Thursday, 3 October 2013

Boston: Museum of Fine Arts (MFA)



Aesthetics, Art and the MFA in Boston.

Rogier van der Weyden, St Luke painting the Virgin, about 1453, oil on panel, 137.5 x 110.8 cm. (Gift of Henry Lee Higginson).

John Singer Sargent, Henry Lee Higginson, 1903, original hangs at Barker Center, Harvard U. and a copy by Sargent’s students hangs in Symphony Hall, Boston
Appreciation of the arts in Boston has a long history. The ascendancy of art in Boston was due to a number of factors, but is primarily bound up with the organizational elite’s efforts to negotiate between “a public high culture” and mass entertainment.[1] Businessmen like the head of a brokerage firm, Henry Lee Higginson, who would donate his Rogier van der Weyden to the MFA, dropped out of Harvard and travelled in Europe where he was educated in Italian art and opera; but he had also attended informal, popular art events in the city. There were museums in Boston before the Civil War. The Boston Museum, which was founded in the 1840s, showed fine art next to popular entertainment spectacles, but by the end of the century, high culture, predominantly visual art and music, would be disseminated via what DiMaggio calls the “non-profit corporation” composed of trustees from the “Boston Brahmin” class who would usually delegate tasks to professional artists or art historians. Institutions like the Boston Symphony Orchestra (which Higginson helped to found) and the MFA provided a “framework for the definition of high art” in Boston. [2] Education played no little part in this project because museums enabled the masses to discriminate between vulgar and fine art which was the objective of the Boston Brahmins who created the cultural infrastructure in Boston.
The Brahmins, a name taken from the caste system in India, were expected to cultivate the arts, promote charities and hospitals, and be active in the community. 

View of the Boston MFA (Museum of Fine Arts), Huntingdon Avenue, photograph 2006.

Former Museum Building, Copley Square, Boston, 19th Century.
This ethos of public virtue and civic duty was also enshrined in the institutions and buildings in Boston. This genteel city can boast architecture of distinction: H.H. Richardson’s the Trinity Church decorated by John La Farge; McKim, Mead and White’s Public Library, modelled on Alberti’s renaissance designs; and of course the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) based on the French Beaux-Arts style. The MFA opened to the public on July 4th, 1876, 3 years after its foundation. Initially, the museum was a Gothic edifice on Copley Square (named after the city’s most famous painter, John Singleton Copley), but due to the growth of the collection, the MFA museum relocated to Huntingdon Avenue from 1907 onwards. The grand design for the new MFA was drawn up by the Boston architect Guy Lowell (1870-1927) who was trained in the European Beaux Arts tradition, which is reflected in his imposing neo-classical facade. Guided by Lowell’s vision, the museum was built up into an institution with an international reputation, which now houses over 450,000 works of art from many civilizations and times.  The range of the museum is vast because it incorporates arts of Oceania, Asia, Africa, Egypt, Rome and Greece as well as a formidable collection of paintings including Washington Allston’s Elijah in the Desert (first oil to enter collection) and J.M.W. Turner’s disturbing The Slave Ship. The first curatorial department (the Print Department) dates from 1887; this was closely followed by divisions of Classical art the same year), Japanese art in 1890, Egyptian in 1902, and in 1910, Western art. Since the millennium the museum has expanded further adding new areas for American art, as well as new educational centres. 

A Kaleidoscope of Collectors.

Unidentified Artist, (called the Freake-Gibbs painter), Margaret Gibbs, 1670, oil on canvas, 102.9 x 84.1 cm. (Bequest of Elise Q. Giltinan)

