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Baseball at Night
May 26, 2006

Top: Morris Kantor, Baseball at Night, 1934, oil, 37×47 1/4 in., Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Mrs. Morris Kantor, 1976.146.18. Bottom: Camden Yards, Photo by Mike Edson.

What can paint on canvas do better than a photograph?

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of attending a night game at Camden Yards in Baltimore. It was a beautiful evening—lingering twilight, happy crowds, and cool spring air sweetened with the textures of BBQ and sauerkraut; it was every baseball cliché come to life.

Sitting up in the stands I hauled out my camera and tried to take a snapshot that captured the essence of it all. And I was utterly thwarted. The angles were all wrong, the field too big, the faces too dark, and the lights too bright. If I shot details I lost the big picture. If I shot the big picture I lost the details … I couldn’t get essence of squat.

A few days later I recalled Baseball at Night by Morris Kantor from SAAM’s collection. Everything in this painting looks so natural as a self-contained composition, yet when I compared it to my snapshot I realized how brazenly the artist distorted space to fit it all in. The infield is so compressed that it looks like the pitcher could practically hand the ball to the catcher from the mound, and the diamond is kind of skewed right, maybe to make room to paint the whole arc of the stands. It’s a manipulation of Euclidian geometry that baffles my camera, but it let Kantor show us the wind-up to the pitch, the crowd, the stands, the flag, and the lights in a way that my camera will never understand.

Chief curator Eleanor Harvey points out that Kantor painted Baseball at Night in 1934 in the middle of the Great Depression. Night baseball was a new phenomenon then: the first major league night game didn’t occur until the following summer (1935), but in 1934 fifteen of sixteen minor leagues (not teams, leagues) had at least one ball park with lights. We don’t have any evidence that Kantor was a fan or that this painting was modeled after a specific park, but the scene is to Eleanor and many others a depiction of “Everywhere, USA” – - a pleasant summer evening watching baseball with friends, savoring America’s pastime during rocky times.

When we open in July, Baseball at Night will be on view on our second floor in the north lobby, along with Thomas Hart Benton’s mural Achelous and Hercules and WPA works from the 1930s.

Related Story: NPR interviews Elizabeth Broun, Director of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, on Baseball at Night

Posted by Michael Edson on May 26, 2006 in American Art Here


I too am a fan of baseball. It has always been my sport of choice, both as a spectator and a player. In recent years I have gained a strong interest in football, but I still claim baseball, the smell of the park, the boys of summer, the whole atmosphere as my favorite.

I like the painting you reference is, in its own right, and for many of the aspects you mention, a work I enjoy. I do, however, have to take exception to your first line.

What can paint on canvas do better than a photograph?

The very question assumes an and/or situation that just simply doesn't exist. You can no more compare the two than you can compare the incomparable Enrico Caruso to Johnny Cash. Both are excellent. The same technical aspects of music, of tone and phrasing and composition, are key in both, but there is no conceivable way to compare them and say one is better than the other.

Similarly, photography and painting are two separate forms of art. Which is "better" is wholly dependent on the viewer and what that particular individual is seeking, at that particular moment, from that particular work.

I agree completely Jessica. It's not that photography is better (or worse) than painting as an art form: they just provide different ways of approaching the world.

Often when a visual idea pops into my head I can find a way to explore it through a viewfinder, but for the story I wanted to tell at the ballpark that night, the camera was not the right tool - - in my hands at least, not that I would have done much better with a sketchpad...

The question remains what you're doing at Camden Yards when you should be at RFK.

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