had "ever followed so hard on the rifle."

All this, as the museum's Director Perry Rathbone says, is part of the "neglected treasure of our own country." And had it not been for the voluble former Russian who took up the cause, decades might have passed before others began to realize that there was one.