John Singleton Copley, Paul Revere, 1768-70, , Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, oil on canvas, 87,5 x 71,5 cm. (Gift of the Revere family)
Unlike the Fogg, Boston MFA’s collection of European paintings is the result of a more complex evolution. There are a few outstanding collectors associated with types of art in the museums, particularly world art from Egyptian to Japanese which will not concern us here. Where European painting is concerned, in the words of the museum itself, “the European paintings collection is much more a blend of tastes and points of view.” [3] Unlike Harvard where it is easier to track the patterns of provenance in the museum, the situation with the MFA’s painting division resembles a kaleidoscope of many tastes and visions. It is therefore more difficult to conduct a survey of patronage focused on individual contributions and gifts. Despite this complexity, some patterns can be discerned. There are paintings that came from several generations of famous Bostonians such as the Puritan 17th century portraits of the Gibbs children showing their debt to the Elizabethan portrait; or Copley’s portrait of Paul Revere which came from that family to the museum. Then there are individual donors from the “Boston Brahmin structure” such as Quincy Adams Shaw (the brother-in-law of Higginson) who gave 65 works by the 19th century realist painter Millet to the museum. Higginson was connected with some of the most influential families in Boston, nearly most of which produced trustees of the museum during his lifetime. Higginson himself would eventually become a trustee of the MFA in the 1890s, and he would move within the circle of people like Charles Eliot Norton, the dour Unitarian art history professor at Harvard who observed that though capable, Higginson seldom attended meetings of the trustees. Within this circle was also found Martin Brimmer, first Director of the MFA who was scholarly and skilled at museum diplomacy. Amongst his donations include a Still Life by Chardin.
Jean Siméon Chardin, Still Life with Tea Pot, Grapes, Chestnuts, , and a Pear, 1764, oil on canvas, 32 x 40 cms. (Gift of Martin Brimmer)

Jean Antoine Watteau, View through the Trees in the Park of Pierre Crozat, about 1715, oil on canvas, 46.7 x 55.3 cm. (Marie Antoinette Evans Fund).
 Other donors outside the Boston Brahmins include members of the middle-class professions such as bankers and lawyers, e.g. Robert Treat Paine, a Boston lawyer and philanthropist who gave works by Degas and Cézanne to the MFA. In this group would also fit William and John Spaulding who had a vast collection of Japanese and Impressionist art which they left to the museum. Curiously, there are a few non-Bostonian benefactors like Forsyth Wickes, a New York attorney who never visited Boston, but left his collection of 800 18th century French works to the MFA in 1965, thus impelling the museum to create a new wing. Other 18th century donors include Marie Antoinette Evans, once believed to be the 12th wealthiest woman in America; she left a fine Watteau parkland scene. 

American Art at the MFA. 

Winslow Homer, The Fog Warning, 1885, oil on canvas, 76.83 x 123.19 c. (anon gift to MFA in 1894)
Thomas Eakins, Starting Out After Rail, 1874, oil on canvas mounted on Masonite, 61.6 x 50.5 cm. (The Hayden Collection).
One of the most prominent collectors is the couple Maxim and Martha Karolik who donated a vast amount of American art in 1945 and 1962. Maxim (1893-1963) was trained as an opera singer in St Petersburg and became a benefactor of the museum. His and his wife’s collection included 18th century furniture, folk art and huge amounts of American paintings. Maxim’s philosophy was quite simple: “Tell me wether the painting is good and I will not care who the painter is.” This could hardly be more different from the reclusive connoisseur type like Grenville Winthrop.  The three most important pre- 20th century American painters represented in the American School in the MFA are Copley, John Singer Sargent and Winslow Homer. Copley’s skilful eye for detail is evident in his Portrait of Paul Revere called by Robert Hughes “a manifesto of democratic American pride in work” and “the radical as craftsman.”[4] Sergeant’s The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit which pairs realism and Asian ornamentation inspired Henry James to declare “was the pinafore ever painted with that power and made poetic.”[5] Homer’s The Fog Warning manipulates strange viewpoints and a threatening backdrop to convey man’s struggle against the elements. It can be compared with Thomas Eakin’s Starting out after Rail whose calmness belies the artistic struggles Eakins had in mastering perspective.  

Slides


1)      View of the Boston MFA (Museum of Fine Arts), photograph 2006.

2)      Former Museum Building, Copley Square, Boston, 19th Century.

3)      Unidentified Artist, (called the Freake-Gibbs painter), Margaret Gibbs, 1670, oil on canvas, 102.9 x 84.1 cm. (Bequest of Elise Q. Giltinan)

4)      John Singleton Copley, Paul Revere, 1768-70, , Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, oil on canvas, 87,5 x 71,5 cm. (Gift of the Revere family)


5)      Rogier van der Weyden, St Luke painting the Virgin, about 1453, oil on panel, 137.5 x 110.8 cm. (Gift of Henry Lee Higginson)

6)      Jean François Millet, The Sower, 1850, oil on canvas, 101.6 x 82.6 cm. (Gift of Q.A. Shaw)

7)      Diego Rodriquez da Silva y Velasquez, Don Baltasar Carlos and a Dwarf, 1632, oil on canvas, 128.1 x 102 cm. (Henry Lillie Pierce Fund)

8)      Jean Antoine Watteau, View through the Trees in the Park of Pierre Crozat, about 1715, oil on canvas, 46.7 x 55.3 cm. (Marie Antoinette Evans Fund).

9)      Jean Siméon Chardin, Still Life with Tea Pot, Grapes, Chestnuts, , and a Pear, 1764, oil on canvas, 32 x 40 cms. (Gift of Martin Brimmer)

10)   J.M.W. Turner, The Slave Ship (Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying, Typhoon Coming On), , 1840, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 90.8 × 122.6 cm. (Henry Lillie Pierce Fund)

11)   Edouard Manet, Street Singer, about 1862, oil on canvas, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston 171.3 x 105.8 cm. (Bequest of Sarah Choate Sears)

12)   Claude Monet, Branch of the Seine near Giverny, 1897, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, oil on canvas, 81.3 x 92.7 cm, (Gift of Mrs. Walter Scott Fitz, 1911).

13)   Pierre Auguste Renoir, Dance at Bougival, 1883, Museum of Fine Arts, oil on canvas, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 181.8 x 98.1 cm. (Julia Cheney Edwards Collection).

14)   Paul Gauguin, Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? 1897, oil on canvas, 139.1 x 374.6 cm (Tompkins Collection).

15)   Gilbert Stuart, George Washington, 1796, oil on canvas, 121.3 x 94 cm. Various funds; jointly owned by the MFA and National Portrait Gallery, Washington).

16)   Thomas Eakins, Starting Out After Rail, 1874, oil on canvas mounted on Masonite, 61.6 x 50.5 cm. (The Hayden Collection).




[1] Paul DiMaggio, “Cultural Entrepreneurship in nineteenth-century Boston: the creation of an organizational base for high culture in America”, Media, Culture, Society, 1982 4, 33-50.  http://xroads.virginia.edu/~DRBR2/dimaggio.pdf
[2] Ibid.
[3] Guide to the Collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 2005, 13.
[4] Robert Hughes, American Visions: The Epic History of Art in America, (Harvill Press, London, 1997), 86.
[5] Cited in Guide to the Collection, 331.

3 comments:

  1. As a Bostonian, thank you for this history of the MFA collection. One noteworthy painting I'd add to your list of masterpieces is Gauguin's "Where Do We Come From? What are We? Where are We Going?".

    I agree that cultural institutions such as the MFA "provide a foundation for the definition of fine art." So I'm baffled by your next comment:

    "Education played no little part in this project because museums enabled the masses to discriminate between vulgar and fine art which was the objective of the Boston Brahmins who created the cultural infrastructure in Boston."

    The main mission of any museum, I'd vouch, is to educate people about what constitutes "fine art". Are you suggesting that there was no educational agenda behind the founding of the MFA?

    Thanks.

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  2. Thanks for your comments.

    Oh yes, the Gauguin is superb, some would say would say his best.

    I did say education "played no little part" Education to the Boston Brahmin class was civilizing, not education in the form of learning programmes of lectures and seminars, though this obviously became important as more people came to the museums eager to find out about the art. As I understand it, for a long time in America there was no distinction made between popular entertainment and high art. Whatever their motives the Brahmins wanted to make that distinction clear to the general public, educate them in that sense.

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  3. Finally had a brief biography dedicated to a web-page: http://artistmarcbreed.blogspot.com/

    ReplyDelete